What’s behind Vanderbilt’s incredible week, why Arizona is fine and more from the college basketball weekend in a new Rauf Report.
Super Bowl Sunday capped another football season as the sporting calendar now puts college basketball in the forefront for the next month and a half (after all the talk shows discuss the defensive holding call).
Sunday had a huge impact on the college hoops side of things, too, as Northwestern knocked off Purdue. The Boilermakers have now lost two of their last three games and have fallen from the No. 1 spot.
The Wildcats were able to (relatively) limit Zach Edey and forced him to commit a season-high six turnovers by aggressively doubling him on the catch in the post. Purdue and Edey have faced this defensive strategy before, but Northwestern brought the second defender from a different spot every time, making Edey’s read much harder.
However, moving forward, the bigger thing to watch is Purdue’s guard play. Braden Smith and Fletcher Loyer have been excellent all season, yet the question about relying on two freshmen guards in March still lingers. That duo did not play well (combined 2-of-13 shooting), and Smith had a few costly turnovers down the stretch, which happened in their loss to Indiana, too.
It’s not time to push the panic button on the Boilermakers at this point. That said, we might need to reassess after their trip to College Park on Thursday.
What else is worth noting from around the basketball world? Let’s start this Rauf Report with Arizona, another top team that suffered a surprising defeat over the weekend.
Why you shouldn’t worry about Arizona’s loss to Stanford
As surprising as Purdue’s loss was, it was nowhere near as puzzling as Arizona’s nine-point loss to a sub-.500 Stanford team. Losing to someone like the Cardinal, which only had two victories against the top two Quadrants going into Saturday’s game, typically generates a good deal of warranted concern.
That is not the case here.
Everything about this game screamed “it’s just one of those nights” that happens in college basketball from time to time.
It was Arizona’s worst defensive game of the season by a lot, but not because of anything it did especially poorly. Stanford shot 61.1 percent from the field and 55.6 percent from three, easily the best offensive performance for a Stanford team that entered the game 176th nationally in effective field goal percentage (50.5).
Michael McConnell scored 22 points, doubling his season-high. It felt like most of Stanford’s roster simply couldn’t miss. A career 29.2 percent three-point shooter, McConnell made three shots from beyond the arc — matching his total for the entire season.
Yes, Stanford had a strong defensive gameplan itself. The Cardinal packed the paint and forced Arizona’s backcourt to beat them on the perimeter. But the Wildcats still put up 79 points despite getting just four points in 17 minutes from Azuolas Tubelis because of foul trouble.
Arizona was out of rhythm but still only lost because Stanford was flaming hot in a way that would’ve made the producers of NBA Jam proud. There is no reason to be concerned about the Wildcats.
What caused Vandy’s great week — and why it might continue
Vanderbilt is the easy choice for team of the week. The Commodores started with a buzzer-beating win over Tennessee before closing with a convincing victory over Florida in Gainesville, pushing Jerry Stackhouse’s squad to 13-12 overall and 6-6 in SEC play.
There wasn’t anything fluky about either of those victories, either. Star big man Liam Robbins averaged 23.0 points, 9.5 rebounds and 3.5 blocks in those two games combined, outplaying Tennessee’s front line and Florida’s Colin Castleton in the process. The backcourt was efficient and didn’t turn the ball over – something that has become a staple for this group – and made threes at a high clip.
Vanderbilt is now on a three-game winning streak and might be in line to extend it, which could make the conversation surrounding the Commodores very interesting coming down the stretch.
There is no denying their play this week was a little abnormal and the best version of this group. They played their second- and third-best offensive games of the season from an efficiency standpoint, per Torvik, and shot 45.8 percent from three – way up from their season average of 33.2 percent. On the flip side, Tennessee and Florida combined to shoot just 23.1 percent from deep.
Is that sustainable on either end? Probably not – but Vandy may not have to sustain it at this level.
Its next four games include road trips to South Carolina and LSU, arguably the two worst teams in the SEC, along with home games against Auburn (which struggles mightily away from home), and the Florida team Vandy just beat.
It’s not inconceivable for Vanderbilt to win three, or even all four of those games. If it does win all of them, it will be riding a seven-game win streak — and a 17-12 record — going into a March 1 contest at Kentucky.
