Rauf Report: Texas Tech’s surge; Michigan State façade; other college basketball takeaways

Tom Izzo, Michigan State

The Rauf Report details the biggest college basketball takeaways from the week, including looks at Texas Tech, Michigan State, and more.

College basketball is the absolute best. Between the upsets, unexpected stars, rivalries, atmospheres and more, nothing else compares.

All of those things make it extremely hard to go undefeated. It’s why no team has finished the season unblemished since 1976 and why that streak won’t be broken this year.

Baylor and USC suffered their first respective defeats on Tuesday night and those results produced largely the same reaction — maybe those teams aren’t as good as we collectively thought. It’s the automatic response from sports fans every time there’s a loss.

But if we don’t expect teams to actually go undefeated, we need to understand losses are going to come for the top teams in the country.

This is especially important when discussing Baylor’s loss to Texas Tech. The Bears very much earned their No. 1 ranking with wins over Stanford (who beat USC), Michigan State, Villanova, and started Big 12 play 3-0. Scott Drew’s squad was — and still is — as proven as anyone in the country and remains the only team to rank in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency.

Baylor still has the nation’s most complete resume. It’s not generally how the AP poll works but, even with a loss, but the Bears should still be the nation’s top-ranked team. They’ve earned it.

That said, we do need to address the Texas Tech team that beat Baylor, which is where we’ll start today’s Rauf Report.

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Texas Tech is now a factor in the Big 12

In the Rauf Report published a week ago, I detailed Texas Tech’s offensive struggles against the better teams they had faced and how those struggles could cause them to start sliding in Big 12 play.

Well, all this team did was beat Kansas, hand Baylor their first loss since last season, and blow out a good Oklahoma State team that just beat Texas.

Not bad, huh?

Texas Tech lived up to its reputation as an elite defensive team and continued shutting opponents down inside despite a lack of top-end size and rim protection.

That was almost a given. What has turned them into the hottest team in the country, though, has been the steps forward they have taken on the offense end.

Here’s how they performed in their first four games against KenPom top-60 competition compared to how they fared over the last week.

That’s a leap that puts their production on par with how they have performed against Quad-4 opponents, which is certainly a significant and important change. So, what caused it?

The short answer is that Texas Tech has balanced out their attack. The last two games — vs. Baylor and Oklahoma State — are the first two this season in which the Red Raiders had five different players score at least 10 points. Texas Tech’s win over Kansas wasn’t as balanced (Bryson Williams had 22 efficient points) but six players did have at least seven points.

Adonis Arms has stepped up with his best performances of the season along with Williams, but this is true for just about everyone in the starting lineup. This roster full of transfers and newcomers is finally getting used to playing together and is in a rhythm instead of relying on the your-turn-my-turn offense that led to a lot of isolation sets early in the year.

The scary thing is that Terrence Shannon, Texas Tech’s best player and most dynamic scorer, has been out during this stretch. There’s reason to think this offense should improve even more with him in the fold.

If the Red Raiders can maintain this level of offensive efficiency to complement their elite defense, this is suddenly a very dangerous group that can win the Big 12.

Michigan State’s façade

From one surprise to another, Michigan State is sitting atop the Big Ten standings (with Illinois) with a perfect 5-0 mark in conference play. The Spartans weren’t ranked in the preseason but have risen into the top 10 in the AP poll thanks to their current nine-game win streak and 14-2 overall record.

There is a good deal to like about this group. Gabe Brown has emerged as an All-Big Ten caliber player, while both Malik Hall and AJ Hoggard have shown flashes of dominance. Tom Izzo has done a phenomenal job getting his group to this point.

However, it does feel like this run of success has caused many to overrate Michigan State. Yes, it has won nine games in a row, but its play has been far from that of a top-10 team.

Michigan State has an average efficiency of -1.83 this month and have had two of their worst performances (High Point, Minnesota) in the last four games. The only worse performance came against Baylor, which is excusable given given the Bears’ strength.

Ironically, the Spartans still managed to keep their nine-game win streak intact, largely thanks to an easy schedule. It’s the second-weakest Big Ten schedule to date ahead of only Michigan, which has been limited to three games due to a COVID-19 pause.

Of the four Big Ten opponents Michigan State has played (Minnesota twice), all are in the bottom half of the conference and three are in the bottom four (Minnesota, Northwestern, Nebraska) in both the Big Ten standings and KenPom rankings within the conference. Those four teams are a combined 5-17 in the Big Ten.

Izzo’s squad has not been particularly dominant against that level of competition, either, as the efficiency numbers suggest. Beating those teams is nice and expected, but the Spartans haven’t made it easy on themselves. Three of Michigan State’s Big Ten opponents were within two possessions in the game’s final minute with both Northwestern and Minnesota being within one. Sparty needed a buzzer-beater to get past the Gophers.

All of this is to say that Michigan State’s record looks nice, but it hasn’t looked right on the court and there are signs that regression could be coming soon. It will face Northwestern again on Saturday before their schedule really ramps up, starting with road games against Wisconsin and Illinois.

Michigan State may prove it belongs in the top 10 and at the top of the Big Ten, but it hasn’t happened yet. The Spartans are a prime regression candidate for the final two months of the regular season.

Chris Mack is on the hot seat

Louisville is not often brought up when discussing the biggest disappointments of the college basketball season, but things have not gone well for Chris Mack’s group.

