Rauf Report: Gonzaga’s starts, breakout stars, other college basketball takeaways

Brian Rauf reveals his biggest college basketball takeaways from the week, including a look at Gonzaga’s starts and much more.

Welcome into another Rauf Report, where I detail my biggest takeaways from the past week in college basketball that will impact the season moving forward.

There was a ton of action this week — it’s one of the reasons we love Feast Week – and we saw several things discussed in past Rauf Report columns play a major factor in the outcome of key games.

At the start of the season, we talked about Ohio State’s desperate need for a guard to step up and produce. The Buckeyes may have found that guy in Meechie Johnson Jr., who hit the game-winner to beat Seton Hall on Monday.

We also discussed Andre Curbelo‘s offensive limitations, which played a role in Illinois’ surprising loss to Cincinnati in the Hall of Fame Classic (more on the Cincinnati side of things later).

Virginia’s defense was a concern early, yet the Wahoos are getting back on track by holding each of their last three opponents to 55 points or less. We also talked about how the WCC is legitimately great this year, which has been backed up by BYU’s wins over San Diego State and Oregon, Saint Mary’s run to the Maui Invitational final and San Francisco’s 7-0 start, among others.

CBB player rankings: Johnny Davis shining
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And, while many were surprised with Gonzaga’s defensive showing against UCLA on Tuesday night, we previously detailed how defense will be a strength for the Zags this season.

That victory over the Bruins was the most notable result of the week — this tends to happen when No. 1 and No. 2 get together — and it highlighted yet another scarily good thing about the Zags. That’s where we’ll start this Rauf Report.

Gonzaga’s fast starts

In February’s first Rauf Report, I detailed how last year’s Gonzaga team had been plagued by several slow starts in the WCC play, which made a lot of those games closer than expected. I surmised that it wasn’t a huge deal given the Bulldogs were still undefeated and found a way to win those games comfortably, but called it a “bad habit” to keep an eye on.

Fast forward to the national championship game against Baylor and Gonzaga’s slow start essentially ended that game five minutes in. The Bears jumped out to a double-digit lead very quickly and never looked back.

It’s clear Mark Few and the Zags have placed an increased emphasis on starting fast to ensure that doesn’t happen again.

Against Texas, Gonzaga built a double-digit lead just over seven minutes into the game, which then ballooned to a 20-point halftime advantage. Against UCLA, it took the Zags less than five minutes to build a double-digit lead and led by as many as 23 points in the first 11:30.

This has held true in the four other games Gonzaga has played against mid-major competition, too, as it held a double-digit lead within the game’s opening 10 minutes each time.

Much like Baylor did to them in that title game, the Bulldogs have started every contest with a high level of intensity and focus, blitzing before their opponent gets settled into the game.

Gonzaga is good enough on both ends that it would still be undefeated even if it didn’t get off to those flying starts. That said, there is something to be said about putting a game away early and completely taking the other team out of it before it can even get going.

Friday’s showdown against Duke is the next big test this team will face and, on paper, the Blue Devils have the size and talent to compete with the Zags. Of course, Texas and UCLA did, too. If Duke is going to make a game of it, Paolo Banchero & Co. will have to match Gonzaga’s intensity from the jump and stay within striking distance through the first two TV timeouts.

Wisconsin has a legitimate star in Johnny Davis

The Badgers had relatively low expectations coming into this season. They had lost essentially all of their core players from the last two seasons and weren’t replacing them with top-end recruits. There looked to be a talent drain in Madison that was going to make things difficult for Greg Gard.

Fast forward to Thanksgiving and Wisconsin is your Maui Invitational champion and may very well be ranked when Monday’s new AP poll comes out.

So, what changed?

Sophomore Johnny Davis emerged as a star. The 6-5 wing scored at least 20 points in each of Wisconsin’s wins in Vegas, highlighted by a 30-point outburst in an upset victory over Houston.

HeatCheckCBB founder/editor/writer/fearless leader Eli Boettger was courtside for the Maui Invitational this week and detailed the three-game stretch that has turned Davis into one of the nation’s biggest superstars, which you can check out here.

The Badgers have a bunch of role players on the roster and needed a star to step up. Davis has been that, and now Wisconsin will go as far as he takes them.

Adama Sanogo is an All-Big East player

The other player who has impressed me the most this week is UConn big man Adama Sanogo. This is another team that had to replace last season’s go-to guy in James Bouknight and, while Dan Hurley has relied on a few players including RJ Cole and Tyrese Martin, Sanogo has been UConn’s best and most important player.

Through six games, Sanogo leads the Huskies in scoring, usage, free-throw shooting, blocks and block rate.

He showed flashes of dominant potential as a freshman and has clearly taken a step forward in his sophomore season, scoring at least 18 points in four games. However, his two best performances have been in the Battle 4 Atlantis.

Sanogo scored a career-high 30 points in UConn’s double-overtime victory over No. 19 Auburn on Wednesday, which he then followed with 18 points, 10 rebounds and six blocks against Michigan State.

