Purdue’s suddenly shaky guard play highlights the latest Rauf Report, which also looks at a trio of the nation’s underappreciated stars.
The Rauf Report took an off day on Friday thanks to the stomach bug going around my children’s daycare (yay) but we’re back!
It would be impossible to highlight the most important things that happened over the last week because, well, a lot happened. It’s why I normally do two of these a week! But the obvious place to start is at the top of the sport.
Alabama’s week at No. 1 lasted just that long as a loss to Tennessee knocked them down in the AP poll. On the other hand, the Crimson Tide got the news that they are in line for the best overall seed in the Big Dance during Saturday’s NCAA Tournament Top 16 reveal.
Purdue was thought to be the clear-cut No. 1 overall seed just two weeks ago, but the Boilermakers’ recent struggles simply couldn’t be ignored — especially after losing by 14 points to Maryland on Thursday night.
Matt Painter’s squad has now lost three of its last five games and is playing its worst basketball at the worst time. Luckily for them, Purdue won’t play again until Indiana comes to West Lafayette on Saturday.
What exactly has gone wrong with the Boilermakers, and can it be fixed? Let’s start this Rauf Report there.
Purdue’s guards have taken a step back
For as well as Trayce Jackson-Davis has been playing for the last month and a half, I think Zach Edey still has a firm stranglehold on the National Player of the Year award. His play has not dropped off much as he continues to be the most unstoppable force in the sport.
It’s great to have a dominant big man, particularly in the Big Ten, but the question about Purdue’s potential in March has always been about its guards. Quality guard play is almost a prerequisite for making long runs in March and the Boilermakers start two freshmen — Fletcher Loyer and Braden Smith — that weren’t blue-chip prospects.
The play of those two was arguably as important to Purdue’s early season success as anything Edey did. They quickly became reliable contributors who made opponents pay for focusing too much on Edey and made big plays when big plays were needed. This was particularly true for Loyer, who became the Boilermakers’ go-to perimeter option and looked like the frontrunner for Big Ten Freshman of the Year at one point.
Things can change quickly.
Loyer, in particular, appears to have finally hit a freshman wall. His overall production and efficiency have dipped mightily during this stretch, which is really impacting Purdue’s offense:
Smith has certainly struggled recently, too. Yes, he had some of his best games during this five-game slide, but some of his worst have been mixed in as well. He scored a career-high 24 points against Iowa and put up 18 on 67 percent shooting against Maryland. However, in the other three games, Smith recorded just one made field goal in each. He had several costly turnovers down the stretch against Northwestern.
Purdue has a great chance to get right before the Big Ten Tournament. Two of the Boilermakers’ three remaining games are at home, with the third being a road game against a struggling Wisconsin team. Sunday’s blowout victory over Ohio State certainly got things headed back in the right direction.
However, if they’re going to actually “get right,” it’ll be because Loyer and Smith are back to playing at a high level. If those two can’t fix their recent struggles, Purdue’s slide will continue.
Jarkel Joiner is elevating NC State
I was in attendance for Sunday’s crucial showdown between NC State and North Carolina in Raleigh and, while most of the conversation before and after the game centered around UNC’s chances to making the NCAA Tournament, the Wolfpack showed a lot of things to like in their comeback victory.
College basketball fans generally know Terquavion Smith, NC State’s star. Big man DJ Burns gets a lot of love, too, and rightfully so. But Jarkel Joiner doesn’t get as much attention, and it’s been clear recently that he’s perhaps more important to the Wolfpack’s success than anyone.
The Ole Miss transfer currently ranks second in the ACC in minutes, while also ranking top-10 in turnover rate and free throw percentage (.902) — yet he has found a way to take his game to a new level. Joiner is averaging 23.3 points, 6.0 assists, 4.7 rebounds and 2.7 steals over the last three games.
Just this past week, he had a triple-double against Syracuse — a game the Wolfpack surprisingly lost — and scored a season-high 29 points against North Carolina, 20 of which came in the second half.
