Welcome into another Rauf Report, where we highlight my biggest takeaways from the past week in the college basketball.
The slate was relatively light compared to what we were treated to during the season’s first two weeks, yet there were several games that provided legitimate insight. These teams asserted themselves — or hurt themselves — in games that were out of the spotlight, though the results will dictate who gets into the spotlight in future weeks.
That’s the major theme in this Rauf Report: providing you with insight on teams you need to start paying more attention to or ones that have serious problems. We’ve already covered some the past few weeks (Clemson and Missouri, most notably) but this week we’re going to dive into four teams and look at an interesting trend that may just determine the Big Ten champion.
Let’s start with the first and most impressive of those teams in Saint Louis to get this Rauf Report going.
Saint Louis deserves your respect
The Saint Louis Billikens are 6-0.
The Saint Louis Billikens already have two KenPom top 50 wins.
The Saint Louis Billikens should be the A-10 team that gets talked about the most.
Head coach Travis Ford’s squad had high expectations coming into the season, yet they’ve already broken through and made a statement in nonconference play similar to that of Dayton a year ago.
Saint Louis is one of the most experienced teams in the country, returning 71.1 percent of its minutes from a year ago, and we’ve seen that kind of continuity pay dividends for teams early in the year. We also knew this group was going to be really good defensively, having been ranked in the nation’s top 45 on that end each of the last two seasons.
The Billikens are continuing that tradition this season (31st) and have also taken a big step forward thanks to their offense. Through six games, this is easily the program’s best unit on that end under Ford.
The main drivers behind that growth are the team’s vastly improved 3-point shooting and the play of their backcourt.
Let’s start with that backcourt, which is led by seniors Javonte Perkins and Jordan Goodwin. Perkins was the team’s second-leading scorer but has taken his shooting to another level, currently making 58.3 percent of his 3-pointers on the season after shooting 35.1 percent last year. That much of an improvement probably won’t last, but it’s clear his shooting has improved. He is also taking smarter shots, which should be expected in his second season after transferring from the JUCO ranks.
Goodwin, meanwhile, continues to be one of the best rebounding guards in the country. He’s currently averaging over 10 rebounds per game to go along with over 15 points while leading this talented group in steals, too. He has been their go-to guy in all the big moments because of how talented he is in all aspects of the game.
But the guy who makes it all go is sophomore point guard Yuri Collins. He ranks 11th nationally in assists per game while maintaining quality shooting numbers. At the same time, he is also a pest defensively that averages over two steals per game.
Gibson Jimerson is a long-range sniper as well, while Hasahn French continues to be one of the nation’s best rebounders. This group goes about 10 deep in their rotation and all of them can play at a high level. That was on full display when they beat LSU after Thanksgiving without two key players in French and Fred Thatch.
Their performance against NC State on Thursday showed what exactly this group is capable of. The Billikens outscored NC State by 17 in the second half to come back and put the game away, had four players with at least 12 points to show their balance, and doubled up the Wolfpack on the glass. I haven’t even talked about Saint Louis being one of the best rebounding teams in the nation yet!
I say all of that to say this: Saint Louis has everything you want from any team, let alone one in the mid-major ranks. They’re favored to win the rest of their games and, while that probably won’t happen (the A-10 is ridiculously good), it shows the potential they have to be this season’s version of Dayton or San Diego State.
Reason to be alarmed about Arizona State
I am one of those who was very high on Arizona State at the start of the season. I even picked the Sun Devils to win the Pac-12 while acknowledging the giant hole they had in their frontcourt. But to say the frontcourt is this team’s only problem after their 4-3 start would just be flat-out wrong.
And, no, this is not just an overreaction about the Sun Devils’ 76-63 loss to UTEP on Wednesday. There are some real underlying problems that have plagued this group going back to the start of the season.
Is the lack of size, rim protection, and frontcourt depth right at the forefront of these concerns? Absolutely. Arizona State is one of the nation’s worst rebounding teams (306th in offensive rebounding rate) and give up more than their fair share of points down low. They’re allowing teams to shoot over 52 percent from inside the arc, and that is weighted down heavily by Houston Baptist (37.5 percent on two-point shots against Arizona State).
That lack of size, unfortunately, is not something that can be easily fixed. They have the necessary talent to compensate for it on the perimeter, yet that talent isn’t playing anywhere near its full potential.
Preseason first team All-American Remy Martin and five-star freshman Josh Christopher are combining to shoot just 25.5 percent from three. Those two were expected to be this team’s two leading scorers and they’ve been incredibly inefficient. As a result, a team with plenty of good individual shooters ranks 161st nationally in three-point shooting. A lack of ball movement plays a big part in that, too.
Bobby Hurley’s teams in Tempe have been relatively iso-heavy and rely on players to create their own shots, and he’s had good enough guards that it has worked for them. It hasn’t this season with the contested, low-percentage, quick shots taking precedent over running offense and finding a better shot. The Sun Devils have succeeded in playing fast (7th nationally in tempo) but haven’t succeeded in maintaining their efficiency while doing so.
Making matters worse is the way ASU has been slipping defensively on the perimeter, ranking 225th in three-point defense and 233rd in effective field goal percentage defense. A lack of size can be a bit of an issue for them out there, too, but they have the kind of quickness that should make up for it.