Sanogo has showcased the full repertoire that makes me think he can sustain this level of play, too. He has shown good touch around the basket, reliable post moves over either shoulder, an understanding of positioning and elite timing on the defensive end (58th nationally in block rate).

Villanova is still the clear favorite to win the Big East, but the conference is relatively wide open behind them. UConn is the favorite to finish second and Sanogo’s emergence and reliability on both ends are among the biggest reasons why.

Wes Miller already has Cincinnati playing at a high level

Cincinnati handled the John Brannen situation about as poorly as it could’ve this offseason. If you missed it, or forgot, there were rumors about him being on the hot seat after two years because the Bearcats simply weren’t playing well. In March, the school opened an investigation into allegations of the mistreatment of players after six players transferred out of the program. He was then fired in April and filed a federal lawsuit against the school.

In short, Cincinnati knew it was going to get rid of Brannen and dragged out the situation for two months. A byproduct of that was missing out on the early stages of the coaching carousel, where it would’ve had their chance at a number of candidates. The hiring pool was much shallower by the time the Bearcats finally arrived, and they lucked into Wes Miller still being available.

Miller is widely regarded as one of the nation’s best young coaches following a 10-year stint at UNC Greensboro in which he completely rebuilt the program, won three conference titles and led the Spartans to two NCAA Tournaments. It was considered a matter of when he’d have the Bearcats operating at a top 25-caliber level, not if he’d be able.

As it turns out, the answer to that question turns out to be this season.

Through six games, Cincinnati has looked like an NCAA Tournament at-large team. The Bearcats handled their first four games against lesser competition — which included a win over Georgia — before playing in the Hall of Fame Classic. In the event’s first game, they made a major statement with a 71-51 win over Illinois.

Cincinnati’s stellar defense led the way as Illinois was held to just 28.1-percent shooting, including a dismal 13.6 percent from three, while forcing 14 turnovers. Miller’s UNCG teams were always known for their defense, and that blueprint appears to be working already — the Bearcats currently rank in the top 20 in both 3-point defense and interior defense.

Cincinnati followed that up with another excellent performance against Arkansas, taking another ranked team to the wire before ultimately falling short.

It’s worth pointing out that this team was picked to finish 6th in the American Athletic preseason poll. No one knew what to expect from them given the mass personnel losses from the Brannen era, and the general consensus was that it would take a year or two to get this program back to the top of the conference.

Cincinnati’s performance this week has certainly sped that timeline up. I don’t expect them to truly compete with Houston and Memphis for an AAC title (though both the Cougars and Tigers have their own issues), but this team could very easily finish 3rd.

And, given that most of their nonconference tests are behind them — Xavier is the only KenPom top-100 team left on their nonconference schedule — the Bearcats could be 11-2 or 12-1 and ranked before their conference opener at Houston on Dec. 28.

Wes Miller deserves a ton of credit for the job he has already done in Cincinnati.

Is Iona legit, or does Rick Pitino just have Nate Oats’ number?

One of the biggest upsets of the college basketball season to this point occurred Thursday night, while many of us were in food comas on the nearest couch or chair. Iona knocked off No. 10 Alabama 72-68, marking the first time a MAAC team has ever knocked off a top-10 opponent.

Rick Pitino is rightfully receiving a lot of praise for that performance, reminding us once again that he’s one of the best college basketball coaches of all time.

However, this game does not mean Iona belongs in the Top 25 or even that the Gaels will go undefeated, as I’ve seen some suggest. Yes, going undefeated in MAAC play is a very real possibility — I predicted they won’t spend a day outside first place in the conference standings — but there’s still a long way to go, along with some data to suggest this might be more of a Pitino-over-Oats deal than anything else.

Remember, Iona came close to upsetting the Crimson Tide in the first round of the NCAA Tournament a year ago. The Gaels put an increased emphasis on limiting Alabama’s 3-point shooting and pushing them off the perimeter in both games, and it worked both times. Alabama shot just 31.3 percent from deep in the NCAA Tournament and 29.4 percent in Thursday’s loss.

Nate Oats is known for his modern analytics approach to coaching. He wants his team to avoid mid-range shots at all costs and, as a result, Alabama has been one of the country’s leaders in 3-point attempts throughout his tenure. He wants the Tide to get a good look from three or to get a shot at the rim, and he considers just about everything else to be a poor offensive possession.

When you have a philosophy like that, rather than a true system, it can make gameplans rather simple. And, for a coach like Pitino — who also has pressure defense as a staple of his coaching style — he can come up with a gameplan that completely takes Alabama out of its usual offensive rhythm.

That’s what they did in March and also what they did Thursday night.

It’s worth noting that Iona hasn’t looked that good all season. The Gaels needed overtime to get past Harvard and their game against Liberty came down to the final possession. This is the first KenPom top-120 team Iona has faced and it hasn’t blown anyone out.

The Gaels will continue to get opportunities to prove themselves in their nonconference slate with games against Belmont, Dayton or Kansas, and Seton Hall left, but I wouldn’t expect them to play as well as they did against Alabama in those games.

This is an example of a team and a coach having another coach’s number, though that doesn’t make Iona’s win any less notable.



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