The Cardinals already have four losses against teams outside the KenPom top 100 and three of them (Furman, DePaul, NC State) came at home. They have one Quad-1 victory (Mississippi State) and an offense that ranks outside the nation’s top 120 in adjusted efficiency.

Chris Mack was supposed to be building and running near the top of the ACC at this point in his tenure. The conference is basically begging for someone to step up and be a dominant No. 2 team behind Duke. Yet, in Year 4, the Cardinals appear to be going in the opposite direction and can’t even take advantage of a lackluster ACC.

Louisville’s level of play has exponentially increased the level of unrest among the fan base and Mack is firmly on the hot seat.

On the court, Mack’s team has steadily declined in both offensive and defensive efficiency each of the last two seasons. The 2019-20 team looked capable of making a long NCAA Tournament run (unfortunately, we’ll never know) and the Cardinals have gradually and consistently gotten worse since then.

It also doesn’t help that Mack lacks anything substantial on his resume at Louisville. He has only finished in the top five in the conference once and he’s on pace to miss the NCAA Tournament for a second consecutive season. When they made it as a No. 7 seed in his first season in 2019, they were upset in the first round by Minnesota.

There are also some off-court factors at play. The extortion attempt of former assistant coach Dino Gaudio ultimately resulted in Mack receiving a six-game suspension which, while not the end of the world given everything the program went through under Rick Pitino, is still not a great situation.

Mack also isn’t recruiting as well as he was early in his tenure. Lingering NCAA punishing may have something to do with that, but his struggles there do play a part in the diminishing on-court product.

Oh yeah, this also comes at a time when former Louisville assistant and current Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard figures to be one of the hottest names available in the offseason coaching carousel. Maryland is rumored to have interest in him but returning to Louisville might be more appealing to the 46-year-old. The Cardinals can’t miss out on “their man” if they want him and are unhappy with who they currently have.

Unhappy is where Louisville is with Mack right now. The proven Big East track record from his time at Xavier and the promise he brought with him are both meaningless and gone. If the Cardinals don’t get their season turned around, there’s a good chance Mack won’t be back next season.

UCLA’s defensive concerns

Mick Cronin’s teams at Cincinnati were known for their defense. His UCLA defenses haven’t been great but we finally started to see the Bruins defend at an elite level during their NCAA Tournament run.

This season has been UCLA’s best on that end under Cronin (18th in AdjD), yet there are some cracks beneath the surface that indicate there are still some problems on that end, and Thursday’s loss to Oregon really highlighted those issues.

Essentially, UCLA goes from a top-tier defense to an average one in the games in which it has faced decent competition. No one will confuse 10-6 Oregon with one of the nation’s top teams right now, but the Ducks were able to shoot at a solid clip (42.9 percent; right on the top 75 average) in their upset victory over the Bruins.

“We’ve got talented guys, but we’ve got to come up with stops down the stretch and we just didn’t do that,” UCLA star Johnny Juzang told reporters after the loss to Oregon. “You can’t have that many mistakes.”

UCLA is still one of the country’s biggest mysteries simply because it hasn’t played in that many games. A nearly month-long COVID pause caused several of the Bruins’ marquee games to be postponed, meaning they are the top team we know the least about.

The defensive performance against Oregon showcased some weak spots that signal this UCLA team may not be as good as we thought in November, or at least that it hasn’t been playing near that level yet.

Don’t forget about Gonzaga

Remember these guys?

I know it has been about a month since Gonzaga was in the mainstream college basketball consciousness but, if Baylor is to fall from No. 1 in the AP rankings, the Bulldogs are set to regain their top spot after housing BYU 110-84 on Thursday night. Mark Few’s squad has already overtaken the Bears atop the KenPom rankings.

It feels like the Zags were largely written off after losing to Alabama on Dec. 4. It was their second loss in three games (Duke) and there were legitimate problems plaguing them, which I wrote about in that week’s Rauf Report. Those weaknesses — namely turnovers and 3-point shooting — have drastically improved since.

It does help that Gonzaga’s schedule got significantly lighter in late December — more on this in a second, you silly people who jumped in saying “they don’t play anyone anyway!” in your head — so we’ll only look at the two games they’ve played against KenPom top-30 competition since the Alabama loss: Texas Tech and BYU.

Gonzaga won the turnover battle in each of those games and shot a combined 24-for-52 (46.2 percent) from three. Those numbers look even better when put into the context of both opposing defenses — Texas Tech is top 5 in adjusted efficiency; BYU entered Thursday’s game in the top 20.

Obviously, a two-game sample doesn’t mean these issues are “fixed” and won’t pop up down the line, but Gonzaga will be tested in conference play in a way it hasn’t been. BYU, Saint Mary’s and San Francisco all have legitimate at-large resumes and all are currently projected to be top-11 seeds in HeatCheckCBB bracketologist Lukas Harkins’ latest update. Santa Clara also ranks No. 41 in the latest DPI rankings.

The WCC is not the cakewalk casual fans might believe. Because of that, Gonzaga’s improvement in those areas will either continue and be legitimized or proven to be a sign of false hope.

Given what we saw against BYU on Thursday night, though, I think Gonzaga has cleaned up those problems and will be the dominant force they were early in the season.