Let’s start the new year off right with a brand new Rauf Report!

It’s been over a week since I’ve written one of these because of the holidays and time spent with family, but I’m ready to get back at it. There was a lot that was missed during that time and, while we’re not going to get into everything, there was one big resounding takeaway from last weekend.

I tweeted this during Gonzaga’s blowout victory over Virginia and it’s something that gets reiterated every time the Bulldogs take the court. Mark Few’s squad is simply on another level than everyone else.

That game was the last the Zags will play against a power conference opponent until the postseason, so we’re not going to hear about them as much over the next two months. They will still play solid competition every now and again — BYU, Saint Mary’s, and San Francisco are all quality teams that rank in the KenPom top 75 — but they’re projected to win every WCC game by at least double digits. As such, it felt like a point worth mentioning (again) and I will continue to beat that drum until they’re cutting down the nets in Indianapolis.

What were my other biggest takeaways from the past week in college basketball? Let’s start this Rauf Report with the ACC continuing to disappoint.

Arizona’s self-imposed postseason ban
Chattanooga’s versatility, perseverance
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The ACC might be worse than it was last year

Remember last season when it looked like the ACC was only going to send four teams to the NCAA Tournament (if it had been played) and we all kind of joked it off, chalked it up as a down year, and expected a return to dominance in 2020-21?

I was chief among those claiming that, highlighting Virginia’s returners, strong recruiting classes at Duke, UNC, and Florida State, and a strong middle class.

Well, as we start 2021, there is a legitimate chance the conference might be worse than it was a year ago.

The aforementioned Virginia Cavaliers have a loss to San Francisco on their resume, needed overtime to beat Kent State, and were mollywhopped by Gonzaga. It’s clear they’re not in the elite tier of teams as even their defense has taken a step back.

Duke’s in the same boat, having been blown out by Illinois after losing to a struggling Michigan State team (more on them later). Louisville almost lost to Wisconsin by 40. North Carolina, whose last place finish was written off as a one-off poor season, is now 5-4 and 0-2 in conference play, the first time they’ve started 0-2 in the ACC since they went 8-20 in 2001-02. Florida State, last year’s conference champions, have lost two of their last three games to UCF and Clemson.

Clemson epitomizes what has been a strength of the conference: the middle class. The Tigers were picked to finish in the bottom half of the ACC, as was Virginia Tech. The Hokies are ranked and the Tigers will be as well, having posted a 7-1 record with wins over Purdue, Maryland, Alabama, and FSU. A resurgent Georgia Tech team is 5-1 since they started practicing with contact (they opened with losses to Georgia State and Mercer) while NC State’s lone loss came in a shorthanded effort at Saint Louis.

With that being said, the ACC did not become perhaps college basketball’s premier conference because of their middle class. That plays a part of it, sure, but it usually boasts a number of truly elite Final Four contenders on an annual basis, and the conference simply does not have even one of those this season.

Efficiency numbers back up that claim, too. Despite the shortage of elite teams at the top of the conference last season, there were still three ACC teams (Duke, Louisville, Florida State) that ranked in the top 15 nationally in adjusted efficiency margin. This season, only Duke falls in that category at No. 14. Almost all the teams predicted to be at the top of the conference have struggled more than last season.

Stats via KenPom.com

Other top conferences — namely the Pac-12 and SEC — are struggling this season as well, so the ACC’s standing from a pecking-order perspective won’t be all that different than what we thought in the preseason. At the same time, there doesn’t appear to be a title contender or even a Final Four contender in the conference. Heck, how many are going to make the Sweet 16?

The Pac-12 and SEC are most likely to receive the brunt of the “down year for the conference” national narrative, but the ACC is struggling just as much.

Auburn’s Justin Powell is next season’s star to know now

Auburn is not a very good basketball team this year and they probably won’t turn into one. Bruce Pearl’s squad is talented, but they’re young and area year away from really being able to compete at the top of the SEC, especially without five-star guard Sharife Cooper. This is a rebuilding year in every sense.

