Brian Rauf reveals his biggest college basketball takeaways from the weekend, including why Gonzaga is struggling, in a new Rauf Report.
Perhaps the most important college basketball takeaway so far is that we’re still trying to figure out this season. The answer was obvious last season — there was Gonzaga and Baylor and then there was everyone else. Those two remained the top two teams for all but one week (Baylor dropped before quickly bouncing back up to No. 2) before meeting in the inevitable title game showdown.
This season, many fans and media members — myself included — have been trying to fit this season into a certain mold. The number of teams in a tier of their own started at a certain point and kept shrinking after losses.
Now, we’re left with Purdue as the clear No. 1 team (a distinction that proud program will hold for the first time), but even the Boilermakers haven’t looked invincible after struggling to get past a Keegan Murray-less Iowa on Friday.
The bottom line is that there are no untouchable teams in college basketball. There are a handful of really good teams, led by Purdue, and another bunch of really good teams right behind them. Yet, as we’ve seen, those groups are not impervious to upsets.
Gonzaga is finding that out right now. After spending essentially two calendar years ranked No. 1, the Zags have now lost two of their last three games following a defeat to Alabama in Seattle. Even the lone victory was a tougher-than-expected test against Tarleton State.
Mark Few’s squad is not playing at the same level it was when it blew out both Texas and UCLA. So, what changed? That’s where we start this Rauf Report, highlighting the biggest college basketball takeaways of the weekend.
Why Gonzaga’s struggling
I need to preface this by saying that Gonzaga is still a really good college basketball team. This isn’t the fraud that the Gonzaga haters claim online. However, at the same time, it’s not a historic force that had a bad game or two, either.
There are some real issues with this team right now that need to be addressed or they will keep the Bulldogs from winning that elusive national championship yet again.
Turnovers typically aren’t an issue for Gonzaga teams but they have been a problem this year, ranking 104th nationally in turnover rate. The last two times the Zags ranked outside the top 100 in that category were in the 2013-14 and 2015-16 seasons. Gonzaga received a No. 8 seed and No. 11 seed, respectfully, in those seasons.
The bigger issue of late has been turnover margin. In the first six games, Gonzaga turned it over 11.7 times per game but forced an average of 12.8, so it wasn’t a huge deal.
In the last three games, Gonzaga’s turnovers have increased to 15 per game while the amount it has forced has dropped to 8.7 per game. Both of those trends need to be corrected quickly.
Three-point shooting is the other obvious issue and it’s also the hardest to fix. The Zags rank 146th nationally in that category, connecting on 34.0 percent from long range — both of which are the lowest in the Mark Few era. Few’s offense is centered around spacing, cutting and high-IQ basketball, and prolific 3-point shooting is how a lot of that spacing is created.
This season’s Gonzaga team is bigger and led by its frontcourt, but the shooting has suffered a lot more than expected. Some of that is because more big guys are playing and taking those shots — Gonzaga’s frontcourt is a combined 9-of-41 from deep — but Andrew Nembhard and Hunter Sallis have struggled from long range as well (9-of-38 combined). Rasir Bolton, Julian Strawther and Nolan Hickman are the shooters and should be the ones taking a majority of the threes.
However, Bolton and Strawther have been another issue for Gonzaga over the last three games. That starting wing duo has been playing more minutes during this stretch, yet their efficiency has gone way down.
Few has tightened his rotation of late, perhaps feeling as though the freshmen that would help on the wing — Hickman and Sallis — aren’t quite ready to handle significant minutes against teams like Duke and Alabama. It doesn’t matter who it comes from, though — Gonzaga has to be better and more efficient on both ends on the wing when it goes up against elite competition.
Clemson is “Clemsoning” again
While we’re on the topic of teams that are struggling, here’s a look at a 5-4 Clemson team that could very easily be 8-1.
Why the discrepancy? Well, they’re back to Clemsoning — a legitimate term defined by Urban Dictionary as “the act of failing miserably on a grand athletic stage, or when the stakes are high.”
The Tigers earned this reputation in the late 2000s and early 2010s by blowing leads on both the football field and basketball court at a fairly alarming rate, but it had mostly been put to bed once Dabo Swinney had the football program winning national championships and ACC titles on a consistent basis.
Well, the college basketball program is bringing it back. Here are some notable leads Clemson has given up in games it has ultimately lost:
- 51-37 lead with 13:21 left vs. St. Bonaventure
- 52-43 lead with 8:03 left vs. West Virginia
- 70-61 lead with 4:49 left vs. Miami
Clemson’s offense completely stalled out in all three cases due to a combination of conservative decision-making and a lack of individual playmaking ability. Sophomore big man PJ Hall is Clemson’s best player and go-to guy. When opponents focus on taking him away, the Tigers can get bogged down offensively.
The ACC appears to be wide open behind Duke and UNC (with Duke as the clear top team), yet Clemson’s second-half struggles could keep this solid group from capitalizing.
What is happening to Virginia Tech?
I was excited about Virginia Tech coming into the college basketball season. Mike Young returned a good portion of last season’s NCAA Tournament team, headlined by an All-ACC-caliber player in Keve Aluma. I just mentioned that wide open ACC – this was the team that was supposed to take advantage of that.
Instead, the Hokies have been downright disappointing against the better competition they’ve faced.
