Brian Rauf takes an in-depth look at St. Bonaventure’s weakness, UNC’s defensive struggles and more weekly college basketball takeaways.
The college basketball season is now in full swing with early-season multi-team events (MTEs) getting started. Those will dominate the next week and a half of action, but this week was headlined by the Gavitt Tipoff Games, featuring eight games between the Big Ten and Big East.
The event started in 2015 and had never been won by the Big East until this week. The Big East went 6-2 overall, highlighting some serious early struggles from the Big Ten.
For a conference that struggled so famously in last season’s NCAA Tournament, this is not the start it needed for its national perception.
We’ll touch on the Big Ten later in this Rauf Report, but we’ll start with a look at a conference that has outperformed expectations and is turning heads in a good way.
The WCC is legit
When casual college basketball fans come flying into our universe in January claiming Gonzaga can’t be the nation’s best team because it doesn’t play in a “real conference,” take that as confirmation that they don’t follow the sport closely or have any idea what’s going on.
Because, friends, the WCC is legit. The conference may have had the best opening week-and-a-half to the season of any league in America. Here are just some of the highlights:
Gonzaga is as good as advertised (if not better) and is the clear No. 1 team in the country. BYU — which has a dark-horse All-American candidate in Alex Barcello — has emerged as another top-15-caliber team after its 81-49 thrashing of Oregon.
San Francisco and Saint Mary’s are both KenPom top-50 teams at No. 34 and No. 48, respectively. Most impressively, no one in the conference has a losing record. The ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 can’t say that.
All of this propelled the WCC to be ranked as the nation’s No. 7 conference, per KenPom. In other words, it’s the best non-power conference in college basketball, ahead of others like the AAC, Atlantic 10 and Mountain West. This conference is good.
St. Bonaventure’s Achilles’ heel
From the nation’s best mid-major conference to the best non-Gonzaga mid-major team, St. Bonaventure has backed up their preseason Top 25 ranking with a 3-0 record, including a hard-fought 67-61 victory over a good Boise State team in the first round of the Charleston Classic.
The Bonnies will continue to be tested this weekend, facing off against Clemson on Friday and then against either Marquette or West Virginia on Saturday. We’ll know more about this group after that stretch, but there is one thing suggesting they might falter: 3-point shooting.
St. Bonaventure famously returned everyone from last year’s A10 championship team and, while very good, that team wasn’t perfect. It shot just 34.4 percent from three a year ago, which ranked 141st in the country.
So far this season, however, they’re shooting a lowly 21.7 percent from deep, which ranks 335th. Only two players — Jaren Holmes and Dominick Welch — have made more than one three.
It’s also not a huge part of their offense. The Bonnies have ranked near the bottom of the country in 3-point attempts over the last two seasons, which is both a good and bad thing.
On one hand, if a team struggles to shoot threes, it’s probably best if that it doesn’t shoot them at all. On the other hand, that means St. Bonaventure’s offense is compact and easier to defend.
Their weakness in that area hasn’t come back to bite them yet, but history tells us it will at some point. That’s something to monitor this weekend and moving forward with this group.
UNC’s defense might sink the Heels
North Carolina enters this weekend’s showdown with Purdue with an undefeated 3-0 record, yet getting to that point has been shaky, to say the least.
The Tar Heels trailed Brown for the vast majority of their game in Chapel Hill before squeaking out a 94-87 win. Their game against Charleston on Tuesday followed the same script. UNC didn’t have its first lead until the second half and the result was not determined until very late in a 94-83 win.
The biggest thing that probably stood out in that paragraph is that Carolina allowed a total of 170 points in two games against mid-major competition. And guess what? That’s a problem!
Opponents have been able to exploit UNC’s Swiss cheese-like perimeter defense with ease. Even though the Tar Heels have had size and athleticism advantages in the backcourt in each game they’ve played, they haven’t been cohesive enough to keep opponents out of the paint or aggressive enough to run them off the 3-point line.
Jordan Sperber showed two plays Brown ran late that were designed to take advantage of these problems. On both plays, there’s a drive with very little resistance until the ball-handler reaches the block, which is often too late. However, there’s an open shooter from three across the court due to a poor defensive rotation or a failure to fight through a screen.
A lot of that can be credited to poor defensive communication, which Charleston also exploited.
