Rauf Report: Illinois’ spurts, Kentucky’s improvement, and more weekend takeaways

Welcome into a brand-new Rauf Report, where I bring you my five biggest takeaways from the weekend’s college basketball games.

The weekend featured a number of buzzer-beaters, like this one from Colorado State. Or this one by Terry Taylor to give Austin Peay the win. San Diego State and Xavier both got in on the act as well.

We’ll touch on Xavier in more detail later in this Rauf Report, but we lead this edition with a look at Illinois. The Fighting Illini dropped a home game to Maryland on Sunday night, serving as the latest example of what has been a puzzling season for Brad Underwood’s squad.

Before we dive in, the college hoops schedule is really light on Monday because of the College Football Playoff title game. Give me Alabama over Ohio State, 45-35.

Now, let’s get into it.

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Illinois is elite … in spurts

There are plenty of teams that have been inconsistent in this discombobulated season — seriously, I think inconsistency has been the only consistent thing about the season outside of Gonzaga — but no one is as maddeningly inconsistent as the Illini.

This is an extremely talented group that has proven they were worthy of a top 10 preseason ranking. Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn are both legitimate first team All-America candidates and, when on, the Illini have proven they can play with anyone.

The problem is they’re not always on. And when they’re not, well, they’re simply not that good. Some of the nation’s elite teams can cruise against lesser competition without playing their best. Illinois has shown they’re not at that level.

That duality was on full display in Thursday’s win over Northwestern. Illinois looked disinterested in the first half and trailed by 15. Then they came out on fire in the second, outscoring the Wildcats 53-13 on their way to a 25-point victory.

And that is largely the way Illinois has played this year. They will start slow and count on a big run at some point to be the difference in the game.

The Illini also trailed Penn State by 15 points in the first half before coming back to win by 17. Against Indiana, Illinois trailed by five before closing on a 25-11 run to win.

You get the picture. The problem is that run doesn’t always come or isn’t enough.

In their loss to Missouri, Illinois trailed by 13 with nine minutes left before ripping off a late run that tied the game — but they ran out of gas. That run never came against Rutgers, and it didn’t come in Sunday’s loss to Maryland, either.

The fact that Illinois can replicate runs of this magnitude is incredibly impressive and tells you all you need to know about this team’s potential. But the fact they’ve needed so many of them tells you all you need to know about their floor, too. The Illini haven’t put forth a full 40-minute effort yet this season and that might be their Achilles’ heel come March.

Kentucky’s improvement is notable

Before we get ahead of ourselves, Kentucky is not “back” despite its impressive 76-58 win over Florida on Saturday. It was the Wildcats’ best game of the season and is worth the praise it received, mainly because they showcased strides Kentucky has made offensively.

For all the well-publicized struggles the Wildcats have gone through this season, defense was never one of them. They rank in the top 20 nationally in defensive efficiency and in the top five in block rate, as their length and athleticism play a major factor on that end of the floor. It was their offense, marred by dreadful shooting, poor playmaking, and too much one-on-one action, that needed the biggest change.

That change has come on Kentucky’s three-game win streak. It started with Dontaie Allen’s breakout game against Mississippi State, as his seven threes propelled the Wildcats to their second win of the season.

His performance earned him a permanent spot in the rotation but, more importantly, his shooting prowess — combined Davion Mintz being in the starting lineup — finally forced opposing defenses to respect the perimeter. That has opened up the paint and created more driving lanes, making things easier on everyone else. Olivier Sarr has benefitted the most from this as he’s averaging 16 points on 47 percent shooting over the last three games (he’s averaging 11.2 on the season).

Kentucky also became less reliant on Brandon Boston. A projected first-round pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, Boston has been very inefficient (35.9 FG%, 17.1 3P%). He averaged five 3-point attempts and 14 total shots per game during UK’s six-game losing streak. During their three-game win streak, he’s only averaging one 3-point attempt and 10 total shots per game.

Here’s what those changes look like on the scoreboard: Kentucky averaged 62.2 points per game during their six-game losing streak, which has been raised to 77 points during their three-game win streak.

This is one of the youngest teams in the country and, without a normal offseason, it was always going to take longer for this group to come around. We normally don’t see the best version of John Calipari-coached teams until late January or early February anyways, and that timeline was pushed back by the lack of offseason work. There’s also something to be said for getting the monkey of that losing streak off their collective back — there was an obvious sense of relief among Kentucky’s players when they knocked off Mississippi State.

We will see if Kentucky can maintain this level of play throughout the duration of the SEC schedule, but these changes assure we won’t see them struggle as much as they did in December.

Sharife Cooper is awesome, but he doesn’t change Auburn’s outlook

Elsewhere in the SEC, five-star point guard Sharife Cooper finally made his debut for Auburn on Saturday. The McDonald’s All-American had missed the season’s first 12 games as the NCAA reviewed his eligibility.

