Fallout from UCLA’s victory over Maryland and a look at some of the nation’s top guards highlight the Rauf Report’s biggest weekly takeaways.
The college basketball landscape was filled with more notable off-court happenings than on-court results this week, the contents of which caught virtually everyone by surprise.
Texas head coach Chris Beard was arrested on a felony charge of assaulting a family member early Monday morning, putting his coaching future in serious question. Then, on Wednesday, the IARP announced it was handing down minimal penalties on the Arizona basketball program, ending the NCAA’s investigation that stemmed from the FBI corruption case.
The Wildcats will only lose one scholarship next season and have seven weeks where they can’t call or text recruits, and that’s pretty much it. Oh, and a $5,000 fine. The IARP accepted the school’s self-imposed postseason ban during the 2020-21 season, a season in which the team likely wouldn’t have been selected for the NCAA Tournament anyways.
Former head coach Sean Miller, now in the same position at Xavier, did not receive any punishment.
Those punishments are indicative of an investigation that found little substance behind the claims of the FBI in the initial investigation. Former Arizona assistant Book Richardson is one of the assistants that went to prison as a result of the FBI investigation. The NCAA’s Notice of Allegations included accusations of fake transcripts and coaches accepting cash bribes, while other reports indicated Miller was paying recruits – most notably Deandre Ayton and Rawle Alkins. None of that is apparently as serious as what the IARP/NCAA’s investigation found or was able to prove.
Except for the fact that Richardson received a 10-year show cause penalty from the NCAA while fellow assistant Mark Phelps received a two-year show cause penalty.
If Arizona and Sean Miller are completely innocent and vindicated, why such harsh penalties for the assistants? Those punishments to Richardson and Phelps are essentially admissions that wrongdoing did occur. How does Miller, the man in charge, skate free when that’s the case?
The whole FBI investigation and the fallout from it has been a complete sham. I’m glad Arizona didn’t receive stiffer punishment, because that would have an adverse affect on the players and staff there now who had nothing to do with what happened under the previous regime.
I’ve stopped trying to rationalize the way the NCAA hands out punishment because there isn’t any. The Notice of Allegations received by Oklahoma State were significantly less severe than what Arizona received, yet the Cowboys received harsher penalties. Why? How?
Oklahoma State’s punishment was handed down directly from the NCAA, figuring their cooperation would help them out. That wasn’t the case. The IARP has been lighter with punishments now on every case it has ruled on (Arizona, Louisville, Memphis and NC State), which now is a good sign if you’re a fan of Kansas, LSU or Louisville, which is waiting on its own ruling as a result of the FBI situation.
Cardinals fans aren’t thinking about that, though, as their team finally experienced some on-court success. Kenny Payne’s squad picked up its first win of the season against Western Kentucky on Wednesday, leaving Cal as the only remaining winless team in the country.
However, that wasn’t the most alarming scoreline of Wednesday night’s action. That belongs to UCLA and Maryland, where the Bruins led by as many as 38 points in the second half of a top-20 showdown.
We’ll get into this week’s Rauf Report with a simply question: just how good is UCLA?
What should we make of UCLA’s start?
It should go without saying that beating a top-20 team on the road by 27 points is a statement victory, especially when it wasn’t caused by a stellar individual performance (i.e., someone just got incredibly hot).
The Bruins were incredibly balanced. Four players scored at least 14 points, four players had multiple assists, four players had multiple steals and so on. This was a true team beatdown in a way that showed the class of this UCLA squad.
So why hadn’t we seen this before and why haven’t we been viewing this UCLA team as one of the better teams in the country?
This was the team’s first notable test since the Main Event played in Las Vegas the week before Thanksgiving. There, the Bruins lost to both Illinois and Baylor, finishing last in the four-team field (Virginia won the MTE). And, as good of an offensive showing as they put on against Maryland, the improvement defensively was notable.
In those games against Illinois and Baylor, UCLA gave up 79.5 points per game while allowing them to shoot a combined 48.6 percent from the field and 41.5 percent from three.
In the other nine games — including victories over Stanford, Oregon and Maryland — the Bruins have allowed just 59.3 points per game on 41.8 percent shooting, including limiting opponents to 28.1 percent shooting from three.
It’s easy to say that UCLA simply had a bad weekend in Vegas and that may be true. It’s also easy to say the Bruins have struggled against the best teams they’ve played, which also may be true. The victory over Maryland looks like the first step in proving the former to be true over the latter, but Saturday’s showdown with Kentucky might be the most crucial data point.
Kevin Willard’s regression pattern
The flipside of that UCLA-Maryland result is wondering how good of a team Maryland actually is. The Terps were a tremendous story in November, dominating Saint Louis and Miami before beating Illinois in its Big Ten opener. That victory over the Illini looked to prove that Maryland was legit.
Kevin Willard’s squad hasn’t won a game since then. Competition has increased and some of the losses have been close (lost by five at Wisconsin and by three to Tennessee) yet Maryland trailed by double digits in all three games – and by at least 21 points in two of them.
This swoon could be somewhat expected given preseason thoughts about the Terps. A lack of depth and proven scoring options had them projected to finish near the bottom of the Big Ten, both things they were able to overcome early and are hurting them recently.
Yet regressing after a strong start is also something that Kevin Willard teams have done historically.
