What a crazy weekend of college basketball that was, huh?
Seven different ranked teams lost, including three to unranked foes, and there were incredible comebacks all over the map. And not just regular comebacks but, like, historic comebacks.
Of course, the most resounding victory of the weekend was Texas’ 84-59 thrashing of Kansas, the largest defeat in KU history at Allen Fieldhouse. The Longhorns legitimized themselves as a top four team with that victory, and we’ll touch on why this group is outperforming expectations in a way past Texas teams haven’t under Shaka Smart a little bit later.
But, first, we lead this Rauf Report with an in-depth look at Texas Tech, which was one of those ranked teams to lose to an unranked foe. It’s a loss that made me ask the following question:
Are we sure Texas Tech is good?
I need to preface this by saying I’m a big fan of Chris Beard and what he has turned Texas Tech into in such a short period of time. To go from a school with no real basketball history to two consecutive Elite Eights, including a national championship game appearance, and now selling out virtually every home game is incredibly impressive. I’m excited to see what the future holds in Lubbock.
With that said, the title game run in 2019 has given the Red Raiders the benefit of the doubt over the last season and a half, masking what has actually been some relatively poor play from this program.
We think Texas Tech is good because of Beard and the individual talent on the roster, yet they have routinely failed almost all tests of actually proving that.
The Red Raiders are 26-16 overall from the start of last season until today. That’s not a bad mark considering the strength of their conference, but it also isn’t one that makes you think of them as a top 15 team (Texas Tech was ranked No. 13 in the Dec. 28 AP top 25). And when you dig even deeper into that record, you see that it is heavily inflated. Here’s how they have performed against varying levels of competition since their title game appearance:
|KenPom Ranking||Top 30||31-100||101-230||231+|
Over half their wins have come against teams ranked in the bottom third in the country! Naturally, records are going to get worse against better competition and it’s good that Texas Tech has avoided a horrible loss during this stretch, but an obvious question arises:
Where are the notable wins?
There simply aren’t any. Both top 30 wins came last year — one against Louisville in Madison Square Garden and one at home against West Virginia when the Mountaineers’ season was starting to go into a tailspin.
Instead, the Red Raiders have gotten credit for keeping it close against their tougher competition. Of the 16 losses in questions, 10 have been by five points or fewer or have come in overtime. They already took Kansas down to the wire this season and Saturday’s loss to Oklahoma State came in overtime.
At the same time, Texas Tech isn’t actually winning many of these games. They’re just 2-10 in these close games since the start of the 2019-20 season, which is enough of a sample size to indicate a problem.
It’s a problem that didn’t plague this program during 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons when they were making long NCAA Tournament runs. Texas Tech was 10-6 in these close games during that stretch. So, what changed?
It’s worth noting that those teams had legitimate closers in Keenan Evans (2017-18) and Jarrett Culver (2018-19) that routinely made plays late in tight games. Beard likes to run offensive sets that allow his best player to attack his defender and make a play in these situations. Evans and Culver were great at that.
The Red Raiders didn’t have anyone who could do that last season. Beard is trusting Georgetown transfer Mac McClung to be that guy this season, and it’s worth noting he did come through against Oklahoma.
But Texas Tech needs to start winning some of these close games against better competition. They’re just 1-3 against KenPom top 100 teams this year, a mark that would push them much closer to the bubble than the top 25. This group needs to start putting some substance behind the hype.
What’s different for Texas
Alright, now let’s stay in Texas but shift to a more positive note for the Longhorns.
Shaka Smart’s squad has become one of only a handful or so of teams you can rely on to play at a high level every time they step on the court, and that is not something anyone would’ve expected at the start of the season given their track record of underachieving under their head coach.
What exactly has been the driving force behind this Texas breakout? There are two factors, one that shows itself analytically and one that shows itself on the court.
Let’s start with the analytics, because that shows the growth of this offense. Texas has traditionally sported a quality defense under Smart. This season’s is his best yet, sure, but they’ve had a top 26 defense each of the last five years. The bigger change has come on the other end as the Longhorns have gone from one of the nation’s worst offensive units to one of the 15 best. Their sets are crisper and they’re moving the ball better, which in turn has led to more open shots and better shooting percentages.
Here’s a look at their assist rate, effective field goal percentage, and offensive efficiency ranks by season since Smart took over in Austin.
|Season||A/FGM Rank||Effective FG% Rank||Off. Efficiency Rank|
Unsurprisingly, a team is better when they’re better at scoring points! Experience, roster continuity, and confidence all play a role in this for Texas, and that increased efficiency has taken them up a level or two (or three).
Now, from an on-court standpoint, Texas has three matchup nightmares they’ve been able to fully utilize. Experienced guard play is important and the Longhorns have that in droves but they also have three players 6-9 or taller that are elite athletes with special skill sets.
That athleticism allows all three to switch onto smaller defenders on the perimeter which, combined with their rim protection, takes this already good defense and makes them great.
Greg Brown, a five-star freshman and projected first round pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, is the most freak athlete of the three. He has guard speed with elite leaping ability that allows him to throw down poster dunks and rebound effectively (top 50 nationally in defensive rebound rate). Brown has also started doing things like this, which is unfair.
Kai Jones is the tallest of the three at 6-11 and is also the best shooter, making 50 percent of his three-pointers on the season, including two against Kansas. While he has his share of poster dunks, too, starting center Jericho Sims has made them his specialty.
