Welcome back to another Rauf Report, where I break down my five biggest takeaways from the past week in the college basketball.
This week sent some resounding shockwaves throughout the sport — not because of some unexpected upsets, but rather because of performances that made impossible to deny some unnatural results.
Perhaps the biggest of these was Illinois’ resounding victory over Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium. It was the second game the Blue Devils have lost at home this year (Michigan State) and, once again, Coach K’s squad didn’t look particularly good. That’s probably putting it kindly, too. With Kentucky losing its last three games as well, it’s likely that both the Wildcats and Duke will not be ranked in Monday’s AP poll — a truly absurd thought for college basketball fans.
Elsewhere, Iowa whacked UNC in what might be another down year for the Tar Heels (though certainly not as bad as last season), Kansas and Creighton played an exciting matchup, and Virginia Tech — ranked in the top 15 — was completely destroyed by a Penn State team picked to finish in the bottom half of the Big Ten.
We will touch on the Hokies in a little bit, but I want to start this week with Tennessee, which played its first game of the season on Tuesday and validated most of their preseason hype.
Tennessee’s defense makes them a top 10 team
I had really high expectations for Tennessee coming into the season. I had them in my preseason top 10 and the AP had them 12th. A big part of that was due to their defensive potential and, though the Vols have only played one game due to COVID-19 protocols, they already look elite on that end.
Tennessee limited Colorado to 47 points in the opener and 33.3 percent shooting from the floor, including 22.7 percent from three. Their length and athleticism took the Buffs completely out of their game, forcing a turnover on 35.7 percent of their possessions (best in the nation).
It is just one game, and that’s both a good and bad thing. From a negative standpoint, they have to prove they can play at that level on a consistent basis. From a positive standpoint, it validated what we thought about them in the preseason, and they can get better, according to head coach Rick Barnes.
“It’s December whatever, and we’re playing our first game,” Barnes said after the game. “We’re just hoping to figure out our substitution patterns. There were times when we lost some rhythm.”
The good thing for Barnes is that Tennessee will be good defensively no matter which lineup he has on the floor. Yves Pons is one of the best all-around defenders in the country, headlining a starting lineup in which four players can adequately guard all five positions (other than Vescovi, who shouldn’t be switching onto bigs). Their top four players off the bench are between 6-4 and 6-8 with the ability to guard multiple positions, too.
This defensive versatility allows them to switch everything and be aggressive, which is the key to their attack. There will still be ups and downs for them offensively until they get a few games under their belt, but Tennessee’s defense gives them the upside of a Final Four contender.
Virginia Tech and danger of overreacting to one win
I’m going to use Virginia Tech as the example here, but it could be a number of teams I’m talking about here, so I don’t want to make it seem like I’m picking on the Hokies. However, what Virginia Tech has done these past few weeks — and how the college basketball world reacted to it — is an excellent case study in misleading early season results.
That is not to say that Virginia Tech’s win over Villanova was misleading in any way. The Hokies clearly outplayed and outexecuted the Wildcats throughout all 45 minutes and deserved to win that game. For a team that was picked to finish 11th in the ACC, that was huge! It was the second straight season in which Mike Young’s squad has knocked off the No. 3 team in November, which is great as he tries to rebuild that program.
And for as good of a performance as it was, it was immediately taken for the baseline of who the Hokies are rather than a representation of their best selves. They quickly rose into the top 16 in the AP poll — some voters even had them top 10 — after playing just two games. After following it up with a win against South Florida, Virginia Tech left Bubbleville.
Since then, they have looked much more like the team that was picked to finish 11th in the ACC. The Hokies trailed VMI with less than eight minutes to play before pulling out a narrow victory and then, in their next game, trailed by as many as 30 in a blowout loss to Penn State. Both of those games came at home, too (but how much does that really count for this year, anyway).
Now Virginia Tech is set to tumble all the way out of the top 25 even though they didn’t really belong there in the first place.
Has Virginia Tech looked better than preseason expectations? Yes. At the same time, one big upset victory early in the season — especially this year, when teams didn’t have a real offseason to work with — doesn’t make them a completely different team. Both things can be true.
Sports coverage in general has become a lot of hot-taking and overreacting. That’s great for a sport like football in which there are so few games. College basketball is different. It takes multiple performances, good or bad, to tell you how good a team really is (or isn’t). We often don’t take the time to recognize that yet, every year, there are examples that remind us we should. Virginia Tech is the latest of those examples.