However, they have already found their leader in freshman Justin Powell.

The 6-6, 205-pounder was not a highly rated recruit, checking in at No. 179 overall in the 247sports Composite Rankings. He wasn’t expected to play a large role but was thrown into the rotation with Cooper having been ruled ineligible, and he has responded in the biggest way possible.

Powell is Auburn’s leader in points, rebounds, and assists through the season’s first nine games, showcasing flashes of dominance in each area. He posted back-to-back 26-point games earlier this season against South Alabama and Memphis (which has a top 12 defense, per KenPom), guiding the Tigers to wins in both. Against the Tigers, Powell displayed his ability to score at all three levels.

Now being forced to play more point guard in Cooper’s absence, Powell has shown great playmaking ability and vision. He tied a career high with nine assists in Auburn’s SEC opener against Arkansas with an entertaining display of drive-and-kick playmaking and crafty passing.

Consistency has been the only thing escaping Powell, but that is to be expected of any freshman, let alone one that is playing a bigger role than expected. He only has four games in double figure scoring and can struggle with turnovers and shot selection.

But that is why this is about next season.

That consistency should come with experience and what should be a full offseason of normal, non-COVID-restricted work (we hope, for all of us). Powell will continue to have his ups and downs throughout the rest of the 2020-21 season, and those ups will continue to show the kind of player he can become. That player is one who should be among the sport’s biggest stars in 2021-22.

Tennessee will run away with the SEC and will be a Final Four team

Let’s stick with the SEC and, while the conference may be down as a whole, Tennessee looks incredibly impressive.

I was really high on Tennessee in the preseason, picking them to win the SEC and make the Final Four, and they’ve looked every bit the part through the season’s first seven games. The Vols have won their games by an average of 27 points, utilizing elite defense and incredible balance on offense to suffocate and demoralize opponents.

Now, that average is inflated some by games against lesser competition (like their 103-49 win over Tennessee Tech), but not every team is handling those contests with the kind of ease as Tennessee. At the same time, it’s not like the Vols haven’t been tested. They have three wins over KenPom top 80 teams, with the latest coming in dominant fashion over No. 12 Missouri.

That performance was the epitome of what makes this Tennessee team so dangerous. The Vols limited Missouri to just 36.4 percent shooting, including a measly 18.8 percent from three, while forcing 21 turnovers. Their collective length, athleticism, and versatility allows them to apply relentless pressure on the perimeter with elite shot-blocking (mostly via Yves Pons) on the interior (fourth nationally in block rate).

Offensively, the Vols had five different players score at least nine points with six different players recording at least one assist. Their balance on that end serves as the perfect complement to their defense.

Missouri entered Wednesday’s game as the second-best team in the SEC. In reality, that might be Florida or Arkansas, but there are significant questions about every team in the conference outside of the Vols. The beatdown they delivered signals just how far ahead Tennessee is from everyone else in the SEC.

Michigan State’s struggles start with their offense

Now we shift to the Big Ten to look at one of the biggest disappointments of the season so far in Michigan State. The Spartans were a consensus top-five team following their victory over Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium, but things have gone south quickly since then.

Immediately following the win over the Blue Devils, the Spartans were nearly upset by Detroit Mercy. Following two more wins over lesser competition, Tom Izzo’s squad has started Big Ten 0-3 with a 14-point loss to Northwestern, nine-point loss to Wisconsin, and shocking 25-point loss to Minnesota.

There are a number of reasons for that downturn — no one gets that bad that quickly with only one thing going wrong — but the biggest and most alarming has been their offensive struggles.

I tweeted during the loss to Wisconsin that Michigan State’s offense had turned into either force-feeding Joey Hauser or having someone else take a difficult, contested shot, and that’s essentially what it is right now. Hauser is averaging 13.1 points per game on 51.3 percent shooting, but he hasn’t shown the ability to be the dominant go-to guy the Spartans were hoping he would be. The 6-9, 220-pounder is a quality shooter and is excellent in pick-and-pop situations but cannot consistently create shots for himself.