Arizona State is playing uninspired basketball that appears more focused on the individual than the team. I know the Sun Devils haven’t had Marcus Bagley — their other star freshman — for the past three games due to injury but these issues existed with him in the lineup, too.
A narrow win over a bad Cal team isn’t bad on the surface and neither is a loss to a good San Diego State team or a one-point loss at Grand Canyon. You can talk yourself into logical excuses for those in one-off scenarios. But the loss to UTEP forces you to look at the bigger picture, and it’s not pretty.
Texas Tech’s offense isn’t good enough to compete in the Big 12
Want to know what else isn’t pretty? Texas Tech’s offense.
I hate saying that because of how good of a coach I think Chris Beard is and it’s tremendous what he’s done with that program. This team also has good individual offensive players.
But, man, is it a struggle to see them try to score in the half court right now — there’s just a lack of reliable options.
The two who have been the best and most consistent are Mac McClung and Terrence Shannon Jr. McClung is the team’s leading scorer but is not the most efficient player. He’s a sub-40 percent shooter from the field for his career and is shooting just 38.2 percent on the season. Shannon is much more efficient but is also much more inconsistent with his impact.
That inconsistency has been a problem up and down the roster. We keep waiting for Kyler Edwards’ breakout, though he has fewer than 10 points in half of Texas Tech’s games this season, including an 0-9 outing against Kansas. Marcus Santos-Silva, a coveted transfer from VCU, has been M.I.A. for long stretches as well. Nimari Burnett, the highest-rated recruit in school history, hasn’t found his groove and is shooting below 30 percent from the field.
Texas Tech’s offense is stagnant and choppy, some of which should be expected given the lack of time the Red Raiders have had to incorporate all these pieces in the offseason. The lack of efficiency (193rd in effective field goal percentage), explosiveness and individual creativity is on display, too.
The Red Raiders will still be around the top 25 all season long, and they should. Their defense is incredible: Beard’s squad is currently the best in the nation on that end, according to KenPom, and has held every opponent to 58 points or fewer. This is going to give them a chance to win every game they play. But until their offense comes around, the Red Raiders look like a very clear No. 5 in the Big 12 pecking order.
Florida State is doing the Florida State thing
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: a Florida State team picked to finish outside the ACC’s top group and started the season unranked has quickly looked like one of the conference’s best teams. They are the reigning conference champions, after all. And, while they lost some key pieces from that group, Leonard Hamilton has had enough success for us to know the Seminoles are one of the teams you can blindly trust on an annual basis.
Florida State is known for its defense and is currently one of the more balanced teams in the country through four games. The Seminoles are one of only five teams ranked in the top 20 nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency along with Gonzaga (duh), Baylor (duh again), West Virginia and Wisconsin. And, unlike the last three teams of that group, they haven’t played many cupcake games to inflate their numbers (Indiana, Florida, and Georgia Tech all rank in the KenPom top 71).
The formula is the same as year’s past. FSU employs a deep 11- or 12-man rotation with a balanced offensive attack. Four players are currently averaging over 10 points per game and another four are averaging at least four. They’re also extremely tall — the tallest team in the nation — and use their length, size, and depth to play Hamilton’s patented aggressive style of defense that gives opponents nightmares (30th in turnovers forced).
Yet there are also two things that make this season’s team slightly different and a little more special.
For starters, there is Scottie Barnes, a do-it-all 6-9 freshman who is emerging as one of the sport’s biggest stars. I went in-depth on him in Monday’s Rauf Report and all he’s done since then is carry the ‘Noles in the second half in their win over Georgia Tech. He’s a legitimate stud who can score, defend, and create with the best of them.
There’s also Florida State’s 3-point shooting, which is on pace to be the best of any team Leonard Hamilton has had in Tallahassee (since the 2002-03 season). The Seminoles are making 40.3 percent of their threes (24th nationally) and have four different players shooting over 47 percent individually.
As FSU looks to surpass preseason expectations for what feels like the billionth year in a row, the other teams at the top of the ACC are faltering. Virginia lost to San Francisco and has been struggling, Duke and UNC each have multiple losses already, and Louisville hasn’t proven themselves to the same extent as FSU just yet.
The top of the conference looks to be wide open again, and Florida State has shown the all-around firepower to take advantage.
Dominant big man duos in the Big Ten is storyline to watch
Louisville is going to get a chance to prove themselves on Saturday against Wisconsin, and the Badgers highlight what should be a fascinating trend in the Big Ten.
College basketball, like the NBA, has gone smaller in recent years with more emphasis on spreading the floor and shooting the triple (shoutout Villanova) except for the Big Ten. This year, the league’s best teams are led by dominant frontcourt pairs.
Iowa has the clear favorite for National Player of the Year in Luka Garza, but fellow big Jack Nunge is also the team’s third leading scorer.
Illinois has Kofi Cockburn leading the charge with Giorgi Bezhanishvili playing starter’s minutes off the bench. Wisconsin is led by Micah Potter and Nate Reuvers. Indiana’s best players, Trayce Jackson-Davis and Race Thompson, play down low. Michigan is running everything through their frontcourt in Hunter Dickinson and Isaiah Livers.
Michigan State might be the only top-tier team in the Big Ten that relies more on the perimeter, while Joey Hauser is still their leading scorer. Rutgers is there, too, but also has Myles Johnson and Cliff Omoruyi to throw at opposing bigs.
The bottom line is this: the Big Ten will be won in the paint, and that’s just the way it should.
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.