He didn’t disappoint in his first collegiate action, scoring 26 points with nine assists, four rebounds, and three steals against Alabama.

The 6-1, 180-pounder showed why he’s considered to be a special talent with a myriad of highlight reel plays, incredible vision, and the innate ability to control the flow of the game. Once he got settled, it felt like he was in total command of the game, manipulating Alabama’s defense to get what he wanted. Cooper is only going to get better, too, as he gets more games under his belt.

“You can tell what a dynamic player he is,” head coach Bruce Pearl said of Cooper after the game. “We have obviously been working to build a program around him for the last couple of years, knowing he would be coming in, so it is great to have him back.”

Yet as impressive as that individual debut was for Cooper, it didn’t stop Alabama from coming away with a 94-90 victory that dropped the Tigers to 6-6 on the year. The star freshman is awesome, but he doesn’t erase all Auburn’s problems.

Cooper didn’t make a big difference for Auburn on the defensive end. He wasn’t expected to but, for a group that ranks outside the top 100 nationally in defensive efficiency, it would’ve been nice.

Offensively, Cooper didn’t help Auburn’s turnover problems, either. The Tigers rank 311th in turnover percentage and he led them in the category against the Crimson Tide with five. He was also just 1-7 from three, contributing to Auburn’s trend of shooting a lot of threes (seventh in 3PA/FGA) without making many of them (155th in 3P%).

Admittedly, some of these offensive struggles are a byproduct of it being Cooper’s first game at this level, but it’s also clear he’s not the magic potion that automatically fixes these weaknesses. He’s an incredibly exciting player and will make Auburn more competitive in games, yet he also doesn’t change their outlook for the rest of the season. Bruce Pearl’s squad has flaws and is rebuilding, and we’ll still likely see them finish in the bottom half of the SEC.

Baylor isn’t on Gonzaga’s tier

I want to start this off by saying Baylor and Gonzaga are the clear top two teams in the country and I’m not trying to argue otherwise. Both have separated themselves from everyone else and I don’t expect that to change between now and the end of the season.

Withhat said, there has been some talk about moving Baylor to No. 1 and Gonzaga to No. 2 after KenPom.com switched the Bears up to the top spot. That should not be the case, as Baylor is still a half-tier below Gonzaga in my mind.

For starters, the Zags are more proven. They’ve already beaten four teams ranked in my top 15 while Baylor has only beaten one.

The two have also looked different against the better teams they’ve played. Baylor is 4-0 against KenPom top 100 teams with an average margin of victory of 14.25 points, while Gonzaga is 7-0 with an average margin of 16.29 points.

Baylor has also struggled in stretches while Gonzaga hasn’t. The Bears trailed TCU at halftime over the weekend and were down to Iowa State in the second half last weekend before pulling away late in both games. Scott Drew’s squad has handled their business and looked incredibly impressive against lesser competition, but they haven’t consistently imposed their dominance over all 40 minutes like Gonzaga.

The eye test backs this up for me as well. Baylor’s defense is incredible but it’s not as historically good as Gonzaga’s offense. I’d also argue that Gonzaga’s better on defense than the Bears are on offense, though metrics may not bear that out because of the amount of garbage time in Gonzaga games. Mark Few’s squad has the personnel to be a really good defensive squad and have been when they’ve needed to be.

Again, we’re splitting hairs here, but there shouldn’t be any real argument about Baylor taking the No. 1 ranking from Gonzaga, despite what KenPom says.

Xavier’s clutch-ness

The Xavier Musketeers did it again on Sunday. After falling behind Providence in the closing minutes, Xavier’s Colby Jones hit a game-winner with 0.1 seconds left to give the Musketeers a 74-73 victory.

This has become something of a routine for Xavier this season. They’re 10-2 overall but are a perfect 5-0 in games decided by three points or less, and almost all of them have been at a buzzer.

It goes all the way back to the start of the season as three of their first four games were decided by three points or less. Xavier sealed two of those games with three throws but the first — a 51-50 win over Bradley — was marked by this Dwon Odom layup in the closing seconds.

And then at the start of Big East play, Adam Kunkel gave the Musketeers a win in their conference opener with a 3-pointer as time expired.

The biggest thing that stands out to me is that all these were pretty good looks! Yes, Odom’s layup was contested but he still not a shot at the basket and yes, Kunkel was on the move but had a clean look. Jones, well, he had no one within 10 feet of him.

We have enough of a sample size now to know that the Musketeers are legitimately good in close games. I don’t know what it means that they’re in so many of these close games, but they’ve become a lot of fun to watch.

Brian Rauf
Brian Rauf

Heat Check CBB lead national writer