Brian Rauf takes an in-depth look at Villanova, Gonzaga, the ACC and more as he recaps the top college basketball takeaways of the weekend.
The first college basketball weekend of the season was highlighted by two late-night top-5 matchups: UCLA-Villanova and Gonzaga-Texas. The slate was otherwise relatively light — as it tends to be during the stretch run of the college football season — but those two games lived up to the billing.
To accommodate TV schedules, these matchups tipped at 11:30 p.m. ET on Friday and 10:30 p.m. ET on Saturday, respectively, which was a shame. Although both games were held on the West Coast, they represented missed opportunities for the sport. Many complain that not enough people pay attention to the college basketball regular season, and two great games like these would’ve done a lot more for the sport had they been in a time slot where more people could watch.
Those who did watch were treated to an overtime thriller between UCLA and Villanova and a National Player of the Year-caliber performance from Gonzaga’s Drew Timme.
Voted as the preseason favorite for that honor, Timme responded to Paolo Banchero‘s stellar performance for Duke in the Champions Classic with 37 points, seven rebounds and three assists against Texas.
It was the kind of dominant performance from Timme — against a top-5 team with very good big men — that sent a message nationally. This National Player of the Year race isn’t a race until he lets others into the mix. He’s the most dominant player in the country on what looks like the best team in the country.
Gonzaga certainly validated its No. 1 ranking with a dominant win over the Longhorns that showed the Zags are well-rounded. That’s where we start this week’s Rauf Report.
Gonzaga’s a complete team
Gonzaga’s offense gets notoriety as the strength of Mark Few’s team, and for good reason. The Bulldogs are on pace to have the nation’s best offense, per KenPom, for the fourth consecutive season, something that hasn’t been done in the analytics era.
But Gonzaga’s dominance and efficiency on the offensive end shouldn’t distract from the fact this is a really good defensive team, too. The Zags have finished as a top-20 defense in six of the last eight seasons, yet this might be Few’s best defensive team since the 2016-17 team that reached the national championship game.
The Bulldogs followed a stellar defensive outing against Dixie State with an even better one against Texas, holding the Longhorns to 37.5-percent shooting from three and forcing 11 turnovers.
Gonzaga put pressure on the ball, was crisp with its rotations, and tried to funnel everything to Chet Holmgren on the inside. The top freshman in the 2021 recruiting class is an elite shot-blocker with a 7-foot-7 wingspan and serves as a deterrent as much as anything else.
The result was a hesitant Texas team around the rim — it wasn’t until Holmgren was in foul trouble in the second half that the Longhorns were able to find any kind of consistent offense.
Playing with an elite rim protector on the inside allows Gonzaga to play more aggressively on the perimeter because of protection if the man drives. Now, it has only been two games, but Gonzaga’s defense is seeing the positive dividends of that style.
If they’re able to keep this up, along with what we know we can expect from them on offense, the Zags could be playing for another national title.
We got ahead of ourselves with Texas
Texas has a really strong roster and the Longhorns are already a quality team. I still believe they will be a great team by the end of the season, but Saturday night’s loss to Gonzaga hammered home the fact they’re not to that point quite yet.
The excitement surrounding the Longhorns coming into the season centered around the transfers Chris Beard welcome. He brought in a lot of them, too.
This game served as a reminder that it takes time for a new group to come together, especially in a new system under a new coach.
Texas went with a nine-man rotation and split shot attempts relatively evenly among them with the exception of Marcus Carr and Timmy Allen taking 13 and 12, respectively. It very much felt like they were not trying to step on anyone’s toes and it resulted in lacking aggression. Their roles still have not been defined and it kept the offense from flowing as crisply as the Longhorns would’ve liked.
“I wish we would’ve put a better product on the court for all college basketball fans tonight,” Beard told reporters after the loss. “I did think we played with a lot of grit in the second half and established some things that we certainly want to continue to establish as our journey continues, but just congratulate Gonzaga on an early-season, really good win.”
The good news for Texas is that this team has the right mindset, to which Beard alluded. They were unselfish to a fault for much of the game which, in a strange way, does show that everyone is buying in. They also hung tough in the second half and fought back to make it something of a game, cutting the lead to as few as 11 points.
Texas will be fine. This is a long season and as Beard said, there’s a lot they learned about themselves from this game. But it’s going to take a few months to build up to playing like the national title contender we expected them to be coming into the season.
The Wildcats performed well in Friday night’s overtime loss to UCLA, solidifying themselves as one of the nation’s top teams while simultaneously reinforcing my belief that this group isn’t capable of winning the national title.
Let’s start with the good: Villanova led by as many as 10 points in the second half against the No. 2 team in the country behind stellar ball movement, 3-point shooting and crisp defensive rotations. The Wildcats are one of the most well-coached teams out there, as one would expect given their collective experience.