Clemson is an NCAA Tournament team
Now, if you’re looking for a mid-tier ACC team that does actually look like they can break through, I implore you to take a look at Clemson. The Tigers were actually picked to finish 10th in the ACC preseason poll — one spot ahead of Virginia Tech — but have proven to be consistently solid through the first few weeks of the season.
It’s still early, yet head coach Brad Brownell’s squad already has victories over three power conference programs in Mississippi State, Purdue, and Maryland (along with a blowout of South Carolina State). None of those three are surefire NCAA Tournament teams — all are currently projected to miss the Big Dance, actually — but all represent mid-tier power-conference teams, which is exactly what the Tigers were supposed to be.
By winning those games in convincing fashion, Clemson has shown that its floor is an NCAA Tournament bubble team (barring injuries, of course). The Tigers sport a top 10 defense that is on track the be the most efficient of the Brad Brownell era. They’re giving up just over 50 points per game while using their depth, length, and versatility to pressure opponents more than we’ve seen in year’s past. As a result, they rank in the top 20 in both eFG% defense and turnover percentage.
Clemson’s depth (top 10 in bench minutes) pays dividends on the offensive end as well. Seven different players average over five points per game, giving the Tigers the kind of balance they’ve lacked. That said, All-ACC senior Aamir Simms continues to solidify himself as a legitimate go-to guy whenever they need a basket.
Is Clemson talented enough to be a consistent top 25 team? An upcoming stretch against Alabama, Virginia Tech, and South Carolina will be more telling in that regard. But, even if they don’t end up cracking that threshold, there’s enough here defensively to believe the Tigers will remain relevant nationally.
San Diego State is legit…again
San Diego State was expected to regress after a historic 2019-20 season following the departure of several key players, headlined by Mountain West Player of the Year Malachi Flynn. Yet, while they’re not a top-five team like they were a season ago, the Aztecs have already proven through five games that there won’t be much of a drop off.
Head coach Brian Dutcher’s squad has already picked up two KenPom top 40 wins, both of which came over projected Pac-12 contenders in UCLA and Arizona State. San Diego State won those games by 15 and 12, respectively, so it’s not like there was anything fluky about those performances.
The Aztecs made their mark on the defensive end a year ago (sensing a theme throughout this column?), ranking in the top 10 nationally in defensive efficiency. However, while ranking 18th through five games, their adjusted efficiency rating (88.9) is actually better than it was last season (90.6).
Nathan Mensah’s health has played a big factor. The 6-10 center missed most of last season due to a respiratory issue, ridding the Aztecs of a dominant rim protector. Now back, Mensah and his 7-5 wingspan anchor San Diego State’s defense. He ranks in the top 70 nationally in block rate and is second on the team in steal rate (among those that have played enough minutes to qualify) behind senior stopper Matt Mitchell. Mitchell leads a unit that excels on the perimeter again (San Diego State is 23rd in turnover percentage and 32nd in steal percentage), and they can play even more aggressively with someone like Mensah protecting the rim.
The Aztecs still have two more quality nonconference games on their schedule in BYU and Saint Mary’s before jumping into conference play and, if they can get past those, are the clear favorite in Mountain West play. KenPom projects them to win every conference game, and road contests against Utah State are the only ones they’re projected to win by fewer than 10 points.
Expect San Diego State to continue rising in the AP poll throughout the season, and don’t be surprised if they’re one of the nation’s last undefeated teams again.
Experience gap is real
This is the biggest trend I’ve noticed throughout the sport. We’ve touched on it several times on the podcast, Hope & Rauf presented by Heat Check CBB, but the gap in play between experienced teams and inexperienced teams is as pronounced as it has ever been.
In normal years, there’s generally a noticeable difference between the two at the start of the season that gradually diminishes as those inexperienced teams get more comfortable playing together and find their identity. Experienced teams largely don’t have to endure those rough patches in nonconference play because they have everything established.
But this season, without a real offseason or any exhibition games to work with, those inexperienced teams are at a huge disadvantage. Duke and Kentucky are great examples. Both teams are loaded with talented and are led by legendary coaches, yet both are struggling mightily with rosters full of freshmen. They’re disjointed offensively, lack defined role players, and still trying to establish their rotations.
On the flip side, nine of the teams in the KenPom top 10 returned almost all their important players from last season. Gonzaga and Baylor look dominant thanks to their returning players, while both Iowa and Illinois have taken big leaps forward for the same reason.
The gap will continue to lessen as the season goes on, yet there is much more ground that has to be closed. I don’t know when that will happen, but I expect to see this trend continue through the end of the calendar year.
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.