Missouri’s defensive inconsistencies and Wisconsin’s rebounding woes highlight this Rauf Report, recapping this week’s action.
Welcome into a new Rauf Report, where I highlight my biggest takeaways from the past weekend in college basketball.
The highlight was the NCAA Tournament selection committee’s release of their top 16 seeds during Saturday morning’s Bracket Preview. There weren’t many surprises — which is a good thing — as there’s a top group that has distanced themselves from the rest, and both Gonzaga and Baylor have distanced themselves even further from that group.
Obviously, the actual bracket will likely look fairly different on Selection Sunday given that there are still four weeks left of games, and that three of the teams included in Saturday’s release lost over the weekend!
Missouri is one of those teams, and their poor play caused them to tumble in my latest college basketball power rankings. Defensive inconsistency is the biggest problem facing the Tigers, and that is where we start this week’s Rauf Report:
Missouri’s defensive dropoff
As I wrote back in December, Missouri’s defense was the driving force behind their hot start to the season. That included victories over Oregon and Wichita State at the time, and the Tigers went on to pick up marquee victories over Illinois, Arkansas, and Tennessee. That win over Tennessee on Jan. 23 put Mizzou at 10-2 overall and into the top 10 in most rankings. Cuonzo Martin’s squad was one of the favorites in the SEC at that point.
Since then, the wheels have somewhat fallen off. The Tigers are just 3-3 with two losses to non-NCAA Tournament teams (Auburn, Ole Miss), and their defense is the biggest reason why.
Yes, that defense that was so dominant in December and January has been anything but that over the last month.
Missouri uses their defense to gain control of games. When they aren’t dictating the tempo and are rather playing at their opponent’s style, things can get out of hand (i.e. their 21-point loss to Ole Miss).
This was even true during that 10-2 start. There were only three teams that shot at least 50 percent from the field against Mizzou in those first 12 games. One of them was Illinois, a game Missouri won by three thanks to their rebounding edge, and the other two were losses to Tennessee and Mississippi State.
Even in the games they’re winning recently, it hasn’t felt like Mizzou has been in control. They were lucky to get into overtime to beat TCU (and needed 102 points to do so) and nearly blew a 22-point, second-half lead to Alabama because of — you guessed it — defensive lapses.
That once-dominant defense has now dropped to No. 56 nationally in adjusted efficiency, per KenPom. If Missouri continues to be average on that end of the floor, well, they will be an average team. Their play on that end will determine how far they go in March.
Wisconsin’s rebounding woes
A loss to Michigan on Sunday dropped Wisconsin to 5-5 in their last 10 games, a mark that raises questions on its own about this group’s potential in March. That said, there are a few areas of significant concern.
I detailed their offensive struggles against top-tier competition in last Monday’s Rauf Report and, as our Lukas Harkins pointed out, Brad Davison’s contributions play a large role.
However, a bigger factor is the rebounding woes of Wisconsin’s star frontcourt of Micah Potter and Nate Reuvers.
The duo was held without a single combined rebound in the loss to Michigan — not one! While that’s the first time that has happened all season, it’s far from the first time they’ve had their impact mitigated on the glass. When that happens, it almost always means a loss for the Badgers.
Head coach Greg Gard has inserted sophomore Tyler Wahl into the starting lineup recently in an effort to improve in this area, but that hasn’t helped much as the Badgers are still 289th nationally in offensive rebounding rate.
Wisconsin is not going to dominate this area considering how much of their offensive attack is focused on the perimeter and three-point shooting. That style lends itself to poor rebounding numbers. But, in theory, the advantage of having both Potter and Reuvers is having two players who are at least 6-10 on the court while still playing that style. After all, tall guys are generally better rebounders.
The Badgers won a share of the Big Ten title last season largely because of this asset. They could space the floor with five shooters and still hold their own on the glass.
Now that they’re not doing that consistently, this group is struggling to repeat least season’s success.
Ayo Dosunmu vs. Luka Garza
Staying in the Big Ten, the conference has become home to another intense Player of the Year race. Luka Garza was in tight battle with Dayton’s Obi Toppin a year ago before losing out late and had been the clear favorite this season up until about a week ago.
As we discussed on Hope & Rauf, Iowa’s slide out of the Big Ten title race (for now) and some mortal performances from Garza opened the door for another contender to enter and legitimately challenge him. Well, someone has, and it’s someone from Garza’s own conference.
Ayo Dosunmu was a preseason All-American and has been putting up ridiculous numbers of his own all season long, as he’s on pace to become the first player in 11 seasons to average at least 21 points, six rebounds, and five assists per game (21.7 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 5.1 apg). But it was Illinois’ inconsistent play and lack of big wins that kept him from really being in the running alongside Garza. However, now that the Illini have won nine of their last 11 games — including wins over Iowa and Wisconsin — Dosunmu’s profile has risen.
