The Rauf Report details the biggest takeaways from college basketball’s opening week, led by Jeremy Roach’s play and the Pac-12’s struggles.
College basketball’s opening week lacked its typical top-end matchups — especially without the Champions Classic, which was pushed to next Tuesday because of mid-term elections — but that doesn’t mean the sport didn’t deliver.
There were 126 games played on Monday and several delivered intrigue despite not having those elite matchups. We saw Jon Scheyer’s first game as Duke’s head coach and Kyle Neptune’s debut at Villanova. Elsewhere, TCU barely survived against Arkansas-Pine Bluff in a one-point victory.
That trend of mid-majors hanging with high-majors spanned the entire week. It has been a particularly great few days for the ASUN with Stetson knocking off Florida State and Bellarmine beating Louisville (more on the latter later). Southern Illinois ousted Oklahoma State in Stillwater. A trip on Rider’s last possession kept it from upsetting Providence. Radford nearly toppled Notre Dame (is the ACC ok?) and Coppin State took Georgetown to overtime.
Oh yeah, buzzer-beaters are back, too.
College hoops is #BACK, folks, and so is the Rauf Report! Here are my biggest observations of the week, starting with a new lead man in Durham.
—Wild opening week: Three comebacks of at least 20 points
—Opening week takeaways: Big Ten remains unbeaten
—Duke’s Jon Scheyer sets the tone in first victory
Jeremy Roach looks like the leader Duke needs
Duke’s 71-44 victory over Jacksonville was obviously headlined by Scheyer’s debut. It was the first time the Blue Devils were led on a non-interim basis by someone other than Coach K since 1980 so, naturally, most of the postgame chatter focused on the new coach.
But, on the court, Jeremy Roach had the kind of showing the Blue Devils need from him this season. He finished with 16 points, six rebounds and four assists, yet how he did it was most important.
Roach probably won’t put up those numbers every game. The junior was Duke’s top option against the Dolphins without Dereck Lively II (calf) and Dariq Whitehead (foot) and he’ll be relegated to the third or fourth option once they return. I do, however, expect him to be the tone-setter for this young Blue Devils team, and he was exactly that against Jacksonville.
The Dolphins actually pushed Duke in the first half, keeping the score within two possessions for almost the entirety of the opening 18 minutes. They likely would’ve had the lead throughout that timeframe if it wasn’t for Roach, who scored all 16 of his points in the opening stanza — including four 3-pointers — carrying the load until the floodgates broke open in the second half.
Roach was responsible for opening those floodgates, too. He scored or assisted on every basket during a mini 8-0 Duke run to close the half, turning an eight-point game into a 16-point romp within the final 1:39 of the frame.
“Roach really set the tone for us,” Scheyer told reporters after the game. “That’s what we need from him all year long. He’s been in those moments.”
That element — stepping up and being a leader in key moments — is what Duke needs above all else from Roach. There’s enough talent on this roster that can handle the scoring lead but having a veteran presence elevate his play at the right time can be the difference between winning and losing once the Blue Devils face greater competition. Roach knows this and is embracing his role.
“My teammates got me going, the coaching staff, everybody got me going. Just being a junior, you got that confidence now,” Roach said postgame. “I think just playing with joy and being happy out there was a big part of it.”
Louisville is the ACC’s worst team
Let’s keep things in the ACC but look at the opposite end of the spectrum. Louisville’s Kenny Payne is the only other first-year head coach in the conference and, well, things aren’t looking anywhere near as bright for him.
It has only been one official game but based on our preseason questions about the Cardinals and what they showed through two exhibitions and the season opener, they appear to be the league’s worst team.
It’s worth remembering that Payne was hired with a reputation as a high-level recruiter. He had never been a head coach before, but he was set to bring talent to Louisville. That didn’t happen this offseason. Payne even failed to address the roster’s most pressing need in the backcourt, where El Ellis is legitimately the only guard in the rotation. It’s a major issue in a guard-dominated sport.
So that has limitations on its own, but then the Cardinals have shown even more deficiencies on the court. Their offense was dreadful in an exhibition loss to Lenoir-Rhyne as they were held to 47 points on 29.2 percent shooting. After beating Chaminade by seven in the last exhibition, Louisville couldn’t defend Bellarmine in a one-point defeat.
Let’s dive into the offensive issues. As mentioned, Payne is still in his head coaching infancy, but there isn’t a lot of structure in his halfcourt sets. That’s a perfectly fine strategy when you have several playmakers on the court — in fact, some coaches even prefer that — but Louisville doesn’t have the guards to pull off this style.
The Cardinals will typically run a single action designed to create an opportunity for the ball-handler to attack. But as the clip below against Bellarmine shows, this approach went awry because it’s not in their players’ skill sets. Help comes and the ball immediately goes out for a reset. The end result was a lot of 3-point attempts for a team that struggles from behind the arc, which is exactly what opposing defenses want.