Willard has won at least 20 games every season since 2015-16 going back to his time with Seton Hall, with the lone exception being the COVID-shortened 2020-21 season. However, in every single one of those seasons, a strong start was followed by a dismal stretch of at least 10 games.
- 2015-16: Started 12-2, went 5-5 in next 10 games
- 2016-17: Started 10-2, went 6-8 in next 14 games
- 2017-18: Started 14-2, went 3-7 in next 10 games
- 2018-19: Started 11-3, went 5-9 in next 14 games
- 2019-20: Started 16-4, went 5-5 in final 10 games
- 2020-21: Started 8-4, went 6-9 in final 15 games
- 2021-22: Started 9-1, went 6-8 in next 14 games
- 2022-23: Started 8-0, 0-3 since
That said, Willard’s history shows us that more struggles might be on the horizon before Maryland is able to get back on track.
Kendric Davis can be a March superstar
The other game of the week had Memphis going to Tuscaloosa to take on an Alabama team that just beat Houston on the road. Alabama did extend its winning streak, but it was clear that Kendric Davis was the best player on the court.
The fifth-year senior dominated virtually every aspect of the game. He finished with 30 points, five assists and four steals, showcasing absurd vision and incredible finishes at the rim along the way.
It was the kind of in-game mastery that allowed Davis to control the entire game. Memphis ended up losing because it shot 1-of-12 from three — an issue this season — with DeAndre Williams fouling out and Davis missing the end of the game with a rolled ankle. But there’s a decent chance the result would’ve been different had Davis stayed on the court.
I don’t think there’s any singular great team in college basketball this season. There are a lot of good teams but there doesn’t appear to be any elite teams, or even an elite tier. The landscape appears to be similar to the 2010-11 and 2013-14 seasons when UConn won national championships because of how dominant Kemba Walker and Shabazz Napier were individually. It feels like a season in which we have another individual superhero.
Davis’ performance against the Crimson Tide reminded me of the way Walker and Napier controlled games during both of those runs. Considering guard play is down across the country as well, he gives Memphis a major advantage in every single game it plays.
Barring some kind of collapse in conference play, the Tigers are poised to return to the NCAA Tournament. Once there, the ability Davis has shown could take them a long way.
NC State’s backcourt is breathing life into the Wolfpack
It’s hard to find bright spots in what has been a dismal nonconference performance for the ACC, but NC State has been a nice surprise. The Wolfpack hung with Kansas at the Battle 4 Atlantis before knocking off Dayton and Butler, and they blew out a quality Furman team on Tuesday.
Kevin Keatts’ squad is sitting at 9-3 on the season, nearly having reached last season’s win total (11) by mid-December. The three-guard attack of Jarkel Joiner, Casey Morsell and Terquavion Smith has allowed the Wolfpack to play the kind of up-tempo, perimeter-oriented game that Keatts wants and their effectiveness has directly translated to an increase in team success.
Smith’s decision to spurn the NBA Draft – despite potentially being a first-round pick – to come back for his sophomore season automatically gave NC State a projected star, and he has delivered. His ability to score from all three levels is what enticed NBA scouts – he’s second in the ACC in scoring (18.3 ppg) and has increased his efficiency from last season – but Smith also currently leads the conference in assists with 5.5 per game.
Joiner has taken a step forward, too, averaging a career-high 17 points per game after transferring in from Ole Miss. Morsell, once maligned for inefficient and unproductive play during his two seasons with Virginia, is shooting 50 percent from the field and 47.8 percent from three.
Those three combine for nearly 50 points per game. All have the ability to break down a defense, all can score from all three levels and both Smith and Joiner excel at creating for others, too.
This trio is incredibly tough to stop and are the reason why NC State is having a bounceback season – one that could lead to an NCAA Tournament bid for the first time since 2018, Keatts’ first season in charge.
Daniss Jenkins has Iona as scary as ever
While we’re on the topic of guards, we need to talk about one that’s not getting enough attention: Iona’s Daniss Jenkins.
The Gaels have risen to No. 57 in KenPom’s rankings during a five-game win streak that includes victories over Saint Louis, St. Bonaventure and Princeton, which is the program’s highest mark since Rick Pitino took over as head coach.
Iona has been very dangerous under Pitino, nearly upsetting Alabama in the first round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament before beating the Crimson Tide last Thanksgiving and winning the 2021-22 MAAC regular season title, but this group is different. It’s balanced on both ends of the floor, ranking top 65 nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency with a roster that’s built to attack from everywhere.
Nelly Junior Joseph, a first team All-MAAC performer a season ago, has been paired with 7-foot center Osborn Shema inside, giving them a quality frontcourt. Walter Clayton has taken a step forward after being a MAAC All-Rookie selection last season, too, yet Jenkins is what makes everything go.
Pitino told me for The Almanac that Jenkins had a chance to be the best JUCO player he has ever coached, and Jenkins is living up to the hype. He leads the team in both scoring (17.9 ppg) and assists (4.9 apg), ranking second and first in the MAAC in each category, respectively. The 6-3, 175-pounder has scored at least 20 points in four of his last seven games and has done so efficiently, shooting 47.1 percent from the floor and 41.2 percent from three.
Having that high-level production on the perimeter, coupled with quality interior play, makes Iona has scary for opponents as it has been under Pitino. The Gaels have their biggest remaining test of the regular season on Sunday when they face Richard Pitino and undefeated New Mexico in Albuquerque. If they pull the upset, Jenkins will be the biggest reason why.