Welcome into another Rauf Report, where we highlight my biggest takeaways from the past weekend in the college basketball.
There were several eyebrow-raising results and incredible individual performances across the country, including both San Diego State and Florida State suffering their first losses of the season and Northwestern shocking Michigan State in their Big Ten opener, but the most resounding victory was top-ranked Gonzaga’s 99-88 win over No. 3 Iowa.
The Bulldogs led by as many as 20 points in the second half before holding off the Hawkeyes late, flexing their muscles as the best team in the country right now. On the court, they look like they’re a tier ahead of everyone else and already have the resume (3-0 against KenPom top 8 teams) to back it up.
Freshman point guard Jalen Suggs cemented his superstar status against Iowa, too, recording 27 points (7-of-10 from three), seven rebounds, four assists, and three steals to lead the Zags. With that said, we’re starting this Rauf Report with a look at something that has been a true X-factor for Gonzaga by giving its offense a dimension few possess.
Joel Ayayi’s offensive rebounding and secondary playmaking are Gonzaga’s unsung X-factors
I am a noted Joel Ayayi supporter and believer. He was a member of my preseason All-Breakout Team and I thought would emerge as the best player on this Gonzaga team. The junior hasn’t been that caliber yet — the star is clearly Suggs — but that doesn’t mean he’s been bad. In fact, he’s been quite good. Gonzaga just has so many fantastic players that Ayayi doesn’t get talked about much.
So that’s what I’m doing here. Not to hype my preseason picks or anything like that, but Ayayi showed against Iowa that he impacts a game unlike anyone else in the sport.
For starters, there’s the backdoor cuts along the baseline. Ayayi has a knack for falling out of his defender’s peripheral and cutting to the basket for wide open layups, giving Mark Few’s squad a reliable yet untraditional source of points in the paint. And when I say it’s reliable, I mean it’s reliable.
Ayayi also knows how to use that slipperiness to be effective crashing the glass from the perimeter. The 6-5, 180-pounder is Gonzaga’s leading rebounder (10.3 per game) by a considerable margin, which is rare for a backcourt player to do on any team. He ranks in the top 150 in defensive rebounding rate and top 350 in offensive rebounding rate which, again, are incredible feats for someone who spends most of their time on the perimeter. I should mention that he grabbed 18 rebounds against one of the nation’s best frontcourts, too.
That alone gives them a legitimate X-factor, but what makes this advantage unique to Gonzaga is Ayayi’s playmaking ability directly off an offensive rebounder.
Ayayi is a combo guard and will be that at the next level. However, his vision and passing ability give him tremendous upside as a pure point guard. So, when he does get one of his many offensive rebounds, the Zags suddenly have one of their best playmakers with the ball at a spot on the court where opposing defenses are most vulnerable.
Just like Wayne Gretzky possessing the puck behind the net and dissecting defenses from behind, Ayayi’s rebounding and subsequent playmaking have a similar effect.
Here, Ayayi gets the ball under the basket. Because of where he is on the court, two Iowa defenders collapse on him and the rest of the defense scrambles to the perimeter. Ayayi calmly scans the court and finds a wide-open Drew Timme, who scores easily.
This happens on several occasions every game where Ayayi gets an offensive rebound or gets open off a cut.
Most teams have bigs and/or wings in that position who almost always try to score. Gonzaga, on the other hand, has a guy there who understands how lethal he can be as a playmaker from that spot. Mark Few’s squad does so many things well, and this is one area they excel where almost no one else does.
The Rutgers hype is real
Now, let’s talk Rutgers!
The Scarlet Knights picked up perhaps the second most important victory of the weekend in a 91-88 win over Illinois, legitimizing the preseason hype that surrounded Steve Pikiell’s program for the first time in what feels like forever.
Rutgers returned almost all major contributors from what would have been an NCAA Tournament team a year ago and an elite defense, though questions persisted about their offense and ability to win on the road, something they only did twice last year.
Well, winning on the road isn’t as tall of a task in 2020-21 because of the lack of fans, but the Scarlet Knights have also answered other questions.
Defensively, they’re elite again, ranking top 15 nationally on that end of the court. The offense has come along, too, making Rutgers worthy of a top 15 (and potentially top 10) ranking.
That newfound offense has Rutgers winning games almost solely because of their play on that end of the court, which is something they have never done since Pikiell took over prior to the 2016-17 season.
Ron Harper Jr. has been a tremendous part of that recent rise and, this season, is playing like an All-American. He ranks in the top 40 nationally in offensive rating and effective field goal percentage, giving Rutgers both a reliable and efficient go-to guy. The 6-6, 245-pounder has recorded at least 26 points in four of their six games so far this season, including each of the last three. Those three games are especially important as they’ve all been against KenPom top 50 teams, including Sunday’s victory over Illinois.