Defensively, Louisville has enough size and athleticism to be solid in an ideal world. Through three games, however, it has been marred by lackadaisical effort, poor rotations and a lack of communication. Against Bellarmine, the Knights exploited that for a lot of open perimeter looks and easy shots at the rim, something that shouldn’t happen given Louisville’s size.
Bellarmine finished 14-of-25 (56 percent) shooting from inside the arc and 21-of-43 (48.8 percent) overall. That simply won’t get it done.
Those issues on both ends come back to coaching. The season certainly isn’t a lost cause already, yet there are serious red flags. Because Payne failed to address glaring roster issues, he needs to make the necessary adjustments to bounce back. The way Louisville is playing right now highlights its weaknesses instead of its strengths.
The Pac-12 is off to a shaky start
It’s been a rough few days for the ACC given Louisville’s struggles, Florida State’s loss and Notre Dame’s escape against Radford. However, it’s overshadowing what has been an even worse week for the Pac-12.
USC, projected to finish in the top four in the conference, lost its opener to Florida Gulf Coast by 13 points in which the Trojans’ lack of top-end talent was glaring. Boogie Ellis was the only player who scored more than seven points. Andy Enfield has had some legitimate stars — Onyeka Okongwu, Evan Mobley and Isaiah Mobley, in particular — during the program’s rise over the last few seasons. This roster doesn’t have that type of guy this year. There was hope Ellis and Drew Peterson could become of that caliber this year, but early returns indicate it may not mesh given a lacking depth of talent, either.
Stanford, a sleeper some liked in the Pac-12, was taken to a wire by a Pacific team picked to finish at or near the bottom of the WCC. Harrison Ingram, a preseason All-Pac-12 selection, finished with just seven points on six shots.
Arizona State, hoping for a bounce-back season, trailed Tarleton State for almost the entirety of its opener before picking up a three-point victory. Colorado and Washington also trailed mid-major competition in the first half.
Cal was expected to be struggle but losing to UC Davis by double digits certainly wasn’t in the plans. Oregon State nearly followed suit and trailed Tulsa by 19 points before pulling off a furious comeback victory.
The good news for the Pac-12 is that UCLA, Arizona and Oregon all looked like top-25 teams in their first appearance. The rest of the conference, though, appears to be in for a struggle. Could the Pac-12 be a three-bid league? Time will tell.
Higher-than-normal expectations generally led to poor performances
There was also a trend on opening night of teams with unusually high expectations struggling out of the gate.
The UNC program is certainly no stranger to high expectations, but it was clear the pressure of being No. 1 in the preseason with national-championship-or-bust hype had an effect. UNC is a team full of stars that played like each of them had to be stars on every possession. The Tar Heels forced shots and played more as individuals rather than as a team, which reflected in recording just four assists in a 69-56 victory over UNC Wilmington.
TCU started the same way against Arkansas-Pine Bluff. The Horned Frogs quickly found themselves down by 20 points because they couldn’t hit water if they fell out of a boat. Jamie Dixon’s squad shot 32.1 percent in the first half — including a dismal 1-of-11 from three — as it largely fell into the same trap as UNC. But TCU managed to settle down in the second half, moved the ball better and avoided the upset.
Indiana’s starters sleepwalked through the first 10 minutes and fell behind Morehead State before the bench took over. It took San Diego State over a half to start pulling away from Cal St. Fullerton. Creighton let St. Thomas hang around for 30 minutes due to some hero-ball, settling for too many undisciplined, contested threes.
All of these teams will be fine. Heck, some of these teams even had a second game and looked like the elite squads we have come to anticipate. Chalk these performances up to first-game jitters and nerves.
James Madison’s offense is a force to be reckoned with
Let’s close with a look at James Madison. The Dukes have put up some eye-popping numbers through two games.
They’re averaging 114.5 points per game, the most of any team that has played multiple games. They’re shooting 59.5 percent from three and 61 percent from the field, both of which are — again — the most of any team that has played multiple games. JMU hasn’t even had a shot blocked yet!
Head coach Mark Byington has instituted such a fun style and built a roster full of talented offensive threats. Vado Morse and Takal Molson both averaged over 12 points per game last season while three other returners, including Terrence Edwards, averaged at least nine. They highlight a group of five or six players who can score from all three levels and either create shots for themselves or others off the bounce, giving the Dukes the kind of versatility that’s incredibly difficult to stop.
Byington told The Almanac this offseason that his biggest concern was getting the team to play together because JMU has so many talented pieces. Through two games, the Dukes have delivered on the expectation of being an elite offense.
How far can the offensive firepower take this group? JMU has a nonconference slate highlighted by trips to North Carolina and Virginia in the coming weeks. It will also face quality mid-major competition in Buffalo and South Dakota State during this stretch.
Last season, the Dukes upset UVA and were 11-3 before injuries derailed their season. Expectations are higher now, though, and they appear to have the offense to reach their goals.