Rauf Report: Michigan State’s surge, rise of Arkansas, and more weekly takeaways

Brian Rauf details his five biggest takeaways from the past weekend in college basketball in a brand new Rauf Report.

This is the last Rauf Report that will be published prior to March. Conference tournaments started on Thursday and the NCAA has now released tournament contingency plans.

Drink it in, ladies and gentlemen. We’re just about there.

This week also saw fewer cancellations and more games being rescheduled that had previously been postponed, creating an influx of top tier matchups on a nightly basis. Shout outs to the Big Ten and Big 12, right?

Those are the two conferences we will mostly focus on in today’s column, and it has become impossible to do so without discussing the Baylor-Michigan dynamic. So, let’s get into it, shall we?

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Michigan is on Baylor’s tier, but not Gonzaga’s

Baylor returned from a three-week COVID pause on Tuesday and struggled to get past a 2-17 Iowa State team, but the Bears managed to keep their undefeated start intact. While I am not worried about Baylor’s lackluster performance — I’ve written before about teams struggling immediately following COVID breaks — the Bears do need to ramp up quickly. They will play four games in eight days starting Saturday, all of which will be against NCAA Tournament teams (Kansas, West Virginia, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech).

Michigan will be doing the same, yet they’ve already passed two tests with flying colors with the win over Ohio State on Sunday and 22-point victory over Iowa on Thursday. It has been their play in those games that has me convinced the Wolverines are now on the same tier as Baylor, even if it’s still behind Gonzaga.

Saying that is not a knock on either Michigan or Baylor, but rather a homage to what looks to be a historically great season from Gonzaga. I thought Baylor was the only team that could realistically beat the Zags without needing some miracle. Michigan has shown me they’re in the same boat.

The analytics back it up, too. The efficiency margin between Baylor and Michigan is as small as it has been all season on KenPom, and Haslametics has the Wolverines overtaking the Bears at No. 2 in their performance rankings.

On the court, Michigan checks all the boxes. Juwan Howard’s squad is extremely balanced and has beaten teams playing any and all styles. The Wolverines have the firepower to outgun their opponent, the defense to suffocate them, a dominant big man in Hunter Dickinson, and five players who are capable of carrying the team. They also have adequate depth (six players average at least 8.5 ppg), can shoot the three (five players shooting over 40 percent), rebound, protect the rim, and the list continues.

If you’ve watched them play, you get it. There are simply no holes. If someone is struggling, Michigan has the depth and talent necessary that someone else steps up. That has allowed them to hit the extra gear that only two other teams — Baylor and Gonzaga — have shown they can hit consistently.

Against Ohio State, it was a 23-11 run in the second half that put the game away. Against Iowa, it was utter domination virtually the entire second half. They did the same thing to Wisconsin on Valentine’s Day. They’ve proven enough that we can say they belong on the same tier as Baylor.

Don’t buy the Oklahoma hype

Speaking of Baylor, their close call on Tuesday largely overshadowed what was the biggest actual upset of the week when Kansas State knocked off No. 7 Oklahoma.

And if you’re more stunned that Oklahoma is ranked No. 7 in basketball than the fact they lost to Kansas State, I imagine you’re not alone! I think that has more to stay about the caliber of teams ranked in the 6-20 range that seem to circuitously cycle through the bottom of the top 10, but I digress.

The Sooners have been one of the most pleasant surprises in the country. I wrote about them at the end of January, when they had ripped off back-to-back-to-back wins over Kansas, Texas, and Alabama. Oklahoma was riding a five-game win streak thanks to a vast defensive improvement. The Sooners have been able to maintain a solid level of defense in the five games they’ve played since, yet their offense and overall game have sputtered.

Head coach Lon Kruger’s squad has gone 3-2 over their last five games and of the three wins, two were over Iowa State —who is still winless in Big 12 play — with the other coming over West Virginia in double overtime. The loss to K-State was obviously alarming, yet it has been the way this group has played outside of that red-hot, three-game stretch, which comes with warning signs.

Oklahoma lacks size, quality offensive depth, shooting, and struggle to defend the three. Those are all things that can make a team vulnerable, and the history of past teams with OU’s 2021 profile certainly backs that up.

Currently, Oklahoma has five Quad 1 wins. However, three of them came during that one week in January. The Sooners are 5-6 combined against Quads 1, 2, and 3 otherwise. That’s not great!

It’s looking more and more like Oklahoma was simply a team that got hot for a short stretch and is still reaping the benefits. Under the hood, there isn’t much more substance to back up the hype. I fully expect them to be a popular upset pick when the NCAA Tournament bracket is released.

Biggest reason for Michigan State’s surge

Let’s go back to the state of Michigan to discuss another huge storyline: Michigan State’s resurgence as a potential NCAA Tournament team.