The numbers back up just how porous North Carolina has been. UNC ranks 200th in college basketball in 3-point defense, 351st in turnovers forced and in 111th adjusted defensive efficiency, which is 12th in the ACC.
Carolina’s schedule is only going to get more difficult, too. Its first real test comes Saturday against Purdue, which has the size to match UNC along with the athletes to penetrate their defense (hello, Jaden Ivey) and shooters to exploit slow rotations (41.7 percent as a team). The Heels host Michigan a week and a half later and play UCLA during their non-conference schedule. Even games against mid-majors of the college basketball world like Furman look questionable if Hubert Davis’ squad doesn’t improve on the defensive end.
That improvement — or lack thereof — will determine UNC’s ceiling this season.
Andre Curbelo can’t be “the guy” for Illinois
I told you we’d pick back up with the Big Ten!
Andre Curbelo is a really good player. He’s an exquisite playmaker who is also crafty around the rim and a pest defensively. Given how well he played during his freshman season, it was easy to project a breakout season as he stepped into a starting role.
He may very well be on his way to that, too, but his performance in Monday’s loss to Marquette made one thing very obvious — he simply can’t be “the guy” for the Illini.
Without Preseason Big Ten Player of the Year Kofi Cockburn, who was suspended for the first three games of the season due to the NCAA’s stupidity, Curbelo got his chance in the featured role without him in a game that mattered, and he showed he either isn’t ready for that role or can’t handle it.
He finished the game with 11 points on just 4-for-18 shooting with seven turnovers and several head-scratching decisions.
Since Curbelo isn’t a good shooter — he’s a 13.2-percent 3-point shooter in his college career — Marquette’s defense collapsed and threw multiple defenders at him when he drove into the lane. It’s a strategy that seemed to throw Curbelo off and forced him to make tough, quick decisions, which caused poor decisions.
Last season, Curbelo excelled when opponents threw multiple defenders at him, as that left an open player for him to find with a pass. This is where he excels. But with having to handle more of the scoring load without Cockburn, the decision wasn’t as easy as just finding the open man.
The good news for Illinois is that Cockburn is now back, taking much of that extra offensive burden. However, Curbelo will still be Illinois’ primary decision-maker and the one with the ball in his hands late in games — Ayo Dosunmu is no longer in Champaign to take over in those clutch situations. He may be better suited to play Robin to Cockburn’s Batman, which now puts more pressure on the junior big man to take his game to yet another level.
Maryland is overrated
There are nicer ways to say this, I’m sure, but it’s the truth. Maryland is simply not a Top 25-caliber college basketball team right now and continues to show that on a nightly basis.
After cruising past Quinnipiac in their season opener, the Terps have really struggled in their last three games. George Washington — picked to finish 13th in the 14-team Atlantic 10 — led Maryland at halftime and was within a possession in the game’s closing minutes. Vermont also led Maryland at halftime before faltering down the stretch.
George Mason, however, did not falter down the stretch. The Patriots jumped on Mark Turgeon’s squad early and kept it up all game, using their size and length to win the rebounding battle and outplay Maryland on the perimeter.
Maryland has been struggling on the perimeter in every game this year, and it came back to bite them against George Mason.
The Terps are shooting a lackluster 26.1 percent from three on the year, which ranks a lowly 288th nationally. On the other end, they’re allowing opponents to shoot 36.6 percent from distance (261st) and aren’t forcing turnovers (277th).
Now, Maryland is built to play inside-out given it only has three guards in the rotation, but the inability of any wing player to make a significant impact on the perimeter has severely hampered them. Turgeon’s lack of creativity on offense isn’t doing his team any favors, either. Possessions are often too stagnant with little to no ball movement, which Turgeon addressed prior to the George Mason loss. It’s clear what they worked on didn’t actually work, however.
A large part of Maryland’s success a year ago stemmed from the versatility of Eric Ayala, Darryl Morsell and Aaron Wiggins playing together. All are roughly the same size, which allowed the Terps to switch just about everything on the perimeter and exploit whichever one of them had a mismatch on the offensive end.
That element is gone now with Ayala and Fatts Russell. Both are fine players but neither is an efficient shooter or defensive stalwart, and Turgeon hasn’t adjusted.
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