Another college basketball weekend, another top game taken away from us due to positive COVID-19 tests and resulting program shutdowns. This time, it was the top 15 matchup between Baylor and Texas, originally slated for Sunday, that was canceled.
I’d be remissed if we didn’t touch on the Keyontae Johnson situation as well. Florida’s star collapsed following a timeout early in the Gators’ loss to Florida State in what was a really scary scene. He continues to be held at a hospital in Tallahassee and is in critical but stable condition, according to the school.
Stay tuned to Heat Check CBB for any updates on Johnson’s health, as we’re all hoping he’s able to make a full recovery and return to the court soon.
While that set an obvious ominous and emotional tone to the weekend’s action, there was no shortage of statement victories across the country. Missouri and Clemson, two teams discussed in last week’s Rauf Reports, were at the forefront of that trend.
Missouri validated its undefeated start with a victory over Illinois, catapulting the Tigers to No. 16 in my updated top 25 rankings, and Clemson added yet another win over a power conference, NCAA tournament-caliber team in Alabama. Elsewhere, West Virginia trounced a top 20 Richmond team and Tennessee strengthened its resume with a convincing win over Cincinnati.
Strong performances came from an individual standpoint, too. Luka Garza put up another insane outing against Iowa State, further solidifying his case as the National Player of the Year frontrunner. Cade Cunningham hit his first career game-winner. Scottie Barnes and Sandro Mamukelashvili put forth headline-worthy performances, too.
We’ll touch on both Barnes and “Mamu” more in-depth a little bit later, but let’s go back and start this Rauf Report with another look at Missouri.
I don’t want to turn these Rauf Reports into a weekly synopsis covering only a handful of teams yet, while we discussed Missouri in last Monday’s column, the Tigers are more than worthy of discussing again.
Last week, I wondered if their defense could make them a factor in the SEC race given their victories over Oregon and Wichita State. Now, after beating Illinois to move to 5-0, Cuonzo Martin’s squad looks like one of the SEC favorites and a potential factor on the national stage.
It’s not just beating the Illini that proves Missouri is legit — we’ve also talked about the dangers of overreacting to one game — it’s how they were able to win.
Illinois is one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the nation, ranking in the top 10 in that category. Missouri limited them to just 23.1 percent (3/13) using their length and athleticism, giving them one of the best 3-point defenses in the country (35th). They also used that size to out-rebound Illinois and completely clamped down on the Illini’s important role players. Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn combined for 55 points, yet only one other player (Andre Curbelo) made more than one shot from the field.
Offensively, they got a balanced effort with four players scoring at least 12 points. Two of those, guards Dru Smith and Xavier Pinson, kept the offense flowing with eight combined assists. That’s the kind of production you want to see from your backcourt. The Tigers were aggressive, got to the rim, and made their foul shots.
Missouri wasn’t shooting the lights out, either! They were just 23.8 percent from the three-point range, signaling they won in ways that were repetitive — rebounding, defense, and transition.
I’m not ready to anoint Mizzou as a Final Four contender or anything like that, but the Tigers continue to prove they’re legitimate, and beating Illinois provided further context. This is a team worth monitoring in the SEC.
Concerns about Villanova
The Wildcats began the season ranked No. 3 in the preseason AP poll and were thought to be one of the three or four national championship favorites. An overtime loss to Virginia Tech during the season’s opening week knocked them from that perch but, since then, they still haven’t looked like the team we all anticipated.
For starters (pun intended), the depth isn’t there. The Wildcats are utilizing a consistent seven-man rotation that sometimes expands to eight, causing them to rank 299th nationally in bench minutes. Jay Wright is relying on his starters to carry the team, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing when you have Villanova-caliber starters. However, those starters aren’t playing at the level we thought they would. At least not yet.
Collin Gillespie has been a very reliable and steady player, but he also hasn’t emerged as a legitimate star. He simply lacks explosiveness and anything more than average athleticism. He’s a great college player but hasn’t elevated his game to where he can be the best player on a championship team.
Jeremiah Robinson-Earl can thrive though a lack of consistency (poor performances against Virginia Tech, Hartford, and Georgetown) has limited him. The sophomore’s breakout game came against an Arizona State team that has no interior presence, and at some point he will need to prove himself against legitimate big men.
Justin Moore and Jermaine Samuels haven’t really taken significant steps forward, either.
And, look, I’ve been stressing that teams will look vastly different at the end of the season because of the lack of prep everyone had in the offseason. However, there are these issues with Villanova that run a bit deeper than just slow starts. They lack depth, explosiveness, and don’t have a truly great player.