There is a lot of projecting here, and a Quad 4 loss to Grambling might sink any at-large hopes the Commodores have left. But there is certainly a path for Vandy to continue this hot streak.
Illinois has stabilized itself
Remember the discourse around Illinois following a January 4 loss to Northwestern in which the Illini looked rather lifeless? Brad Underwood was making fart noises in press conferences, the squad had fallen to 0-3 in Big Ten play and had lost four of its last seven games overall. They were in last place in the Big Ten and looked lost.
Since then, Illinois has been able to get back on track. It has won eight of its last 10 games to move into the top four of the conference standings, elevating its play on both ends of the court while picking up some solid victories.
Despite that run, Illinois hadn’t fully stamped this run as legitimate until Saturday’s nine-point victory over Rutgers. Six wins during this stretch came against teams in the bottom five of the league standings (Wisconsin twice, Nebraska twice, Minnesota and Ohio State), so the Illini hadn’t garnered much media attention.
Their second half performance against the Scarlet Knights, though, showed exactly what this team can accomplish. Trailing 47-41 a few minutes after halftime, Illinois ripped off a 19-0 run that spanned more than 10 minutes to build a double-digit lead.
“Very seldom in this league do you have a 19-0 run and hold a team without a point for almost 11 minutes. I thought the defense was terrific,” Underwood said postgame.
Now, with three straight ranked wins under its belt, Illinois looks as dangerous as ever with road games against Penn State and Indiana this week.
Wisconsin’s Defensive Woes
Wisconsin is on the opposite trajectory of Illinois. A little over a month ago, the Badgers were ranked No. 14 in the AP poll, undefeated in Big Ten play and only had two losses by a combined four points.
Since then, the wheels have completely fallen off. Greg Gard’s squad has lost eight of its last 11 games, including an overtime loss to Nebraska on Saturday that may have sealed its NCAA Tournament fate.
It’s easy to blame Wisconsin’s lack of offensive firepower for this swoon. After all, it has one of the worst offenses at the power conference level and doesn’t have any reliably consistent or explosive scorer. However, the Badgers have actually been more efficient during this stretch than it was during the 11-2 start.
In reality, the Badgers won games against top competition in November and December because of how well they played on the defensive end. They were elite on that end of the court. During this stretch, Wisconsin has simply been average — and average won’t cut it with how this group wants to play.
“We got what we deserved,” Gard told reporters after the loss to the Cornhuskers. “I was real brutally honest with [our team]. It was Jekyll and Hyde between who we were in the first half defensively and who we were in the second half.
“A lot of this was our doing, our mistakes and our changing who we were.”
A three-game homestand comes at the perfect time for this group. Michigan, Rutgers and Iowa will all make their way to Madison over the next week and a half, giving the Badgers one last opportunity to salvage their chances for an at-large NCAA Tournament bid. Elevating its defense back to pre-2023 levels is the key.
San Diego State’s offensive resurgence
Defense has not been an issue for San Diego State. Sure, the Aztecs aren’t quite the elite unit they were on that end last season, but they still have been very good.
The potential for this team to do damage in March, though, comes down to the offensive end. Their struggles scoring the ball wrecked their chances against Creighton in the first round of the NCAA Tournament a season ago. To remedy the issue, SDSU went to the transfer portal this offseason.
Returns were mixed during nonconference play. San Diego State showed flashes of brilliance, particularly in transition, which resulted in high point totals against lesser competition. Still, warts showed up against better teams.
The Aztecs shot 15.8 percent from three against Arizona, 11.1 percent against Arkansas and 20.0 percent against Saint Mary’s, all of which were losses.
Three-point shooting still isn’t a strength for the Aztecs, but its offense is flowing so much better — particularly in the halfcourt — that they’re getting better looks and connecting at a higher clip. That’s just part of this group finding its rhythm in Mountain West play, which bodes well for the coming weeks.
Last season, San Diego State only scored 80 points once — an 80-55 blowout win over UNLV. The Aztecs have already crossed that mark nine times this season, including four times in conference play without playing at a significantly faster pace.
This team will never be a sustainable offensive juggernaut because of its personnel, but it doesn’t have to be, either. San Diego State is making the kind of strides it needed to be a viable threat in March. Now, let’s see if it can sustain through the final five games of the regular season.