That’s a problem plaguing the entire team. Michigan State leads the nation in assist rate which, while it isn’t necessarily a bad thing, signals the inability of players to create their own shot. Ball movement and unselfishness are good, yes, but there’s no one who can just go get a bucket when the Spartans really need it.

Tom Izzo was counting on both Aaron Henry and Rocket Watts stepping into bigger roles, yet neither have had the corresponding impact you’d expect. Both are shooting below 40 percent from the field and 28 percent from three-point range, proving to be inefficient lead scoring options. Henry has scored in double figures in eight straight games but has only scored more than 12 once in the last six games. Watts has struggled much more severely in Big Ten play, averaging just four points per game on just 17.2 percent shooting in those three games.

Watts has taken over point guard duties for the departed Cassius Winston and, clearly, that experiment isn’t going well. Izzo recently admitted as much and will be moving Watts back to his natural shooting guard position for the time being, which he hopes will make the sophomore more comfortable and aggressive on the court.

Of course, the point guard problem remains. Foster Loyer will take over the starting role for Watts, but he doesn’t have the requisite size or athleticism to be a major factor playing big minutes at the position.

Michigan State also hasn’t gotten much from their big man rotation outside of Hauser. Marcus Bingham was also expected to have a bigger role but instead has taken a step back.

And while those two areas are the most glaring weaknesses, it is more important to point out that — as alluded to with the conversation about Henry and Watts — the entire roster simply isn’t playing well.

The Spartans are 125th in effective field goal percentage and 99th in turnover rate. In conference games, they’re 13th in the Big Ten in offensive efficiency and dead last in two-point shooting percentage. They’re just … bad.

My major question about Michigan State coming into the season was how/if their returners would play in bigger roles. Winston did so much for them the last two seasons that there was no obvious heir to the leadership throne. A number of players have the talent to do so but haven’t had the production. Hauser, Henry, Watts, and even guys like Gabe Brown have not taken that step forward. This is still a team full of role players.

Now, I fully expect this group to get much better. The talent is there and Izzo is too good of a coach with too much of a track record to think otherwise. But, right now, their lack of explosiveness on offense is the biggest thing holding them back.

Marcus Carr is the dark horse Big Ten star to know

Luka Garza and Ayo Dosunmu dominate the individual storylines in the Big Ten, and rightfully so. The two are on track to be first team All-Americans and might be the two favorites for National Player of the Year at the moment.

But if you pay attention to The Gold Star Guide (which you should be doing), there’s one player sandwiched between the two of them: Minnesota’s Marcus Carr.

The 6-2, 195-pound point guard was one of the Big Ten’s best all-around players a year ago and has taken his game to yet another level as a junior, averaging 22.7 points, 6.2 assists, and 3.9 rebounds per game. But what’s more impressive is his impact and how he is elevating the players around him. Carr isn’t just putting up stats on a crappy team, which were the projections in the preseason. He’s instead turned Minnesota into one of the biggest early season surprises, which included a No. 21 ranking in the AP poll this week.

Following a loss to Illinois on Dec. 15 — Minnesota’s first loss and the worst shooting game of the season for Carr — he exploded for 32 points and seven assists in an upset win over Saint Louis. Carr followed that up with an equally impressive 30-point, eight-rebound showing in an upset win over Iowa on Christmas day.

There isn’t anything Carr can’t do. He’s an efficient shooter, excellent at attacking the rim, a great rebounder for his size, and has phenomenal vision. Carr has also been playing much smarter as a junior, taking better shots and cutting down on turnovers.

The Big Ten is the most competitive conference in the country top to bottom, and Minnesota wasn’t expected to be a factor. They probably still won’t be in the conference title race but, with Carr playing at this level, the Gophers should be an NCAA Tournament team.

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.