The Rauf Report breaks down what’s behind Virginia’s struggles, Kansas’ most important player and more from the week of college basketball.
This college basketball season has been filled with more off-court drama than any in recent memory, with the notable exception of the whole FBI thing.
Between Texas firing Chris Beard following a domestic violence arrest (the charge has since been dropped), New Mexico State shutting down its program in the wake of numerous off-court incidents, and Alabama’s Darius Miles being arrested on a capital murder charge, there has been no shortage of news headlines coming from a sport that should be an escape.
Throw in this week’s revelations that fellow Alabama players Brandon Miller and Jaden Bradley may or may not have some involvement in the Miles case and… yeah, things are getting messy.
There are plenty of things that can be said on the Alabama matter, but I’m not a legal expert. I’m a college basketball writer. So, we’re going to get back to focusing on actual on-court matters in this Rauf Report — starting with a Virginia team struggling at the wrong time.
Virginia’s offense is putting its season in jeopardy
The Cavaliers were one of the biggest surprises of the nonconference portion of the season, going from unranked to top-five nationally in just a few short weeks. An unexpectedly efficient offense spurred that start, boosting a Virginia team that has run into its fair share of struggles on that end ever since winning the 2019 national championship.
Well, those struggles are rearing their ugly head again. The Wahoos have been downright dreadful on the offensive end this month, ranking among the worst teams nationally in efficiency, 3-point shooting and scoring. Their assist numbers are way down, too, and nothing is helped by UVA playing at an even slower tempo than normal.
The results reflect Virginia’s poor play. It has a combined scoring margin of minus-10 across its past three games — against Louisville, Notre Dame and Boston College, teams that are a combined 12-40 in ACC play. Tony Bennett’s squad ranks just inside the T-Rank top 100 for the month of February, coming in at 99th.
None of that is good!
It is important to note that Virginia does not have the personnel to be an explosive offensive team, and these struggles can be traced back to that. There are no consistent individual shot creators in this group, so the Cavs rely heavily on set plays and team connectivity to get good looks at the bucket.
That was fine earlier in the season when Virginia’s collective experience and continuity from last season gave them a major advantage. This team already knew how to play together; nearly everyone else was still figuring it out. But the Cavaliers were essentially playing at their max potential then — everyone else has caught up on both ends of the court.
Reece Beekman is the other factor in this. The junior was playing like an ACC Player of the Year candidate in November and was serving as the dynamic scorer this team needs. However, in the months since, he hasn’t scored more than 15 points in a game and hasn’t scored in double figures in 10 of the 19 contests he has played in.
Virginia is still in line for a high seed in the NCAA Tournament. Those elite nonconference wins still count, and the ACC isn’t strong enough to really punish the Cavs for this low level of play. But if the offense doesn’t get back on track in the next two weeks — and it doesn’t look like it will — Tony Bennett & Co. will be in for an early March Madness exit.
Gradey Dick determines Kansas’ ceiling
Offense has not been a problem for Kansas, who has already tied the record of Quadrant 1 wins in a season with 14. The Jayhawks have rebounded from last month’s three-game losing streak to win seven of their last eight games, with the only loss coming at Iowa State.
Jalen Wilson, who is likely the Big 12 Player of the Year, is unquestionably KU’s best player. But star freshman Gradey Dick may be proving himself as the most important. He has been the biggest barometer of Kansas’ success or failure.
When Dick plays well and shoots efficiently from the field, he gives the Jayhawks a second versatile scoring threat to really stress opposing defenses. When he’s off, there’s not another consistent scoring option stepping up, and KU has struggled. Here’s a look at Dick’s splits across wins and losses this season:
- Wins: 15.4 ppg, 47.0 FG%, 43.9 3P%
- Losses: 12.4 ppg, 35.8 FG%, 26.7 3P%
Dick’s 3-point shooting is the most important part of this equation. Kansas is an average shooting team from behind the arc, but he and Dajuan Harris are the only players with more than 10 attempts who are shooting over 34.3 percent. Harris does a lot of things well, but hunting his own shot is not one of them, so his relative reluctance puts the burden on Dick to stretch opponents. If the freshman isn’t hitting, Kansas becomes much easier to guard.