It started at the NIT Season Tip-Off in Brooklyn, where Virginia Tech lost to Memphis (a team we now know is pretty bad, as I detailed in the last Rauf Report) and a shorthanded Xavier team playing without one of its best players. Then, after beating Maryland, the Hokies were blasted in a 80-61 loss to Wake Forest — picked to finish 13th in the ACC — in Blacksburg.
Virginia Tech has struggled offensively during this 1-3 stretch, averaging just 60.5 points per game, yet it has been problems on the defensive end that have caused this slide. Just look at how far the Hokies have fallen off during this stretch:
“Outplayed our tail today,” Young told reporters following the loss to the Demon Deacons. “Just an accumulation of minor details on our part that cost you ballgames. They thrive on your mistakes on that [defensive] end on the floor, and we made enough to make them pretty good. An atypical Hokie performance on that end of the floor. Just not sharp.”
Virginia Tech does have a few areas it can rely on defensively, namely its 3-point defense (third nationally). However, it’s very clear the Hokies are sliding and don’t have a lot of time to fully get right.
Following a home game with Cornell on Wednesday, Virginia Tech goes on the road to face a red-hot Dayton team before closing non-conference play against a very good St. Bonaventure team. Then, the Hokies start ACC play with road games against Duke and North Carolina.
If Mike Young’s squad doesn’t get its defense turned around in a hurry, this recent slide could really snowball.
Colorado State deserves your attention
Now onto my favorite team from the preseason in Colorado State. If you read anything of mine from the preseason, you know how highly I thought of the Rams. And yet, through nine games, they’ve even exceeded my own expectations.
Head coach Niko Medved’s squad is a perfect 9-0, headlined by blowout wins over Oral Roberts, Creighton and Saint Mary’s, the latter of which they picked up over the weekend.
This is a fun team that executes at an extremely high level. The Rams lead the nation in 3-point shooting and are top 10 in turnover rate, meaning they take care of the ball. They’re solid defensively, too, having held five opponents to 62 points or fewer despite their lack of size.
However, the win over a very good Saint Mary’s team — one with a top 10 defense — serves as the validation for both Colorado State’s legitimacy and its stellar offense.
“We told our guys ‘they’re a hard team to score on, you can’t get frustrated. It’s not going to come easy,” Medved said. “But I also told our guys, ‘hey, we’re one of the best offensive teams in the country, too, now.’ So, we’re not going to start changing or backing down or whatever. We’re going to do what we do.”
Star forward David Roddy is one of the best and most versatile players in the country. He ranks 68th nationally in true shooting percentage, 130th in defensive rebounding rate, 133rd in 3-point shooting and 241st in block rate. That’s a rare combination and gives Colorado State a matchup advantage against virtually everyone they play.
Point guard Isaiah Stevens deserves some love, too. He’s among the nation’s leaders in both assist rate (36.1), turnover rate and steal rate, and deserves to be mentioned among the best point guards in the country. Stevens also pulled off this phenomenal highlight against the Gaels:
The Rams were picked to win the Mountain West, so they’re not exactly coming out of nowhere. That said, they’re better than they’re getting credit for right now. Upcoming games against Mississippi State, Tulsa and Alabama present huge opportunities for this group to further validate themselves.
Mark Turgeon left Maryland in the worst way possible
I have to touch on Mark Turgeon leaving Maryland. In case you missed it, he resigned as head coach on Friday afternoon in a move that caught the entire college basketball world by surprise.
This was Turgeon’s 11th season with the Terrapins and called it quits after just eight games this year, citing general fan unhappiness as a sizable part of his decision to leave. The Maryland fan base never bought into Turgeon from the time the school fired him up until this weekend and largely felt his coaching was holding his teams back rather than pushing them forward.
He spent virtually his entire tenure on the hot season, always doing well enough so that Maryland couldn’t justify firing him but never doing well enough to silence any critics. Turgeon guided the Terps to five of the last six NCAA Tournaments yet only made the Sweet 16 once.
And so, now, he just up and left, deciding he had had enough. That’s his prerogative, sure, but it also leaves the program in a terrible position.
Had Turgeon left Maryland in the offseason — which he nearly did after flirting with both Wichita State and Oklahoma — the administration would’ve had a chance to bring a big name in from what was a loaded coaching carousel. Turgeon’s decision to wait until now cost the Terps a chance at coaches like Chris Beard, Tommy Lloyd, Porter Moser, Shaka Smart, Craig Smith and Wes Miller. It’s not a guarantee that any of those guys would’ve taken the Maryland job, but all are having early success at their new respective stops and likely would’ve at least listened.
Danny Manning will now finish the season as interim coach but he doesn’t exactly come with positive experience as he led Wake Forest to just one winning season in his six years before being fired.
It’s still early, yes, but there aren’t many proven, elite coaches that figure to be available this offseason (here’s our early look at top potential candidates). That means Turgeon created what could essentially be a lost season in College Park — Sunday’s loss to Northwestern only strengthened that thought — while potentially costing Maryland a chance at a better coach than who they’ll eventually end up selecting. We haven’t even talked about the impact on the players he recruited, especially those that transferred in to play for him this season.
It’s a bad situation he created that has a huge negative impact on his now-former players as well the program.