Welcome into another Rauf Report. How good has it felt to watch actual college basketball games over the last two days?
Wednesday and Thursday were action-packed with high-quality college basketball games and brought us everything we’ve missed about the sport from highlight-reel dunks to buzzer beaters to half-court shots.
It’s obviously still very early in the season, but we have learned a few things about teams now that we’ve gotten our first look at them in 2020-21. Here are my biggest takeaways from the first two days of college hoops:
Rust has been obvious
We were all wondering how high the level of play would be around the country given the abbreviated offseason and lack of on-court work for teams. And, well, there was plenty of rust.
Sloppy offense, a high number of turnovers, poor shooting, and slow starts have plagued pretty much everyone, particularly high-ranked teams that were facing off against tougher competition.
It took Villanova well into the second half before it started looking like the preseason No. 3 team. Arizona State blew a double-digit lead in the second half against Rhode Island as it struggled with conditioning before ultimately winning the game. North Carolina was trailing College of Charleston in the second half. West Virginia also struggled to get past South Dakota State because of shooting woes.
The list goes on and on, but this was somewhat expected and should continue to be the case over the next few weeks.
Illinois’ shooting can make it a legitimate national championship contender
As big of an impact as rust has had for many teams, Illinois is not one of them. Yes, they haven’t faced the most difficult competition, but it’s how the Illini have recorded their victories over North Carolina A&T (122-60) and Chicago State (97-38).
Illinois was expected to be dominant defensively yet again and have two legitimate stars in Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn — it’s why they’re ranked No. 8 in the preseason top 25 and were viewed as a legitimate Final Four threat. However, there remained questions about shooting. The Fighting Illini ranked 310th nationally in three-point shooting in 2019-20 (30.3 percent) and lost their best shooter in Alan Griffin, who transferred to Syracuse.
Through two games this season, Illinois is shooting 49 percent from deep. Brad Underwood’s squad made a school record 17 three-pointers in the opener against North Carolina A&T, which was followed by seven more against Chicago State.
It’s important to acknowledge that neither of Illinois’ opponents is particularly good, so putting up these numbers against poor defenses isn’t exactly indicative of future success, especially in a two-game sample.
But, at the same time, this isn’t something Illinois was able to do last year. And the Illini don’t even have to keep shooting at this rate to be really, really good! If they can maintain a high enough percentage to keep opposing defenses honest — say, 34 percent — their ceiling just hit another level.
Gonzaga has a chance to be historically good
Gonzaga’s 102-90 victory over Kansas was not only the best game of the young season so far and a potential Final Four preview, it also showed us why the Zags are the clear national championship favorite at this point in the season.
Offensively, they showed no flaws aside from a few turnovers that can be expected given the rust factor mentioned previously. Mark Few’s squad shot 64.5 percent from the field against what is expected to be a very good Kansas defense with five players scoring in double figures and three (Corey Kispert, Jalen Suggs, Drew Timme) scoring at least 23 points. Timme was unstoppable on the block, Kispert was ruthlessly efficient, and Suggs put up the best performance of any freshman so far. He largely dictated the game with his feel and ability to create for others (eight assists) while also picking his own spots.
That group didn’t even include guard Joel Ayayi, who recorded a game-high nine rebounds, was a quality defender, and shot 7-9 from the field.
Kansas head coach Bill Self said after the game he thinks the Bulldogs are as good as the 2014-15 Kentucky team that was undefeated before losing in the Final Four. They’re the most talented college team I’ve seen since them, too.
Gonzaga’s deep (nine players saw non-garbage time minutes), big, has multiple players who can take over a game, and has the most efficient offense in the country. If you’re nitpicking, the Bulldogs aren’t elite defensively, yet they also don’t have to be with how good they are offensively.
Western Kentucky’s star duo can carry the Hilltoppers
The Hilltoppers have already played two games, both of which could be huge in their quest for an NCAA Tournament at-large berth should they be upset in the C-USA Tournament. WKU knocked off both Missouri Valley favorite Northern Iowa and another at-large contender in Memphis, largely thanks to the play of stars Charles Bassey and Taveion Hollingsworth.
You have likely heard of Bassey before as he is a former McDonald’s All-American who is now in his junior season after missing almost all last year due to a broken leg. He showed some rust in the opener against UNI but was dominant against Memphis. Going up against a potential lottery pick in Moussa Cisse, Bassey racked up 21 points, 14 rebounds, and seven blocks.
Hollingsworth was good against Memphis (18 points) but was great against Northern Iowa (26 points) and has given WKU a dynamic, reliable go-to guy on the perimeter.
This duo is capable of playing with anyone in college basketball and had a huge role down the stretch against Memphis. The Tigers are very talented yet haven’t established their offensive pecking order just yet. Western Kentucky knew exactly who to turn to when it needed a play and, as a result, made the plays it needed to win. Don’t be surprised to see Bassey and Hollingsworth doing something similar in the NCAA Tournament.