What stood out about Joiner’s performance against the Tar Heels was how he was able to score. He was able to drive to the rim and finish with moves of varying difficulty. The fifth-year senior created space and perimeter shots for himself off the bounce with ease — a necessity in Kevin Keatts’ free-flowing offense.
Joiner has always had these skills. Now, he’s starting to put it together consistently and at a high level. Teams need players with that kind of skillset to win games in the NCAA Tournament, and the Wolfpack now have two elite guys in Joiner and Smith.
If he keeps this up, NC State is going to be a force to deal with down the stretch.
Jordan Miller is Miami’s unsung hero
Staying in the ACC with another unsung hero, we need to take a look at Jordan Miller and Miami.
The big names for the ‘Canes are well known. Isaiah Wong is the returning All-ACC performer that led last season’s Elite Eight team. Nijel Pack and Norchad Omier are the high-profile transfers playing at a really high level right away. That’s their “big three.”
Then there’s Miller, who has proven to be the most indispensable part of Miami’s rotation.
He leads the ‘Canes in minutes and offensive rating while also ranking top-10 in the ACC in true shooting percentage and turnover rate. His versatility as a stretch 4 are critical to Miami’s identity. The fifth-year senior has the 3-point shooting chops and ball-handling ability to fit perfectly into their perimeter-centric attack, but he also has the size (6-7) and toughness to help make up for the team’s shortcomings on the glass.
Oh, and he’s consistent, too. Miller has scored in double figures in 21 consecutive games going all the way back to Nov. 27 against UCF. His best performance came this week, and much like Joiner’s, it came against North Carolina.
Miller rarely has a standout game — that showing against the Tar Heels is the only time he eclipsed the 20-point mark — but his reliability is vital to this dangerous Miami team. As Jim Larrañaga said, Miller might be the most underrated player in the country.
Chris Livingston is stepping up for Kentucky at the right time
Livingston has become underrated in fact that we may have written him off too soon. The former five-star prospect struggled to make a consistent impact for Kentucky earlier this season as he didn’t have a set role. Kentucky’s injuries played a part in that, and the team simply took longer than expected to figure out its identity.
Recently, Livingston has received a huge bump in playing time, and the Wildcats are reaping the benefits. The 6-6, 220-pounder looks so much more confident and decisive on the court, which is reflected in his aggressiveness and efficiency.
He’s still not a focal point of UK’s offense — I don’t think he will be given he’s a defense-first player — but Kentucky has found a way to utilize his size and athleticism in transition and attacking the basket in the half-court. Those discoveries have elevated the offense to a different level:
Livingston’s play is not a fix-all remedy for Kentucky. There are still underlying issues with the team, including Oscar Tshiebwe’s ball-screen defense and the lack of individual shot creators, but the freshman has made tremendous strides and has become a vital piece of Kentucky’s attack.
Eastern Washington’s win streak
When Charleston and Florida Atlantic earned spots in the AP top 25 this season — and rightfully so — they did it on the backs of impressive 20-game win streaks.
Well, folks, Eastern Washington is close to becoming the third mid-major program to win 20 consecutive games, and they would be the only to do so in league play.
The Eagles currently own the nation’s longest win streak at 17 games, remaining undefeated since a Dec. 13 loss to Texas Tech in Lubbock (by just seven points). Since then, David Riley’s squad has cruised through the Big Sky with nearly half of their conference victories coming by double digits.
No, EWU is not in the at-large conversation. The Eagles are 5-7 against the top three quadrants and boast just one lone Quad 2 win (none in Quad 1). That’s why there isn’t as much media attention on this group as there was with the Cougars and Owls. However, this team is still capable of more.
The ninth-tallest team in the country, per KenPom, Eastern Washington doesn’t start anyone shorter than 6-6. The Eagles use that size on the offensive end with big slashers and cutters more than traditional post-ups, yet they want to shoot a lot of threes, too. Seven rotation players shoot at least 34 percent from deep, showing another way their offense stresses opposing defenses from all angles.
Eastern Washington will have to win the Big Sky Tournament to go dancing. If the Eagles are able to do that, though, this is a team with the potential to give a high seed a lot of problems.
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