That trio creates inside-out mismatches, above the rim mismatches, and mismatches on the defensive end (watching Brown defend smaller perimeter players is fun). No other team — not even Gonzaga — has the personnel to fully match these three.
Michigan belongs among Big Ten elite
I’ve talked a number of times about the teams at the top of the Big Ten throughout the season’s first month in these Rauf Reports. Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, and even Rutgers have all gotten deserved recognition (Michigan State has received the opposite) but I haven’t talked about Michigan. And I probably should.
The Wolverines have largely avoided the Big Ten gauntlet to this point and weren’t featured in any marquee games during the nonconference slate. However, they have handled their business and picked up wins that look much better in hindsight.
Remember that UCF team that beat Florida State and nearly upset Houston? Michigan beat them by 22.
The Maryland team that beat Wisconsin? They lost to the Wolverines by double digits.
A top 20 Northwestern team that started 3-0 in conference play? Michigan led by at least 20 points for almost the entirety of the second half.
Juwan Howard is a noted defensive coach, but it’s this group’s offense that has done the job during this undefeated 9-0 start. They rank seventh nationally in offensive efficiency largely due to their success at scoring in the paint.
Freshman big man Hunter Dickinson has been an efficient and effective interior force, ranking in the top 20 nationally in effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage. In fact, all five starters rank in the top 470 nationally in both categories, a rarity in the sport. Columbia transfer Mike Smith has come in and handled point guard duties to perfection, serving as a true distributor and being the driving force behind their offensive execution. Balance helps here, too, as six players — those five starters and sixth man Chaundee Brown — averaged at least nine points per game.
The Northwestern victory kicks off a stretch in which the Wolverines will play four ranked opponents in five games. We’ll know just how legit they are once it has completed but, through nine games, there isn’t anything to dislike about this team.
Can NC State breakthrough in the ACC?
Friday’s Rauf Report was headlined by how much the top of the ACC stinks. That’s bad news for the conference trying to put forth a Final Four or national championship contender, but good news for the middle of the conference as there’s an opening for a team (or teams) to break through.
Clemson and Virginia Tech look like prime candidates to do that given their nonconference performances, but NC State is quietly lurking and might be more equipped to make that breakthrough.
The Wolfpack have had a sporadic start to their season. They’re 6-1 despite dealing with COVID-19 issues that have left them shorthanded in most of the games they have played. That lone loss came at a very good Saint Louis team and the Pack led most of the game despite the absence of key big DJ Funderburk and freshman point guard Cam Hayes.
NC State is somewhat unproven as their biggest wins have come over Boston College and a struggling North Carolina team, but there are reasons to think the Pack can take a step forward when at full strength.
Devon Daniels is one of the very best players in the ACC and gives Kevin Keatts’ squad a legitimate go-to scorer, while sophomore big man Manny Bates is one of the nation’s best shot-blockers (third in block rate after leading the country last season). Funderburk provides an offensive spark down low and the freshmen backcourt of Hayes and Shakeel Moore has shown flashes of brilliance.
If that little blurb didn’t give it away, this is a balanced unit. Seven different players are averaging at least seven points per game, and the depth provided by the freshman class has allowed them to re-establish the pressing, up-tempo identity they’ve had under Keatts.
Last season, a lack of depth caused the Wolfpack to play at the slowest pace of the Keatts era. With a roster built to play fast, it’s no surprise they struggled. This season, they’re playing at the fastest pace they’ve played in the past four seasons, and their pressing defense is wreaking havoc.
|Season||Adj. Tempo||Steal Rate||Def. Turnover Rate|
The next two games will tell us a lot about NC State’s legitimacy. A showdown at Clemson on Tuesday is a crucial statement game and beating Miami at home on Saturday would help differentiate the Wolfpack from the middle of the ACC.
Two-bid mid-major conferences looking less and less likely
There were a number of mid-major conferences that looked like they had the potential to send multiple teams to the NCAA Tournament via at-large selections.
I was campaigning for the SoCon in the preseason because of how good I thought Furman and UNC Greensboro would be, yet neither has put together the nonconference resume they need. Furman went 0-3 against KenPom top 150 teams while UNCG is 5-4 with dismal losses to Coppin State and East Tennessee State. That’s out of the window.
It’s out of the window in the Ohio Valley as well. Murray State has a losing record, Austin Peay already has four KenPom sub-100 losses, and Belmont has a loss to Samford (KenPom ranked 255) and won’t play a top 130 game this season.
The Mountain West has a couple of tournament-caliber teams in San Diego State and Boise State, yet the Broncos only have one notable win (BYU) and nearly lost to San Jose State. San Diego State has lost two of their last three games.
Gonzaga always gives the West Coast Conference a chance and both BYU and Saint Mary’s have put themselves in the conversation, but both probably need to beat the Zags without suffering a disappointing conference loss to solidify their respective resumes.
The Atlantic 10 remains the most likely to send multiple teams to the NCAA Tournament, but the overall strength of the conference might be its own worst enemy. Dayton slipped up in their conference opener against La Salle. Richmond got all that notoriety for beating a bad Kentucky team but have gone 3-3 in their last six games, including losses to Hofstra and St. Bonaventure. Both Rhode Island and Duquesne are .500, VCU went 0-2 in top 50 opportunities, and Davidson has one top 140 win. Saint Louis is the only A-10 team that looks rock solid right now.
I fully expect the A-10 to send a couple of teams and either the Mountain West or WCC might be able to sneak a second one at-large in, but none of these conferences have done themselves any favors to this point.
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.