Rauf Report: Virginia’s defensive flaw, SEC struggles, and more weekend takeaways

We’re only five days into the 2020-21 college basketball season and the weekend brought three major upsets, one of which headlines our first weekend Rauf Report.

Villanova became the highest-ranked team to lose on Saturday night, falling 81-73 to Virginia Tech in overtime. The Wildcats looked dominant in their win over Arizona State on Thursday but were a different team just two days later. Villanova struggled shooting against an active Hokies defense and was diced up by Virginia Tech’s offensive execution. It was a game that reflected how good Virginia Tech is more than anything about Villanova.

That’s not the case for Kentucky, which became another top 10 team to fall when it was defeated by Richmond on Sunday. The Wildcats had their youth exposed by an experienced (and good) Richmond team that took advantage of Kentucky’s defensive lapses and simplistic offense at this point in the season. Kentucky will improve drastically as the season wears on and its young roster gets used to playing together, but its problems mirror the rest of the SEC (which we’ll talk about in a little).

But the most shocking upset was Virginia’s 61-60 loss to San Francisco, who had lost to UMass Lowell in their season opener. The Dons got red hot from three-point range and exposed a potential flaw in UVA’s usually rock-solid defense in the process.

That is where we start this Rauf Report, highlighting my biggest takeaways from the past weekend in college basketball:

Rauf 25: Gonzaga is clear No. 1
Stock Watch: Gonzaga, San Diego State surge

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Virginia’s biggest defensive flaw

Virginia has been among the nation’s best defensive teams on an annual basis since Tony Bennett took over as head coach. The Cavaliers have ranked in the nation’s top five in AdjD six of the last seven years, including each of the last four. They have even finished with the nation’s most efficient defense in two of the last three and currently lead the country in that category.

However, San Francisco exposed a potential weakness in this group during their upset victory.

The Dons spaced the floor with five 3-point shooters on the court, drawing Virginia’s defense away from the basket. This isn’t exactly a new philosophy, but not every team has the personnel to do this. Because San Francisco was hitting those shots at an absurd rate (13/28 from three on the game with five players making at least two), Virginia had to stretch its traditional “pack line” defense out further than what is usually comfortable.

Then, USF started hitting them with backdoor cuts — Just LOOK at how much space is available in the middle! — which caused UVA’s defense to retreat a bit and opened up more threes, and that cycle continued the entire second half.

This same thing was an issue for Virginia back during the 2015-16 season when they ranked 170th in three-point defense. Bennett tweaked his system and, after rising to 30th in 2016-17, has been in the top 10 each of the last three years. He’s a smart enough coach that he’ll find a way to tweak it again.

And it’s not like Virginia played a bad defensive game. The Wahoos still held the Dons to 61 points despite their three-point shooting and if they improve on what was a dismal offensive performance (expect to see a lot more Reece Beekman and Tomas Woldetensae), that’s still an easy win.

However, there’s now a blueprint on exploiting one of UVA’s struggles. Again, not every team will be able to take advantage, but there are teams more talented than San Francisco that will try.

Houston’s defense makes them top 10 caliber

Houston was ranked in the preseason top 20 because of the offensive capabilities, but it has been the defense through the first three games of the year that has been the most impressive part of its game.

The Cougars are giving up just 52 points per game, have not allowed anyone to score more than 58, and held Mountain West Preseason Player of the Year Derrick Alston Jr. scoreless in a double-digit win over Boise State.

Head coach Kelvin Sampson has designed this defense to collapse when the ball gets in the paint, then scrambling to recover quickly on kick outs. Here’s an example of how they cut off the paint to the ball and two cutters.

Because of their length, versatility, and quickness, Houston is excellent at actually being able to get out to shooters. Opponents are only shooting 12.8 percent from three against them so far this season. That, coupled with their aggressive nature on the perimeter — Houston has forced a turnover on 25.4 percent of their defensive possessions — is why they have performed so well on that end.

Of course, it’s easier to pressure the perimeter when there’s a big man defending the paint, and there were concerns about Houston’s frontcourt once Fabian White was lost for the season with a torn ACL. However, senior Brison Gresham (5.1 block rate) and freshman J’Wan Roberts (8.8 block rate) have excelled in their role as rim protectors.

