Recent struggles from Texas and Wisconsin are the focus of the latest Rauf Report.
Welcome into a new Rauf Report, where I highlight my biggest takeaways from the past week in college basketball.
Obviously, the weekend was highlighted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and their Super Bowl victory over the Kansas City Chiefs, giving Tom Brady his seventh Super Bowl title. That’s more than any NFL franchise, which is just absurd. I also might have to send Tony Romo a cease & desist letter for this …
“The Romo Report” felt just a litttttttle too close to home.
But there was also plenty of quality college basketball this weekend, too, though the results were yet another reminder that Baylor and Gonzaga are lightyears ahead of everyone else. They’re also the only two remaining unbeatens following Drake’s loss to Valpo on Sunday.
The Bears and Bulldogs are the only teams that seem capable of consistently taking care of business, which is why we’re breaking down how other teams are struggling in this Rauf Report.
First up, let’s reevaluate Texas.
Texas proved itself in November by winning the Maui Invitational in Asheville and jumped into the top five nationally after beating Kansas by 25 points on January 2. That’s the baseline in which we had been judging the Longhorns and they deserved to get the benefit of the doubt.
Well, Texas’ recent struggles have me doubting again.
The Longhorns have lost four of their last five games, including three in a row. All four losses were in Quadrant 1 games, too, dropping them to 3-5 in such games. Only one of those wins (West Virginia) came over a team that is currently ranked, too.
So, we’ve been giving them the benefit of the doubt, but Texas hasn’t proven as much as we perceive.
Defensive regression has been the biggest reason for this slide, and that regression started following that victory over Kansas.
Shaka Smart’s squad has gone from elite to average in just about every category — particularly points allowed per game — and their record has reflected the struggles. Texas has elite athletes in its frontcourt and its ability to defend the perimeter and protect the rim made the Longhorns special. Their impact hasn’t been the same over the last month.
Now, it’s worth noting that Texas was dealing with COVID issues and didn’t have a full roster for a couple of those games (Kansas State, Oklahoma). It would be naïve to think that didn’t play a role in those games, but this trend started before and has continued since.
If the Longhorns are going to get back to being a top 10-caliber team, they need to rediscover themselves defensively.
Alabama’s defensive relapse
Speaking of defensive regression, Alabama has gone through something similar over the past couple of weeks. I had the Tide as the nation’s No. 3 team a few weeks ago largely because of the play of their defense, which was the driving force behind their 10-game win streak.
But the Crimson Tide have gone just 1-2 since then with defensive lapses being the main cause.
Last Saturday against Oklahoma, Alabama allowed the Sooners to shoot 38.1 percent from three. That was way above OU’s percentage on the season (33.7) and significantly more than Alabama’s defense has been giving up (29.6 percent).
The Crimson Tide bounced back against LSU before showing regression again in Saturday’s loss to Missouri. The Tigers scored 44 points in the first half and shot nearly 60 percent from two-point range as they built a 22-point lead that was simply too much for Alabama to overcome.
If you’re looking for good news for Nate Oats’ squad, it’s that they nearly pulled off the comeback once they rededicated themselves to that end of the floor. They closed on a 29-10 run without allowing Mizzou to score a basket from the field. When the Crimson Tide are awake, active and engaged, they can still dominate. But slow first half performances in these losses — perhaps due to early tip times — has hindered their defense.
I don’t trust Wisconsin
Wisconsin is another team on a downward trajectory, something I predicted in the preseason. Following an 8-1 start, the Badgers have faltered in Big Ten play and have had some of their weaknesses exposed.
There are two big weaknesses: a lack of athleticism and lack of explosiveness offensively.
Wisconsin’s overall resume isn’t all that strong. They’re only 8-6 in Quad 1 & 2 games, showing its lack of consistency against NCAA Tournament-caliber teams. The Badgers’ inability to keep with good teams offensively has played a major role. Here’s a look at their offensive production based on varying levels of competition:
Those dips in points scored and shooting percentage are significant and aren’t all that different from what we saw from this group last year. Because Wisconsin doesn’t have players who can consistently attack the basket with success, most of its offense has to come from jumpers. When the Badgers shoot over 40 percent from deep, they win. When they don’t, they aren’t as successful.
The better, more athletic teams they have faced tend to be better at defending the perimeter and bothering shooters, hence the drop in production, which has translated into more losses than expected.
The rest of Wisconsin’s schedule doesn’t get any easier either. Five of their remaining seven games are against teams ranked in the KenPom top 30 and four (Michigan, Iowa (twice), and Illinois) are against teams in the KenPom top five. Expect this slide to continue.
National Player of the Year race is no longer a runaway
Up until this weekend, Luka Garza was the very clear leader in the National Player of the Year race without much competition. Yes, other players were putting up great numbers as well, but the combination of Garza’s sheer dominance and Iowa’s team success kept it from even being a conversation.
Well, it’s a conversation now.
The Hawkeyes have lost four of their last five games to fall to the middle of the pack in the Big Ten and Garza isn’t putting up his eye-popping numbers anymore. He has been held below 20 points in three of Iowa’s last four games after doing so only three times in the previous 15 games and his rebounding numbers have dropped as well (6.3 over the last four games compared to 8.4 on the season).
A lot of that has been caused by a shift in the way opponents are playing him. Illinois was the first team to do this consistently and others have since followed, but opponents are going at him defensively via drives or post ups, forcing him to work on both ends. Garza is a good defender, but not a great one, particularly when it comes to his lateral movement. Illinois and Indiana, in particular, succeeded in getting him into early foul trouble and Fran McCaffery’s complete unwillingness to play him with two fouls in the first half has taken him out of the game and out of rhythm.
Now, Garza is still the favorite, but he is trending in the wrong direction. That has opened the door for other stars like Baylor’s Jared Butler, Gonzaga’s Corey Kispert (or Drew Timme or Jalen Suggs, take your pick), and Illinois’ Ayo Dosunmu.
This is now a legitimate race and should be a fun storyline to follow over the season’s final month.
Belmont is under-the-radar mid-major to monitor
I’ve touched on a couple of mid-major programs that are worth watching over the past several weeks, and I still believe in all of them — Saint Louis, Western Kentucky and Winthrop chief among them.
But I also need to highlight Belmont, which has been surging in the Ohio Valley.
The Bruins are 20-1 with a top 35 offense and two legitimate stars in Grayson Murphy and Nick Muszynski that have led them to 17 consecutive victories. Fourteen of them have been in the OVC, which is one of the best mid-major conferences in the country.
There is more on the way on Heat Check CBB about the Bruins and why they deserve plenty of credit for their great start to the season.