Rauf Report: Possible NCAA Tournament stars; most important players; other college basketball takeaways

The Rauf Report details the biggest college basketball takeaways from the weekend, headlined by five players who could shape the season’s final month.

We’re quickly approaching the best time of year for college basketball fans with conference tournaments and postseason play on the horizon, so I wanted to gear this Rauf Report a little bit differently.

All season, I’ve spent most of my time in these columns focusing on teams — who is rising, who is falling, important trends that matter, signs of a weakness or strength in a team, etc. And at this point, there isn’t too much new in that regard. Teams are what they are and there isn’t much time to turn things around.

Heck, the regular season is over for some teams. It’s now or never for them!

Let’s instead take a look at a handful of players who could be major factors in how the following weeks unfold, starting with the biggest star of the weekend.

Tournament Index: March Madness 2022 predictions, Cinderellas
Bracketology | Bubble Watch
—DPI: Game Predictions | Team Grades | Player Rankings

JD Notae is playing as well as anyone in the country

Arkansas’ turnaround has been rather incredible. The Razorbacks did not have a Quad-1 win or a victory over a KenPom top 50 team until the middle of January, right at the midway point in the season. They were unranked then with questions looming about potentially missing the NCAA Tournament.

Arkansas has put a stop to all that, winning 13 of its last 14 games, largely thanks to the play of senior JD Notae, who has emerged as an All-American candidate.

Notae has become the barometer for how successful Arkansas is as a whole, proving to be much more impactful on the offensive end in Razorback victories than in losses.

In Arkansas’ 23 wins, Notae has posted a 108.5 offensive rating with 29.0 percent usage rate. In their losses, his offensive rating plummets to 92.6 despite his usage rate staying relatively the same at 27.3.

As such, it shouldn’t be a surprise to see Notae serving as a driving force behind the Razorbacks turnaround. Eric Musselman is certainly going to his senior more offensively, but Notae has raised his game as well.

  • 10-5 start: 103.2 ORtg, 26.0 Usage
  • 13-1 stretch: 108.2 ORtg, 31.4 Usage

There has been no greater example of Notae’s impact than Saturday’s victory over Kentucky in Fayetteville. He scored 30 points while dishing out eight assists — both game-highs — and had a block to seal the win at the end.

“I think he’s one of the best players in the country,” Musselman said of Notae after the game. “He’s growing, too. He’s been a scorer his whole life. He’s a natural 2-guard that needs to continue to convert to play that 1 spot, and he continues to get better. He’s going to keep getting better, too, because he’s seeing the game a little bit different as a point guard of late.”

Arkansas is rightfully surging up the polls during this hot streak and is only a game out of first place in the SEC (Auburn) with two games to go. The Razorbacks are tied for second currently with Kentucky and Tennessee, who they will face in the regular season finale.

Notae, though, hopes to lead Arkansas to bigger things.

We can go win it all,” Notae told CBS Sports’ Pete Gillen. “We lost to the champions last year and that stuck on us. We want to come back and win it all now.”

Malaki Branham has been who Ohio State needs

Ohio State would like to have those kinds of expectations, but the Buckeyes are just 5-4 in their last nine games as the strength of the Big Ten has kept them from being able to build up any momentum.

It could be worse, though, if freshman Malaki Branham hadn’t emerged as one of the better guards in the conference.

The Buckeyes began the season with a major question in the backcourt, and I actually wrote in the first Rauf Report of the season that Branham flashed the ability to have a breakout campaign if he was able to string those flashes together.

It took him a little bit to adjust, but Branham has had that breakout starting with his 35-point performance at Nebraska on Jan. 2.

EJ Liddell is still “the guy” in Columbus and that’s not going to change. However, Branham has given him a legitimate running mate in the backcourt.

NBA teams are taking notice, too. The 6-5 scorer is quickly shooting up draft boards thanks to his increased production and efficiency. He has good positional size, the necessary athleticism and has shown the ability to create his own shot off the bounce.

Unfortunately for Ohio State, he’s the only one who has stepped up around Liddell. That inconsistent production from the supporting cast has led to Ohio State’s larger inconsistencies, but Branham can make up for that at times.

Just ask Illinois, which allowed the freshman to score 31 against them, or Indiana, who he had 27 points against in a comeback overtime victory.

