College basketball is a half marathon. It’s not a sprint like football, yet it’s not a full marathon like the NBA. Every game is important, but it’s worth remembering that not every game is the end-all-be-all. A team will not be who they are on their best day all the time. A team also won’t be who they are on their worst day all the time. It’s about what they’re able to put on the court on a consistent basis.
This week has been a reminder that we shouldn’t view teams through a one-game vortex (especially early in the season) like we often do with football.
Virginia Tech looked phenomenal in its upset of Villanova and jumped to No. 16 in the AP poll. In their next outing, the Hokies trailed VMI in the final minutes before pulling out the win and looked much more like the team picked to finish 11th in the ACC.
San Francisco lost its opener to UMass Lowell, one of the worst teams in the America East. Then, it made 13 three-pointers and beat No. 4 Virginia two days later. In their next game, the Dons lost convincingly to Rhode Island.
Florida looked lost in their opener, a near upset loss to Army. Then in their second game, against Boston College, the Gators played like an SEC favorite.
I could keep going with countless examples of this kind of variance we *should* know comes with the first few weeks of the college basketball season, but you get the picture. So, who’s performances are real and who should you be worried about?
Let’s get into it in a new Rauf Report, highlighting my biggest takeaways from the past week in college basketball.
Texas is legit
On paper, there was no reason not to believe in Texas coming into the year. The returned basically everyone from a group that likely would’ve made the NCAA Tournament and added a top 10 recruit in forward Greg Brown.
Of course, that paper also includes Shaka Smart’s track record in Austin. He’s had plenty of talent before but has yet to win an NCAA Tournament game with the Longhorns and hasn’t won more than 21 games.
Everyone was cautious about this group. Now, after Texas took home the Maui Invitational title (in Asheville, NC), it’s OK to start believing in the Longhorns. I’m giving you permission!
Texas currently sports the best defense in the country outside of Virginia — which is basically in its own category every year — using its combination of immense length and athleticism to routinely force opponents into difficult shots. Brown, Jericho Sims, and Kai Jones are all 6-10 or taller and quality rim protectors while also having the foot speed to defend smaller players on the perimeter. The backcourt is filled with quality defenders as well, particularly Courtney Ramey and Matt Coleman.
The end result is Texas ranking in the top 20 in three-point defense and opponent’s effective field goal percentage. Smart’s squad is only allowing 60.5 points per game as well.
Texas still isn’t a smooth offensive team but its experience, particularly in the backcourt, is paying dividends on that end. There are still some stagnant sets from time to time that causes the Longhorns to look disjointed, but they’re doing a much better job moving the ball and finding open shots. This group currently boasts the best assist rate and offensive efficiency since Smart took over.
Texas still must prove it can maintain this improvement offensively as four games is still a small sample. However, there is proof it can produce against quality competition (beat Davidson, Indiana, and North Carolina at Maui/Asheville).
The Longhorns will be tested again on Sunday when Villanova comes to town. I’m not ready to say that Texas is on the same level as the Big East favorites, but we have seen enough from the Longhorns to know they will hold their own. Shaka Smart’s squad is a legitimate top 15 team, and it’s OK to trust them as such.
Stanford may have been a mirage
At the start of the week, the Cardinal were one of the darlings of the sport, dominating a very good Alabama team in an 82-64 win in which they led by as many as 24 points. They shot well over 50 percent from the field led by five-star freshman Ziaire Williams who very much looked the part of a star, scoring a game-high 19 points in impressive fashion.
It was easy to think we may have overlooked Stanford in the preseason, yet the next two games showed us why we didn’t. The Cardinal closed the Maui Invitational (in Asheville, NC) with losses to North Carolina and a disappointing 79-63 loss to Indiana.
Stanford’s offense wasn’t anywhere near as good, either, shooting just 39.2 percent against the Tar Heels and 35.8 percent against the Hoosiers. That play dropped the Cardinal to just 74th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency. Williams struggled even more, combining for just 14 points on 5/19 shooting in those two games.
That’s enough to make you wonder if their performance against Alabama was just a hot shooting night, and that thought was confirmed by ShotQuality’s analytics.
Instead of looking like a Pac-12 title contender, those two losses reaffirmed my preseason thoughts about Stanford. Williams is going to be good as is reigning All-Pac-12 first teamer Oscar da Silva, and senior Daejon Davis has taken a significant step forward. But the rest of the roster is uninspiring, raising questions about depth and offensive versatility.
And, look, UNC is a top 20 team and Indiana might be an NCAA Tournament team, so it’s not like these are horrible losses. They are a serious reality check, however.
Is Mike Hopkins on the hot seat?
Let’s shift to another Pac-12 team in Washington (a West Coast flavor to this Rauf Report!), and not for a good reason because the Huskies are on the fast track to finish last in the Pac-12 for the second consecutive year.
