The Rauf Report details the biggest college basketball takeaways from the week, including UConn’s struggles and Kofi Cockburn’s stellar play.
Welcome to February, where the college basketball takeaways and games alike become all the more meaningful. Only one NFL game is left on the calendar, meaning this week is the first time college hoops has been the top sport on everyone’s minds (and that will only increase after the Super Bowl).
For some teams, this is a good thing! We’ve discussed the rise of teams like Kentucky, Marquette and Providence in past Rauf Report columns, and all of them will start getting more rightful attention.
For others, nothing changes. Auburn and Gonzaga are still trying to remain atop the polls while only really needing to prove themselves in the NCAA Tournament. The same goes for squads like Duke and Kansas.
Yet for some, the spotlight may expose some warts that had previously been kept under wraps. The UConn Huskies are one of those teams that may start sliding down the polls as some of their weaknesses become more apparent in the coming weeks. Here’s why:
UConn is overrated
It’s time we started to talk about the UConn Huskies. There have been so many other storylines in the Big East from Villanova’s non-conference struggles to Seton Hall’s up-and-down season to Marquette’s surge to Providence becoming the favorite in the conference that Dan Hurley’s squad has largely flown under the radar.
One of the biggest reasons for that is their schedule hasn’t been a gauntlet providing high-profile matchups. The Huskies haven’t appeared in a marquee game since the Battle 4 Atlantis back in November.
Part of that is a result of the 274th-toughest nonconference schedule and part is due to most of UConn’s games against the Big East’s better teams are still to come.
As a result, half of its games have come against teams currently ranked in the KenPom top 100 with the other half, obviously, below (six of those 10 below are against teams ranked below 240th).
This is not a section dedicated to saying UConn hasn’t played anyone, because that’s just not true. The Huskies are still the only team with a victory over Auburn, which is huge.
But context matters when discussing UConn’s play so far this season. Hurley’s squad is a consensus top 20 team that is ranked highly in most quality metrics, which works as further justification as to why they’re ranked where they are in the AP poll.
However, it’s safe to say those numbers are inflated because of the schedule the Huskies have faced to this point.
The areas UConn ranks the best — offensive rebounding rate (2nd nationally), effective field goal percentage defense (12th), turnover rate (top 100 in both committed and forced) — are all massively inflated because of the way the Huskies played against lesser competition. The gap in UConn’s offensive rating (ORtg) and defensive rating (DRtg) should be very telling in that regard.
The Huskies have handled lesser competition the way you’d expect a top 20 team to while, at the same time, not having the kind of success you’d expect against teams in the NCAA Tournament or even NIT mix (i.e., the top 100 is not a high bar to clear).
I will say that, as those numbers against top 100 teams indicate, all 10 of those games have been close. The five losses were all by four points or fewer and three of the five wins were in overtime. It doesn’t seem to matter if that top 100 team is good or great, UConn will play it close.
Digging a little deeper reveals that the Huskies are 2-4 in Quad 1 opportunities. There’s the Auburn win — which I don’t want to completely gloss over — and a 78-70 win over Marquette before the Golden Eagles got hot. Outside of that, this team simply hasn’t shown us a whole lot.
Here’s why this matters: a backslide could be coming. Remember that backloaded Big East schedule I mentioned? Of the 10 remaining regular season games that are left on UConn’s schedule, eight are against the KenPom top 100 with six coming against the top 50. They still have to face Villanova and Xavier twice each.
We will learn how good the Huskies actually are over the next month, but their play so far indicates a drastic cool down may be coming.
Kofi Cockburn‘s National Player of the Year statement
Wisconsin’s Johnny Davis was the clear frontrunner for National Player of the Year just a few weeks ago, but some cold shooting over the last few weeks has made the race wide open again.
Davis is still right at the forefront of the race alongside Kansas’ Ochai Agbaji and Purdue’s Jaden Ivey, among others, but everyone might be trying to catch Kofi Cockburn now.
The Illinois junior has been stellar all season long and put on a historical performance on Wednesday when Davis and those Badgers came to town.
Posting big numbers isn’t anything new for the big 7-foot, 285-pounder. He’s averaging 22.1 points and 11.6 rebounds per game — both of which are up from his All-American sophomore season — on 61.1 percent shooting. Those numbers on their own would warrant Player of the Year consideration, but the impact he has on the Illini when he’s on the court is a separating factor.