Last week, the Spartans were 4-9 in the Big Ten and 10-9 overall following a double-digit loss to Purdue. Tom Izzo’s squad was essentially dead and buried. But, alas, the Big Ten is full of opportunities for elite Quad 1A victories, and this team has ridden three back to relevancy.

Michigan State broke out of their funk with a 78-71 victory at Indiana on Saturday, a positive sign considering the Hoosiers were/are a bubble team. Then, they went out and beat a pair of top five teams in a span of three days, knocking off both Illinois and Ohio State in East Lansing. It’s the first time the Spartans have beaten KenPom top 10 teams in consecutive games since the 2012 Big Ten Tournament and the first time they’ve ever taken down two Big Ten teams ranked in the top five back-to-back.

So, what exactly changed?

There are a number of things that Michigan State is doing better, but the biggest change has been the play of Aaron Henry. The junior has given the Spartans the star and on-court leader they’ve been desperately lacking, which has completely changed the complexion of their lineup.

This is a team that has really struggled to replace everything former point guard Cassius Winston brought to the table. He was their star and offensive creator with role players around him. Those role players were expected to step up in Winston’s absence, and that hadn’t been happening until now.

Henry has stepped up and been that go-to option, and he has been doing it efficiently during this stretch. He’s averaging 21.7 ppg on 53.2 percent shooting over the last three games, which is a huge increase from the 14.3 ppg on 44.4 percent shooting he averaged during Michigan State’s first 19 games. Henry has also been an active playmaker (3.7 apg) and rebounder (5.0 rpg), but his impact even goes far beyond what shows up in the box score. A contributor like Henry allows everyone else on Michigan State to play more within themselves and in their respective roles, and it’s clearly working.

But Michigan State is far from a tournament lock. They’ve put themselves firmly on the bubble with these two wins, yet they still have work to do, something Henry acknowledged.

The Spartans will face Maryland, Indiana, and Michigan (twice) between now and next Sunday. If they can go at least 2-2 in that stretch, they’re likely looking at a tournament berth, especially if one of those wins is over Michigan. Any hope Michigan State has of doing that, however, is dependent upon Henry maintaining this level of play.

Illinois’ Achilles’ heel

Stats will show that the Illini lost the game to Michigan State because they didn’t shoot the ball well from the field or from the free throw line. Sometimes, that just happens in basketball, and this was certainly one of those games.

But despite that, Illinois still could’ve won if they would have started stronger by playing with more focus and energy.

This has been the Illini’s biggest Achilles’ heel all season long. For whatever reason, there are games where they don’t bring “it” and get behind early, forcing themselves to rally from double-digit deficits.

This group does have the firepower to do this, as they’ve shown several times this season. Remember that 53-13 second half against Northwestern? Or when they trailed Penn State by 13 early before winning by 17? Or the comeback win over Indiana? Nebraska? You get the picture.

The problem is they aren’t always able to flip that switch, whether it’s like the Michigan State game where they can’t make a shot, or they flip it too late like the Ohio State game, where they ran out of time to make the necessary stops.

When this group does play with the requisite energy, intensity, and focus from the start of games, they can be dominant. They’ve shown this in wins over Iowa, Wisconsin, Duke, and Minnesota, just to name a few.

I have to imagine Illinois will bring that needed energy, focus, and intensity to the postseason because, well, why wouldn’t they? It’s a do-or-die situation and they have brought it for their biggest games, but this would be the reason why they would lose earlier than their talent would suggest.

Arkansas is a legitimate tournament threat

If you’re looking for a dangerous team peaking at the right time going into March, look no further than these Arkansas Razorbacks. Head coach Eric Musselman’s squad has won eight of their last nine games, a run that has been punctuated by a 15-point victory over a top-10 Alabama team on Wednesday.

That is the signature win that had previously eluded the Razorbacks and signals this group will be dangerous in the postseason. However, this has been building all month.

Arkansas is 4-4 overall in Quad 1 games, and all those victories have come in their last four games. That’s right — the Razorbacks are picking up their biggest wins of the season right now. They’re playing the best against the best competition at the opportune time. It has propelled them from bubble territory to a potential top five seed in the NCAA Tournament.

In a way, Arkansas’ overall resume looks to be the opposite of Oklahoma’s. They had a bad stretch at the start of January when they went 1-4 in five straight games but only have one loss (81-77 at Oklahoma State) outside of that window. Since, they’ve knocked off two teams they lost to during that stretch (Missouri, Alabama) with a chance to knock off a third (LSU) this weekend. If they can do that, it would be their fifth Q1 victory in a row.

With this surge and a budding freshman star in Moses Moody, Arkansas looks like a team capable of winning a couple of games in the NCAA Tournament.

Brian Rauf
Brian Rauf

Heat Check CBB Lead National Writer