When Mike Hopkins was hired as head coach in 2017, the move was largely met with confusion since he had spent his entire playing and coaching career at Syracuse. Those concerns appeared to be put to bed the following season as he led Washington to a Pac-12 regular season title and an NCAA Tournament victory. Hopkins had also landed a highly touted recruiting class headed by five-star prospects Jaden McDaniels and Isaiah Stewart.
How quickly things can change.
Last year was a complete disaster for the Huskies as they went 15-17 overall, 5-13 in conference play, and finished last in the Pac-12 despite having all that talent. It was chalked up as a lost season derailed by chemistry issues and the midseason suspension of point guard Quade Green due to academic issues, but there was hope Hopkins could get this group back on the right track.
That … hasn’t happened.
Washington is currently 0-3 and has been blown out in all three games. One was expected (Baylor), one was disappointing (Utah), and one was downright embarrassing (UC Riverside). Naz Carter is currently suspended indefinitely for a student code of conduct violation, but he doesn’t make enough of difference to suddenly make Washington competitive in these games.
There’s no denying this program is in complete disarray. KenPom only predicts the Huskies will win five games this year, which would be their fewest since 1993-94. It may be too soon to let go of Hopkins just two years removed from a conference title, but this could get ugly enough that Washington will have no choice.
Duke’s biggest problem
Another year, another roster full of highly rated freshmen and high expectations for the Duke Blue Devils. Those expectations have been given a bit of a reality check through the first two games of the season as Duke has looked like what they are: an inexperienced team that hasn’t had the typical amount of time to come together.
The Blue Devils beat Coppin State by 10 points in their opener, as outstanding performances from Jalen Johnson and DJ Steward were somewhat overshadowed by them turning the ball over 22 times. Those freshmen got their first real test on Tuesday in the Champions Classic and didn’t look good as they shot just 32.3 percent from the floor.
I’m not concerned about the turnovers or poor shooting because a) this group will start playing more cohesively as they get more game experience together, and b) the Blue Devils missed a lot of open shots against Michigan State.
What I am concerned with, though, was the lack of leadership that was shown in the loss to the Spartans.
Duke led for almost the entire first half before Michigan State tightened the screws and fought back with a run of their own. Aaron Henry, Joey Hauser, and Rocket Watts answered the challenge and elevated their respective games, in turn elevating the team as a whole. It felt the like the Blue Devils were waiting for that in the second half — for someone to take the reins and lead a comeback effort. Except everyone was waiting. No one actually acted.
One of the selling points of this Duke team is that they had some experienced pieces to go along with their freshmen talent. Former five-star recruits Matthew Hurt and Wendell Moore returned for their sophomore seasons and senior Jordan Goldwire was expected to be their starting point guard. They were assumed to be the leaders yet, through two games, it’s clear all are more comfortable in their roles and aren’t the guys everyone can get behind (at least not until now).
Sometimes we see the freshmen with the biggest roles step into a leadership void, yet that didn’t happen either. Maybe they’re still deferring to the veterans, but we didn’t see Johnson or Steward step up either.
Duke is talented and they will get a lot better throughout the season. At the same time, they won’t reach their full potential and compete for a championship if a leader or two doesn’t step up.
Winthrop is a mid-major to monitor
Looking for a true mid-major to follow as a potential sleeper for your NCAA Tournament bracket? My preseason thoughts had me leaning towards Austin Peay (and I still really like the Govs) yet there’s no denying how impressive Winthrop has been through two games.
The Eagles are 2-0 with wins over the favorites to win the SoCon (UNC Greensboro) and the Sun Belt (Little Rock), building on an impressive 2019-20 campaign and living up to their 2020-21 expectations.
Head coach Pat Kelsey is one of the best mid-major coaches in the country and returned seven players who averaged at least 6.7 points per game from last year’s Big South champions. The Eagles are balanced, big, and deep, though no one is as important as guard Chandler Vaudrin.
The senior was Winthrop’s leader in minutes thanks to his versatility and steady presence in the backcourt. At 6-7 and 210 pounds, the senior is a matchup nightmare for opponents. He’s a solid scoring threat but is at his best creating for others. He averaged 5.8 assists per game a year ago (42nd nationally in assist rate) and has already dished out 15 assists with just two turnovers through two games. Vaudrin also rebounds well for a perimeter player and leads in scoring.
But he’s not their only “guy.” Big man D.J. Burns is a transfer from Tennessee who put up 19 points against Little Rock and excels on the block. Adonis Arms ranks 80th in the country in defensive rebound rate. The list goes on and on.
The Eagles should run away with the Big South given their talent, experience, and what is expected to be a down year from other potential contenders in the conference, so the expectation is that we see them in March. If we do, no higher seed wants to see themselves matched up against 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.