However, Villanova’s collapse was caused by three issues that will plague them all season because there are no obvious fixes.
Now, those six are great. Collin Gillespie is a reigning Big East Player of the Year, Justin Moore is a stud, Jermaine Samuels is a pro, etc. But no matter how good those six are, they will likely tire when forced to play extended minutes. That’s exactly what happened against UCLA, and the Bruins were able to take advantage of a slightly slower, slightly less crisp Villanova team down the stretch.
The second is a lack of size. Eric Dixon is the only interior player in the six-man rotation, and he’s not exactly a giant at 6-8. Villanova has never exactly been reliant on big men throughout the Jay Wright era — his teams have always been guard-dominant and perimeter-centric — yet his best teams have typically had a big man or two who could hold their own on the glass and provide some sort of rim protection. Dixon is a fine player, but he’s not good enough to be a championship team’s sole source of production in those areas.
Villanova ranks outside the top 220 in rebounding rate, outside the top 300 in block rate, and are currently shooting worse at the rim (48.8 percent) than they are from three-point range (50 percent). All those things can be directly tied to a lack of size and contributed to Friday’s loss.
UCLA won the rebounding battle 46-32, blocked four shots (Villanova had zero blocks) and held the Wildcats to 38.6-percent shooting on 2-pointers.
The last of the issues is the roster’s lack of players who can create shots. Wright’s offensive system is a beautiful and effective sequence of drive-and-kicks and extra passes, but when Villanova needs a bucket, they don’t have that guy who can go get one. There is no Jalen Brunson, Josh Hart or Donte DiVincenzo on this roster.
Gillespie is a very smart and effective player but is not someone who can break down a defense off the dribble. Both he and Moore will try to go to the post in these situations — they’re bigger guards and putting them in advantageous positions down low invert Villanova’s offense — but that can be unsuccessful against larger opponents like UCLA.
Because of their struggles in this area, the Wildcats only shot 4-for-20 from the field over the game’s final 12:30 (7:30 of regulation and 5:00 of overtime).
Could some of that be caused by fatigue? Probably. But none of those looks were clean or high-percentage shots because no one could create offensively.
I don’t say all this to conclude Villanova is an incapable team. They’re not — they’re really, really good. This team doesn’t overwhelm you with talent but has an elite level of skill and does all the little things incredibly well.
At the same time, when you’re splitting hairs at the top of the sport like we were on Friday night, everything matters: Villanova has enough weaknesses that it lowers its ceiling below other teams at the top of the polls.
It has been a few years now since the ACC has been as dominant as normal. Through six days of action, this could be another down year for the conference.
This was one of the resounding sentiments from opening night when Georgia Tech, Pitt and Virginia lost to Miami (OH), The Citadel and Navy, respectively. Then, this weekend, Louisville fell at home to Furman while Miami was dropped by UCF and Florida State lost convincingly to Florida.
The conference’s struggles haven’t just been limited to its middle tier, either. Those are the major losses the conference has suffered, but just about everyone has had close calls.
North Carolina trailed Brown for a majority of its game and only led by three in the final minute. NC State survived an upset scare against Colgate, winning just 77-74. Clemson needed a late three from Al-Amir Dawes to get past Wofford after trailing by as many as 11 points against Presbyterian.
Even Duke — which has the very impressive win over Kentucky — only led Campbell by six with just over seven minutes to play.
We’ve seen inconsistent play across the country to start the season but no power conference has looked as shaky as the ACC.
Seton Hall’s defense might be special
The Ivy League has been one of those conferences putting forth extremely positive performances during the season’s first week. As such, there was a thought that Ivy-favorite Yale could play spoiler in their Sunday matchup at Seton Hall.
The Pirates never let that notion get off the ground.
Seton Hall dominated from start to finish in an 80-44 victory over the Bulldogs, holding their hyper-efficient offense to just 24-percent shooting, including 13.3 percent from three-point range. Through two games, Kevin Willard‘s squad has held both their opponents below 50 points and less than 30-percent shooting. That’s patently absurd.
Willard’s teams in Newark have been known for their defense throughout his 12 years there, yet this group has the tools to be his best yet. They’re sizable (22nd in average height) with three rotation players standing 6-10 or taller and have a myriad of wings in the 6-5/6-6 range. That interchangeability allows Seton Hall to switch everything on the perimeter and it’s giving opponents fits.
Now, there’s a difference between putting up elite defensive performances against the Fairleigh Dickinsons and Yales of the world and doing so against top competition, which the Pirates will face next. They will face Michigan in Ann Arbor on Tuesday and then Ohio State in the first round of the Fort Myers Tip-Off.
We’ll find out how legitimate this group is over the course of the next week but the Pirates are performing at an elite level to start the season. Seton Hall has the makings of a special defensive team.