The Rauf Report highlights the biggest takeaways from the college basketball weekend, including surprising struggles from two power programs.
Things got a little chaotic in the college basketball world this weekend. Six different ranked teams fell to unranked foes and a handful of others found themselves in uncomfortable positions late before ultimately emerging victorious.
We’ll touch on a lot of those situations in this Rauf Report, but we’re going to start with Arizona. The Wildcats, who entered the weekend ranked No. 5 in the AP poll, were the highest-ranked team to lose over the weekend. The defeat came to Washington State, which is now just 7-10 on the year after beating Arizona, so it certainly wasn’t a good loss for Tommy Lloyd’s bunch.
Arizona is now 3-2 in Pac-12 play and, while still a good team, are showing that it may not be as dominant as we thought following their Maui Invitational victory. The Wildcats beat Creighton and San Diego State in Maui, and both have been up-and-down since. At the same time, the Indiana victory certainly doesn’t carry as much weight as we thought it would at the time.
That’s not to say the Wildcats aren’t good — they are. They’re very good, in fact, particularly in the frontcourt. I’ve gone on record on the Heat Check Hangout saying that their big-man duo of Azuolas Tubelis and Oumar Ballo is the best in the country.
Through Sunday, only five players in the country met the following criteria, per Torvik: minutes percentage over 66.7, offensive rating over 120, usage rate over 20, offensive rebound rate over 10 and defensive rebound rate over 20. Tubelis and Ballo both qualify, making Arizona the only team in the country with two guys on the list.
Yet the preseason reservations surrounding this group centered on its backcourt, and that group’s play has done nothing to alleviate those concerns.
Arizona’s inconsistent backcourt
Asking anyone to replace two first-round picks is tough, especially when both are starting members of the same backcourt. Bennedict Mathurin and Dalen Terry brought a lot of consistent energy on both ends of the court and spearheaded Arizona’s breakout season a year ago.
Tommy Lloyd brought in Courtney Ramey from the portal to provide some added depth on the perimeter, but the Wildcats were really betting on Kerr Kriisa and Pelle Larsson taking steps forward in their development. That’s not necessarily a bad bet — both have been spectacular at times during their collegiate careers — yet both were also inconsistent and would completely disappear for games at a time. Ramey was an inconsistent contributor during his time at Texas, too.
Those ups and downs don’t matter as much when you’re a role player. The stars can carry you through those games if another role player doesn’t step up. Now, these guys are carrying a larger burden of production. Sometimes they handle it. Other times, well, they don’t. Lately, that trio has been struggling.
Kriisa got off to a great start by averaging 15.3 points per game in November. Since then, he’s barely producing half that, with his scoring falling to just 8.7 points nightly. The junior has also posted one of the highest turnover rates in the Pac-12.
Meanwhile, Larsson has posted a very solid 12.8 points against mid-major competition. In Arizona’s 10 games against KenPom top-100 or power conference opponents, however, that dips to 8.9 per game.
Ramey missed the first three games of the season but was on fire as soon as he hit the court, scoring in double figures in each of Arizona’s first five games. He has only hit that mark three times in the eight games since, two of which came against Montana State and Morgan State. Backups Cedric Henderson Jr. and Kylan Boswell have experienced similar inconsistency as well.
This Arizona team does have a fairly high base standard because of the style it plays, and because of how good that frontcourt is. But guards win in March, and they separate good teams from great ones in conference races like this. The Wildcats need their starting trio to snap out of their recent funk.
Duke’s perimeter production (And health) is a problem
Duke is having similar issues, though those issues pertain more to youth than anything else. With highly-touted freshman Dariq Whitehead limited due to injury, the Blue Devils have had to rely much more on Jeremy Roach, Tyrese Proctor and Jaylen Blakes in the backcourt.
This level of action was expected for Roach, who came back for his junior season to be a leader on this Duke team, but not so much the other two.
Proctor reclassified and graduated high school early to play for Jon Scheyer’s team this year, while Blakes expected a bench role after only appearing in 21 games last season, grabbing a few garbage minutes here and there.
Despite being one of the highest-rated guards in his class and a five-star prospect, it’s clear Proctor wasn’t necessarily ready to step into a big role. He has struggled from the field (33.3 percent from the field, 24.1 percent on 3-pointers) and has been inconsistent as a playmaker.
Blakes, on the other hand, has been more efficient than I think many expected (fifth in the ACC in offensive rating), but he has only scored in double digits twice this season.
That has left Roach with the lion’s share of the burden. Early on, he was fine handling that! He was able to carry the load and spearheaded the Blue Devils to their strong start. But ever since he hurt his toe Nov. 27 against Purdue, he hasn’t been the same player.
Roach re-aggravated that injury in Wednesday’s blowout loss to NC State and won’t return until he’s 100 percent healthy because of how much he means to the Blue Devils. That part — his importance — was obvious against Boston College as Duke only managed to beat the Eagles by one without Roach.
“We need Jeremy to get well. If that means it’s a week, if that means it’s two weeks, whatever time that means,” Scheyer told reporters postgame. “I’ll be shocked if he plays the next game, but we’re not ruling that out yet.”