West Virginia will go as far as Miles McBride takes them
I wrote this offseason that Miles McBride was going to be the biggest key for West Virginia’s success in 2020-21 and that has proven to be the case through two games.
We know West Virginia is stingy defensively and has a dominant frontcourt with Derek Culver and Oscar Tshiebwe. Bob Huggins has been waiting for someone to step up and provide some offensive punch on the perimeter, and McBride has done that.
He scored a career-high 23 points in a season-opening 79-71 win over South Dakota State in which he shot 47.4 percent from the floor while the rest of the team combined to shoot 36.2 percent. McBride recorded double figures again in WVU’s 78-66 win over VCU and added a team-high four assists.
If West Virginia can get that kind of consistent production from the sophomore throughout the season, it will be a top 10 team. If he struggles, the Mountaineers appear to lack any significant perimeter punch — the same problem that caused them to go into a downward spiral last season.
Arizona State’s limiting factor
The Sun Devils are, have been, and will continue to be one of my favorite teams to watch. Bobby Hurley employs a fast-paced, guard-heavy lineup that excels on the perimeter. With a preseason All-American (Remy Martin) and five-star freshman (Josh Christopher) leading the charge, this looks to be the best team Hurley has had in Tempe.
That said, they have a huge weakness in the middle that has been exploited by both Rhode Island and Villanova. The Sun Devils have almost taken “guard heavy” to an entirely different level as their rotation lacks a true big man or any sort of rim protection.
Rhode Island managed to shoot 52.6 percent from inside the arc against Arizona State while star Villanova big man Jeremiah Robinson-Earl posted a career-high 28 points on 11/17 shooting (Villanova also outrebounded ASU 43-27). He was clearly the most dominant player on the court and the Sun Devils had no answer for him. This was not in the “Robinson-Earl is in the zone” kind of way, but in the “Arizona State literally doesn’t have anyone who can match up with him” kind of way.
The Sun Devils really miss Romello White, their starting center over the past two years who surprisingly transferred to Ole Miss this offseason. There isn’t someone like him walking through the door. This is what Hurley has to work with and, while they are going to be extremely explosive offensively, the lack of interior presence limits how good they can be and how far they can go.
UNC’s dependence on freshmen is needed
Let me start by saying that North Carolina did beat College of Charleston by 19 points and, in relation to the struggles of some other ranked teams around the country, that was a solid result. However, the process of getting there was reminiscent of last season’s struggles.
Charleston had a 43-42 lead with less than 15 minutes to play as the Tar Heels were having a hard time putting the ball in the basket. From there, though, UNC’s freshmen took over a spearheaded a 17-0 run that gave them control of the game and essentially put it to bed. Caleb Love, RJ Davis, and Day’Ron Sharpe scored 12 of the 17 points on that spurt and proved to be the most important part of North Carolina’s attack.
ACC Preseason Player of the Year Garrison Brooks struggled (six points on 3/10 shooting) while both Armando Bacot and Leaky Black weren’t anything more than role players. They are the returning core from last year’s team and it’s clear they aren’t ready — or able — to fully carry the load.
Luckily, those talented freshmen are. Love scored a game-high 17 points and dished out a game-high four assists while Sharpe recorded the only double-double of the game (13 points, 10 rebounds). Davis also scored in double figures (11 points).
Roy Williams doesn’t tend to have his teams rely on freshmen — particularly multiple freshmen — but this young group is going to have to carry the Tar Heels if they’re going to meet preseason expectations.
A statement from the Georgia Tech Fan Club
So, I have to close this week on the disappointing acknowledgement of Georgia Tech’s 123-120 quadruple-overtime loss to Georgia State on opening night.
I have been preaching all offseason that this was going to be a breakout year for the Yellow Jackets — even ranking them in the top 20 in my preseason top 25. I still think this group is an NCAA Tournament team yet starting the new season 0-1 is not ideal. The game itself was entertaining in the way that most bad college basketball games are with 64 fouls and a number of questionable calls, but four overtimes is four overtimes.
The premise behind my optimism for Georgia Tech was its defense and experience, along with expected improvement on the offensive end. That improvement wasn’t there against the Panthers as the Yellow Jackets shot just 36.7 percent from the floor and 21.2 percent from three.
We mentioned rust at the start of this Rauf Report, and the Yellow Jackets certainly showed that. They looked disjointed, sluggish, and out of rhythm, which probably shouldn’t be a surprise given they went with several no-contact practices. They’re not the only team that didn’t look like themselves, so don’t write Georgia Tech off just yet.
But, yeah, this wasn’t encouraging.
Brian Rauf is a college basketball writer for HeatCheckCBB.com. His content has been featured by Sports Illustrated, Bleacher Report, and FanSided, among other publications. Rauf is also a current USBWA member and Rockin’ 25 voter.