Don’t get me wrong, I think the Wildcats will be very good all year. I just don’t think they will reach a point where they will reclaim their status as a national title favorite at the level of Gonzaga and Baylor. This team is limited in the way that other title contenders aren’t, though that may not show itself until March.
West Virginia has a Final Four ceiling
I feel like I wrote ad nauseum this offseason about Miles McBride as a breakout player and West Virginia’s potential. Both of those things have been on full display all season, yet it was most obvious in WVU’s blowout 87-71 win over Richmond on Sunday.
The baseline for West Virginia’s preseason ranking was this: Derek Culver and Oscar Tshiebwe were going to be one of the nation’s best frontcourt duos and they were going to play great defense, which is always expected from a team coached by Bob Huggins.
However, that was the case for them last year as well. If they were really going to break through, they needed to get something resembling consistent offensive production from the perimeter. Miles McBride was the most likely option to provide them with that.
McBride has taken that step forward through seven games, averaging 14.6 points and 4.6 assists per game. He scored 20 points in that win over Richmond and nearly had a triple-double (17 points, seven rebounds, seven assists, four steals) against Georgetown.
But he’s not the only one stepping up on the perimeter! Taz Sherman is second on the team in offensive rating (behind McBride) and is shooting 50 percent from deep. That combination has given West Virginia that backcourt punch it has been lacking and, in turn, significantly raised the ceiling it hit in 2019-20.
What does that ceiling look like in reality? We saw it against the No. 19 Spiders. West Virginia probably won’t shoot over 58 percent every night, but it consistently got good looks, worked inside-out, and turned defense —forcing 16 turnovers and held Richmond to 23.1 percent shooting from three — into offense.
We’ll see if the Mountaineers can sustain this past seven games, but it is worth remembering they led No. 1 Gonzaga for most of that game. WVU isn’t on that level with the Zags and Baylor, but they can compete with them and everyone else in the top 10.
Scottie Barnes is officially a must-watch star
Scottie Barnes came to Florida State with a lot of hype. He was a top 10 prospect who played alongside Cade Cunningham at Montverde Academy and was known for his versatility. At 6-9 and 227 pounds, Barnes was called the best defender in the class and a wing who could make plays for others like a point guard.
College basketball fans had to wait an extra week or two to see him in action as COVID-19 pushed back the start of FSU’s season. And, after a blowout win over North Florida in the season opener, Barnes started leaving his mark on the sport.
At the start of the week, Barnes hit the overtime game-winner to push the Seminoles past Indiana.
That play was the highlight of a solid night (nine points, five assists, four rebounds, four steals), but nothing overwhelming.
The overwhelming favorite came on Saturday when Barnes put together a couple of highlight plays against Florida.
Barnes finished with 17 points and five assists against the Gators, displaying more comfort both playing at the college level and at point guard. Leonard Hamilton is utilizing the playmaking ability of his star freshman by having him initiate the offense, which raises the potential of Barnes’ impact and, in turn, FSU’s ceiling.
Barnes is only going to get better (which is a scary thought) but right now he’s already one of those players that should be appointment viewing.
Don’t look past Sandro Mamukelashvili!
Another player who should be getting more love nationally (and probably will soon) is Seton Hall big man Sandro Mamukelashvili.
The Pirates have been inconsistent to start the year as they try to replace last year’s All-American Myles Powell, currently sitting with a 4-3 record. However, all those losses were respectable (Louisville, Rhode Island, Oregon) and they’ve won their last three, showing signs that they’re starting to get things figured out.
The biggest reason for their current level of play is that of Mamu. The 6-11, 240-pounder is averaging 20.4 points and 7.4 rebounds per game and has been on fire of late. After being limited to just 10 points in the Oregon loss, Mamu has scored at least 30 points in two of the last three games.
His mobility and skill, at his size, make him a nightmare for opposing defenses. He’s big enough to punish smaller defenders down low, has the post moves to score against bigger defenders, the quickness to drive past them, and is a reliable three-point shooter (39.4 percent). Oh, and he’s a phenomenal passer, too.
After his 32-point, nine-rebound, three-assist performance in a win over St. John’s, head coach Kevin Willard offered high praise for Mamu.
“I’ve been saying it since he came back, I think he’s the best player in college basketball from what he can do in shooting the basketball, passing the basketball,” Willard said.
All his skills were on full display against the Johnnies and, when he’s playing with an aggressive mindset like that, he’s as unstoppable as anyone in the country. Don’t be shocked if he starts getting some (deserved) All-America buzz.
Brian Rauf is a college basketball writer for HeatCheckCBB.com. His content has been featured by Sports Illustrated, Bleacher Report, and FanSided, among other publications. Rauf is also a current USBWA member and Rockin’ 25 voter.