Baylor’s Jared Butler and Gonzaga’s Corey Kispert are legitimate candidates as well, yet neither campaign has captured the momentum of Dosunmu’s.
Illinois needed overtime to get past Nebraska on Friday night and if we can be honest here, that is not a good thing. It was a poor performance from Brad Underwood’s squad. Dosunmu did not fall into that category, however, saving the Illini by completely taking over the game late.
Taking over during clutch moments is something the junior has done regularly throughout his collegiate career and even though it came against Nebraska, having that performance in a standalone window on Friday night caught the attention of the college basketball world (you can check out the social media fever pitch here).
Again, you can argue that Garza still leads the NPOY race and he likely does. But, for the first time this season, we have a definitive race, and it’s between two superstars that happen to play in the same conference.
A three-bid Missouri Valley is in play
The mid-major showcase of the weekend was the back-to-back games played by Loyola Chicago and Drake in Des Moines. If you’re uninitiated or haven’t been following along, Drake was 18-0 before suffering their first defeat last Sunday while the Ramblers entered this weekend ranked in the AP top 25.
Loyola clearly looked like the better team on Saturday. After trailing by three at the half, the Ramblers outscored Drake by 30 points in the second half as they ramped up their elite defense (currently No. 1 nationally, per KenPom). Then, on Sunday, the Bulldogs came back and upset Loyola by one in overtime.
This series split is the best thing that could’ve happened for the Missouri Valley Conference as a whole.
Loyola Chicago validated their lofty KenPom and NET rankings (No. 10 in each, as of Sunday night) with their performances while Drake picked up the Quad 1A victory their resume was lacking. Assuming both take care of business the rest of the regular season, both are in prime position for an at-large NCAA Tournament bid.
The Ramblers are in a much more secure spot considering their standing in the key metrics, so the easiest path for the MVC to earn two bids would be for Drake to win the conference tournament with Loyola getting a deserved at-large bid.
That said, considering Drake got this win over Loyola without leading scorer Tank Hemphill, there’s a not-so-insignificant chance the Bulldogs still earn an at-large bid if they were to lose in the Missouri Valley Tournament (assuming they don’t lose again in the regular season, of course).
Having a third team in the MVC Tournament is a legitimate possibility because 1) crazy things always seem to happen at Arch Madness, and 2) other teams like Missouri State and Indiana State are pretty good in their own right.
All the talk this weekend was about a two-bid Missouri Valley, and the conference does appear to have that locked up assuming neither Loyola Chicago nor Drake falter down the stretch. But let’s not overlook the fact that the split opened the door for the conference to potentially send a third team dancing, too.
Akok Akok’s impact on UConn
James Bouknight is UConn’s best player. They are 5-1 in games in which he has played this season, including a victory over USC, with the sole loss coming by two in overtime to Creighton. However, he has been out since Jan. 5 following elbow surgery and, predictably, the Huskies have struggled in his absence, going 4-4 since that hot start.
UConn is expected to get their star back sooner rather than later, which will give him enough time to get up to speed before the Big East Tournament and with the way it looks right now, the NCAA Tournament as well.
But it’s another player returning from injury that should give Huskies fans even more hope.
Forward Akok Akok played his first significant minutes of the season in Saturday’s victory over Xavier after rupturing his Achilles nearly a full calendar year ago. He had appeared in three games earlier this month in very limited playing time, then missed the last four games to further his recovery.
But Saturday was the first time he was able to make an impact, and UConn felt it. The 6-9 sophomore only played 10 minutes, eight of which came in the first half. In those eight minutes, he sparked an 11-2 UConn run that changed the game.
“That’s probably an underrated reason for the success today,” head coach Dan Hurley said after the game. “That’s probably one of the top reasons we won the game. That infusion of energy he gave. How excited our team got to see somebody who’s been through so much get in there and have some success.”
That sentiment was echoed by Akok’s teammates. R.J. Cole said Akok gave them a needed spark off the bench while Isaiah Whaley said Akok’s presence and play gave him a boost.
Obviously, Akok is still working his way back and it remains to be seen how big of an impact he can consistently have. It’s clear he has an emotional impact on the Huskies and just from an on-court perspective, any team becomes more dangerous when you add an athletic 6-9 forward who can shoot threes and block shots.
Bouknight’s return is going to take over headlines whenever that happens, and it should. But Akok showed he can have a significant impact on UConn’s trajectory moving forward as well.