The good news is that Whitehead appears to be rounding into form, having scored at least 12 points in each of his last four games. But he’s not the point guard or leader of this team. Duke needs Whitehead to continue his ascent and for Roach to return to playing at his pre-injury level if they’re going to get where they want to go.
JORDAN HAWKINS Is UConn’s most important player
UConn managed to pick up one of the bigger victories over the weekend, knocking off a suddenly-streaking Creighton team in Storrs. It was a much-needed win for the Huskies, too, as they were coming off of two straight losses in Big East play.
Adama Sanogo outclassed Ryan Kalkbrenner with 26 points and nine rebounds, providing the individual storyline that dominated the game. Just as crucially, Jordan Hawkins’ performance reiterated that he’s the most important player on Dan Hurley’s roster. No, he’s not the best — Sanogo takes that claim — and Swiss Army knife Andre Jackson gets a lot of publicity, too. But Hawkins is the one who ultimately determines how far this group goes.
His 3-point stroke is elite, and he has a special ability to create shots for himself off the bounce with the same ease as knocking down a catch-and-shoot jumper. It’s something Hurley is taking advantage of in a big way.
A majority of UConn’s half-court sets involve Hawkins coming off a down screen on the wing or a dribble hand-off at the top of the key. Considering how well he shoots on the move, he puts immense pressure on the defense at its most vulnerable point, the middle of the floor, where he has the option to go either left or right.
If his man trails, as Ryan Nembhard does defending him in the below dribble hand-off, Hawkins has the decision to either attack the basket or pull up. Creighton’s exposed defense stays back, allowing the sophomore to step back for an open 3-pointer.
He does it again later in the first half, this time getting to the mid-range because of how tight Trey Alexander was following him. The collapsed defense keeps him from getting to the rim — where he has a number of floaters and finishes he employs as necessary — so he buries the shot Creighton gave him.
If his defender goes under the screen or dribble hand-off, Hawkins will simply fade behind it for a catch-and-shoot opportunity.
Hawkins typically has an answer for whatever defenses throw at him because of his ability to score at all three levels — 3-point range, mid-range, at the rim — and because of the way he reads defenses and his defender on the fly. He’s also put up on of the lowest turnover rates in the Big East.
Sanogo might be the star, but Hawkins is the key to UConn winning a Big East title and potentially making it to the Final Four in Houston.
MARKQUIS NOWELL Is the best player you haven’t heard of
While we’re on the topic of guards, let’s talk about the best one you may not know about yet!
Kansas State’s 14-1 start under first year head coach Jerome Tang has been one of the best and most surprising stories of the college basketball season. Florida transfer Keyontae Johnson’s impact has been incredible to see as well, as he is currently the conference’s third-leading scorer just two seasons after collapsing due to a heart condition during a game with the Gators.
But the Wildcats aren’t just a one-man wrecking crew. A number of players have stepped up, but fifth-year senior Markquis Nowell’s emergence as one of the nation’s best guards has really elevated the program.
The 5-8 guard, who started his career at Little Rock, ranks second nationally in assists at 8.9 per game (2.6 more than anyone else in the Big 12) and is fifth in the conference in scoring with 17.0 points per game.
K-State’s victory over Baylor on Saturday really validated their start in a lot of people’s minds, and Nowell was the best player on the court in that game with a sparkling 32-point, 14-assist performance.
“We just have great chemistry,” Nowell said postgame. “Every single one of my teammates, on and off the court, we build that chemistry, and we stay at each other’s place, and we hang around with each other outside of basketball. That just leads to on-court chemistry.”
Nowell’s play is only improving, too. This performance came on the heels of a 36-point, nine-assist outing against Texas. That dazzler followed a 23-point, 10-assist showing against West Virginia, which came after a 10-point, 11-assist performance against Radford. You get the idea.
Maintaining this level of play feels like a tall task, but Nowell has put in high-level performances on a consistent basis. Learn the name, because he’s playing like a first-team All-Big 12 player.
I’m worried about Gonzaga
Alright, I want to close with a quick word on Gonzaga. The Bulldogs have won nine straight games, including that victory over Alabama, largely erasing the uneasy feelings that surrounded their 5-3 start.
But the last two games the Zags have played have been concerning! There was the two-point victory over a San Francisco team that is currently 1-3 in WCC play, and they followed that with a five-point win over a Santa Clara team that is just 2-4 in Quad 1 & 2 games.
I wrote earlier this season about Gonzaga’s poor perimeter defense, which is still an issue. San Francisco also laid out a blueprint for defending Drew Timme, as it held the star big man to 3-of-16 shooting by throwing a multitude of looks at him, doubling him and trying to keep him from catching the ball in the paint.
These are the kind of teams Gonzaga usually romps. Not San Francisco and Santa Clara, specifically, because the Dons have occasionally challenged the Zags over the last few years — but Gonzaga hasn’t been consistently going back-and-forth with teams outside the KenPom top 80. Bear in mind that during the win streak, this team also only managed to beat Kent State by seven and Montana by 10.
Mark Few’s squad is winning, which is the name of the game, but they’re not dominating lesser opponents because of the same issues that hampered them early. That’s concerning.