It remains to be seen if they can keep this up but Houston’s three- and four-guard lineups increase the chances of this system’s success, and the Cougars are reaping the benefits so far.

SEC is struggling out of the gate

The SEC wasn’t expected to have a lot of top teams this season — Kentucky and Tennessee were the only ones ranked in the preseason top 25 — but was thought to have seven or eight potential NCAA Tournament teams. So far, none of those teams have performed well.

We highlighted Kentucky’s upset loss in the open, and any loss to an unranked team is disappointing when you’re expected to win a power conference. LSU lost to another Atlantic 10 team in Saint Louis and the Billikens didn’t even have two of their best players in Hasahn French and Fred Thatch. South Carolina was blown out by Liberty in its season opener while Auburn needed overtime to beat a bad Saint Joseph’s team, got smacked by Gonzaga, and may never have its best player as eligibility questions have kept five-star point guard Sharife Cooper off the court.

Alabama and Arkansas have taken care of business against lesser competition, but neither have given the conference a headlining win they can hang their hat on. Both Florida and Tennessee have yet to play due to COVID-19 protocols.

All the teams we mentioned are talented and have enough to win a game in the NCAA Tournament, but none have lived up to those expectations yet. Now it looks like the SEC might only get five or six teams in instead of the eight they desired.

A10 and WCC are top six conferences

While the SEC is struggling, a pair of non-power conferences have flashed their collective strength during the sport’s opening week.

The West Coast Conference has been a multi-bid league more often than not over the last decade thanks to Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s and it’s looking like it will be once again. Gonzaga is the clear No. 1 team in the country, which obviously carries a lot of weight. But the Gaels have a win over Northern Iowa, BYU is undefeated, San Francisco — a middling team in the WCC — beat Virginia, and Pepperdine — another middling team — took a ranked UCLA team to four overtimes.

The Atlantic 10 might have a better case top to bottom, however. Saint Louis and Richmond have those marquee victories over SEC teams while VCU has beaten Memphis and Utah State, and Rhode Island beat San Francisco. That doesn’t even mention Dayton, which has yet to play a game.

I received a number of questions in the first College Hoops Mailbag of the season asking if non-conference play mattered this year. This is why it does. Because of how well the A10 and WCC have performed, conference wins in each of those leagues will mean more than we may have otherwise thought. We wouldn’t have thought twice if BYU beat San Francisco but now BYU will have beaten a team that also beat the ACC favorite.

The ACC, Big 12, Big East, and Big Ten are the country’s top four conferences in some order — we know that. But after them, the A10 and WCC look to be stronger than the Pac-12 and maybe even the SEC.

Howard is not worth paying attention to

I’ll close with this note on Howard. It’s not one that’s fun to write but, based on what we’ve seen, Howard is not worth paying attention to despite the headlines they received this offseason.

Those headlines were warranted, too! Howard became the first HBCU to land a five-star prospect in Makur Maker and added a former power conference starter in Purdue transfer Nojel Eastern, significantly raising expectations for a team that finished 350th in KenPom a year ago.

But this season has already been a disappointment through three games. Losses to Belmont and George Mason weren’t exactly unexpected but the Bison looked like they didn’t belong. Alarm bells really went off against Queens, a Division-II school in Charlotte. Howard trailed for the final 37 minutes of the game and were down as many as 19 points in an 85-71 loss.

Things look like they may be getting worse, too. Eastern has yet to receive an eligibility waiver from the NCAA and Maker is out indefinitely to heal from a groin injury he suffered in the preseason.

“He’s really banged up, and we’re going to shut him down until he gets healthy because right now, he’s just not,” head coach Kenny Blakeney told The Washington Post prior to the George Mason loss. “He’s not able to move, and I don’t want him to be counterproductive right now.”

Maker wasn’t overly effective when he played, averaging just 11.5 points and six rebounds per game. There are already rumblings that he’s sitting out to preserve his draft stock, though that’s nothing but unsubstantiated rumors at this point. Either way, it’s not something you want around your program after three games.

I’m happy a player of Maker’s ilk chose to play for an HBCU and hope we continue to see them in the future. I think it adds a great element to college basketball. But this year’s Howard team just isn’t it. We’re seeing why they were so bad in 2019-20.

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.