When Illinois has its star to run its offense through, it has shown the ability to play with anyone in the country. When he’s not on the court, though, Illinois’ offense is much easier to defend, which makes the Illini much more beatable.
There is still a month left in the season, so obviously things can (and likely will) change before conference tournament time starts. But, right now, Cockburn is the man to beat in the NPOY race.
ACC continues to shoot itself in the foot
College basketball is better when the ACC is good, but we know that’s not the case right now. What’s alarming for the conference, though, is that the handful of teams in contention for a bid aren’t doing themselves any favors.
Duke remains the only ACC team that is ranked in the AP top 25 — no one else has been ranked for roughly a month — and are safely in the tournament field at this time. Coach K’s squad is a legit Final Four favorite.
Miami, which was leading the Blue Devils in the ACC standings at the start of the week, lost to Notre Dame and is now just 3-3 in its last six games. The Canes do have an easier schedule the rest of the way yet, at the same time, that means no more quality wins available for them — only results that could hurt its already bubbly resume.
Elsewhere, things don’t look good, either. Florida State has lost three games in a row (Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, Clemson) and is now just 8-8 against the first three quadrants. The Noles are officially off the bubble.
Wake Forest is currently 44th in the NET rankings but is just 3-5 against Quads 1 and 2. Notre Dame is rising up the ACC standings but its just 70th in the NET with a 5-6 mark against Quads 1 and 2, and the Irish have a Q3 loss to Boston College.
Even North Carolina, thought to be the league’s second-most likely bid behind its in-state rival, are just 35th in NET and have yet to pick up a Q1 win.
HeatCheckCBB bracketologist Lukas Harkins has four ACC teams in the field of 68 in his most recent bracketology update, but everyone besides Duke is considered very much on the bubble. Four bids might be the max for the conference this season.
Arizona-UCLA series has been great for college basketball
Pac-12 basketball is meaningful again, and that’s something both the sport and the Pac-12 needed.
Arizona and UCLA have both proven themselves to be top 10 teams nationally without much debate. The Wildcats are 18-2 with impressive wins over Illinois and now UCLA on Thursday, while the Bruins are 16-3 with an elite victory over Villanova and, of course, over Arizona in their first meeting a week and a half ago.
There are a few layers to this that make it important. This is the first time the Pac-12 has had two teams of this quality since the 2016-17 season when Lonzo Ball was suiting up for the Bruins and Oregon made it to the Final Four. So, it has been a while.
But the fact it’s the conference’s two biggest basketball brands and most storied programs playing this way at the same time makes it special. All due respect, but Washington State-Oregon State wouldn’t have the same cache in the same way Pitt-Virginia doesn’t carry the same weight as Duke-UNC.
When the elite programs are playing at an elite level, it just feels different. It’s an event — not a basketball game.
We also had these two playing their season series in just a week and a half, which really increased the intensity level both on the court and in the crowd. And we had a start time that was actually in prime time (8:00 pm ET) and not at a time when a majority of the country is asleep.
These two have made Pac-12 basketball meaningful nationally again and provided us with two quality games during this stretch, which they rightfully split. Here’s to hoping we get a third in the Pac-12 Tournament title game.
An elite tier is emerging
One of the major themes that came out of the season’s first couple of months is that no one was untouchable in the way Baylor and Gonzaga were a season ago. Those two were the clear top two and everyone else was playing for third.
In January, however, Auburn and Gonzaga have emerged as that untouchable duo atop the polls.
The Tigers have won 18 straight games since that double overtime loss to UConn and have answered questions about their guard play in the process.
Wendell Green Jr. stepped up and had 23 points, seven rebounds, and six assists off the bench against Alabama’s great backcourt this week. We know KD Johnson can fill it up, as he has eight straight games with at least 12 points.
On the Gonzaga side of things, it is turning the ball over less, shooting 3s better (37.8 percent, 19th in the country), and star freshman Chet Holmgren is settling into his own (second nationally in true shooting percentage, third in effective field goal percentage, 16th in block rate).
We discussed the growth of these two teams and if they are truly in a tier of their own on this week’s episode of Hope & Rauf presented by HeatCheckCBB, which you can listen to below.