But it’s not just Harper. Geo Baker has returned from injury and is contributing in a big way off the bench as he works back up to speed. Jacob Young has cut down on turnovers, taken smarter shots, and upped his assist rate. Myles Johnson and Cliff Omoruyi give them an elite frontcourt duo on the defensive end, and Montez Mathis has become an indispensable role player.
Any doubts that remain about this group are only there because it is Rutgers and we’re not used to seeing them in this position. I still don’t know if they’re the best team in the Big Ten since there are a lot of really good teams in that conference. But, if they do win the league and make a long run in March, it won’t be a fluky thing. Rutgers is legit.
I am concerned about Creighton
Creighton, meanwhile, is struggling with legitimacy. The Bluejays were able to pull out an overtime victory over UConn on Sunday, yet nothing about their play this season has inspired any sort of confidence in them being the kind of team we anticipated in the preseason.
The biggest reason for their breakout last year was their improvement on the defensive end. While they got off to a fast start on that end against lesser competition, they have regressed a bit over the last couple of weeks against better teams. Creighton is allowing an average of 77.2 points over their last five games — a far cry from the 61 points it allowed through the first three games and the 70.3 per game allowed a year ago. That’s not a good trend considering the strength of the Big East.
Offensively, Creighton is really good again. The Bluejays are top five in the country in offensive efficiency, but also aren’t on the same level they were a year ago, which is a problem when the defense has taken a step back as well. There are a couple of reasons for that.
First off, Marcus Zegarowski is not playing at an All-America level. That’s a high bar, yes, but both his scoring and efficiency numbers are down. The pressure is on him to play at a high level as the team’s leader and star, though he’s not the only one who has taken a slight step back.
The other factor is consistent breakdowns in their offensive system. Typically one of the smoothest and most free-flowing systems in the country, the offense is now breaking down halfway through the shot clock and relying more on isolation sets. That works most of the time considering the offensive talent they have but it’s just not reliable.
And, look, this isn’t to say that Creighton isn’t a good team or an NCAA Tournament team or anything like that, because they most certainly are. But if we’re going to grade them on the scale of Big East favorite and preseason top 10 team, there are serious problems that have shown themselves early and could keep them from reaching their expectations.
West Virginia’s backcourt determines the team’s level of play
I feel like I wrote about this a lot in the preseason — and I wrote about them last week, too — so excuse me if you feel like I’m beating a dead horse here. With that said, through WVU’s eight games, the same trend from last season has continued — the Mountaineers go as their guards go.
Bob Huggins’ squad looked like a top 10 team for the first three months of last season before a terrible seven-game stretch in February in which they went 1-6. Already a lackluster offensive team, WVU’s scoring averaged dropped from 73.4 to 62.7 points over their final nine games during that slide as their backcourt production completely dipped.
West Virginia is back to looking like a top 10 team again thanks to the backcourt but, even then, how dominant it looks depends on how the backcourt is playing.
Through eight games, the Mountaineers have won three times by at least 10 points. Their starting backcourt of Miles McBride and Sean McNeill are shooting a combined 49.2 percent in those three games. The other five games consist of four victories by single digits and the loss to Gonzaga. In those games, McBride and McNeill are combining to shoot just 33.3 percent.
There isn’t a correlation regarding the level of competition, which is interesting. You might expect WVU to struggle against Gonzaga, yet McBride and McNeill tore up the next two toughest teams it faced (per KenPom ranking) in Richmond and VCU. The second-worst game came against Iowa State on Friday, which is expected to finish ninth in the Big 12.
When West Virginia gets efficient scoring from its backcourt to complement its frontcourt and defense, the Mountaineers can beat anyone. When they don’t, they’re extremely vulnerable to an upset.
Pick Winthrop to win at least a game in your NCAA Tournament bracket
Speaking of upsets, Winthrop will and should be perhaps the most popular upset pick when we’re filling out our 2021 NCAA Tournament brackets.
The Eagles are another team I wrote about earlier in the season and deserve another shoutout before they dive back into Big South play. Winthrop is clearly the best team in that conference and are expected to go undefeated in league play. No team in the Big South ranks in the KenPom top 200, so there isn’t an opportunity to move the needle with a victory.
Saturday represented Winthrop’s only real chance for a signature win when it took on Furman, one of the favorites in the SoCon and another one of the best mid-major programs in the country.
Winthrop responded by delivering a beatdown of the Paladins, leading by 20 at halftime and never looking back. Chandler Vaudrin delivered another great all-around performance (seven points, eight rebounds, seven assists) as four players scored in double figures, one of whom was not talented big man D.J. Burns.
Pat Kelsey’s squad displayed depth and efficiency in perhaps its final showcase game. The Eagles are legit and may be undefeated come Selection Sunday, but you probably won’t hear much about them between now and March. Don’t forget about Winthrop.
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.