If Ohio State does anything this postseason, Branham will be the reason why.

Jaden Ivey‘s point guard play determines Purdue’s ceiling

Let’s stay in the Big Ten with Jaden Ivey.

This is not going to be a larger discussion about the Purdue star, as I know he can be sometimes polarizing. He’s an elite athlete even among the most elite athletes in the sport, has shown an improved shooting stroke, excellent defensive play and, most importantly, the ability to take over games. Ivey just doesn’t always do it.

But we’re not here to talk about that. We’re here to talk about his role as Purdue’s primary ballhandler and decision-maker, particularly late in games, because that’s when the Boilermakers need him to be at his best.

Because Ivey is such an explosive athlete and no one can stay in front of him, it makes sense why Matt Painter would want to put the ball in his hands (especially without a true dominant point guard).

It worked really well early this season as Purdue rose to No. 1 for the first time in school history, as I detailed in a previous Rauf Report. Since then, though, the Ivey-at-point-guard experiment has been very up-and-down.

His assist rate has dropped from 22.1 in Purdue’s non-conference games to 17.8 in Big Ten play. Ivey’s offensive rating has also dropped somewhat significantly — he’s eighth on the team in offensive rating in Big Ten play, per Torvik, despite having the third-highest usage rate (one that is also significantly higher than it was during nonconference play).

If Purdue is going to make a run at a Final Four and a national championship, it needs the good Jaden Ivey in the playmaking sense. Here’s a reminder of what that looks like, using his speed to force the opposing defense to collapse before finding an open shooter.

Jared Rhoden is BACK

Seton Hall is in a similar boat with Jared Rhoden. The star senior is the Pirates’ best and most versatile offensive option and, when he’s on, he elevates the ceiling of the entire team.

Early in the season, Seton Hall rose to as high as No. 15 in the polls thanks to a 9-1 record that included wins over Michigan, Texas and Rutgers. Its defense was its calling card, but Rhoden carried the offense enough to propel the Pirates to quality victories.

Then Kevin Willard‘s squad was forced to go on a two-and-a-half week COVID pause. When it came back, the wheels had fallen off. The Pirates were struggling defensively while Rhoden went from looking like an All-Big East player to just another guy.

In February, though, Rhoden turned it back on. He rediscovered his scoring touch and is playing as efficiently has he has at any point during his collegiate career. Unsurprisingly, it also helped Seton Hall turn its season back around.

Now we’re getting back to seeing the version of Jared Rhoden and Seton Hall that was so dangerous in November and December.

In his last three games, Rhoden put up an 18-point, 18-rebound performance in a win over DePaul, 17 points in a win over Butler and a career-high 30 points in Saturday’s blowout win over Xavier.

The Pirates are not going to get a great seed in the NCAA Tournament given those mid-season struggles — projected to be a No. 9 seed in our latest bracketology update — and they’re currently sixth in the Big East.

But given how wide open the Big East Tournament is expected to be and the way Rhoden is playing right now, don’t be surprised if Seton Hall makes some noise at Madison Square Garden and beyond.

Darius McGhee could be this season’s giant slayer

We’re a day away from March and conference tournaments officially get started tonight. There will be a little bit of postseason action this week with the first automatic NCAA Tournament bids being handed out this weekend and early next week.

This is the time when Max Abmas and Oral Roberts started their miraculous run to the Sweet 16, winning the Summit League Tournament as the conference’s No. 4 seed.

Looking to find this season’s Max Abmas? Well, I guess there’s still the possibility that Max Abmas could be this year’s Max Abmas given the Summit League won’t start its tournament until Saturday, but Liberty’s Darius McGhee has as good of a chance as anyone.

The 5-9 senior leads the nation in usage and shot rate but for good reason. He is capable of scoring with anyone and singlehandedly carrying the Flames to a victory, which he has done on a number of occasions.

He has scored at least 20 points on 22 occasions this season, including eight in a row to finish the regular season. He has also eclipsed the 30-point mark six teams and the 40-point mark three times, including in Saturday’s finale against Kennesaw State.

McGhee is a dynamo with unlimited range, has the quickness and playmaking to keep opposing defenses honest, and has a Stephen Curry-like license to shoot whenever he wants.

That combination has helped McGhee become one of the very best players in the nation — not just at the mid-major ranks — and makes him a must-watch player in the postseason.



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