To his credit, Dick has been showing more and more of his offensive repertoire, attacking the basket at a higher level to keep defenses off balance. Mixing up his shots and getting better looks has allowed him to get into a more consistent rhythm, too.
Wilson is a star, but Dick is the player that will determine how far Kansas goes in the NCAA Tournament. If he continues playing at this high level, the Jayhawks have a real chance to repeat as national champs.
Justin Moore’s impact on Villanova
Justin Moore’s return from a ruptured Achilles he suffered last March has been a pleasant turn of events. There was some expectation that he’d have to miss the entire season, but his resurrection has been a welcome addition to a Villanova team struggling under first-year head coach Kyle Neptune.
The Wildcats desperately needed more offensive playmakers, so adding Moore at the end of January was almost a necessity if they were going to turn their season around. Moore has been productive, averaging 15.0 points and 3.6 rebounds in his last five games as Villanova went 4-1 over that stretch. Even with that production, his biggest impact has come on the defensive end.
In those last five games, Villanova’s defensive efficiency ranks 59th nationally. That’s a major jump from 142nd, which is where the Wildcats found themselves before this recent run.
Moore hasn’t turned Villanova back into the national power it was over the last decade, but the victory over Xavier on Tuesday showed a glimpse of what the Wildcats can be down the stretch. The senior scored 25 points on 10-of-13 shooting, and the defense held the Musketeers to a season-low 63 points.
No doubt, things are going to get tougher for Villanova down the stretch. Two of its last three games are home showdowns with Creighton and UConn, perhaps the two best teams in the league. That will tell us if this turnaround is for real or not. For now, the Xavier performance should give Wildcats fans hope.
UConn is back to being dangerous
Speaking of UConn, the Huskies are once again looking like one of the nation’s best teams.
Dan Hurley’s squad showed juggernaut tendencies in nonconference play but really struggled when it got into the depths of the Big East. Recently, though, UConn has found its way back, winning five of the last six games with the lone loss coming by three at Creighton.
It feels lackadaisical to say the Huskies are simply playing better. At the same time, it’s also true! Their numbers all took a major dip across the board in January, and all have swung back in the right direction since the calendar flipped to February:
There are several nuances to this turnaround. Adama Sanogo has played much better during the last six games. Jordan Hawkins and the rest of the backcourt have been much more consistent. Defensively, UConn’s intensity is back, and rotations are crisper.
Dealing with success can be tough for teams, and it felt like the Huskies collectively let their foot off the proverbial gas. Well, they’re ramping back up again and have a relatively easy close to the season. Their final three regular-season games are against teams in the bottom half of the conference.
UConn should head to Madison Square Garden with a ton of momentum.
North Texas is a legitimate at-large candidate
Conference USA has gotten more national attention than usual this season for a variety of reasons. The preseason hype surrounding UAB put the conference in the spotlight, which Florida Atlantic capitalized on with its 20-game win streak.
As long as the Owls take care of business in the next week, they’re likely a lock for the NCAA Tournament and would earn an at-large bid if they don’t win the C-USA Tournament.
However, they aren’t the only C-USA team in that boat — North Texas finds itself in the bubble conversation for a second consecutive season, too. A loss to Charlotte on Thursday hurt its chances, but no one is going to be punished that much for a Quad 2 loss.
As our bracketologist Lukas Harkins laid out in his latest Bubble Babble, the Mean Green have metrics that stack up favorably against many other bubble teams, particularly those from major conferences. If those teams near the cutline — North Carolina, Mississippi State, USC and others — don’t improve their respective resumes over the next two weeks, UNT has a real chance to sneak into the First Four.