Tennessee’s struggles and another big win for Texas highlight the week’s biggest takeaways in a new Rauf Report.

Another week of college basketball, another week of upsets reshaping national rankings.

Iowa State held a 23-point lead over Texas Tech with 12:30 to play before blowing it and losing in overtime. Florida Atlantic’s 20-game win streak was snapped by UAB. Those were just two of the nine defeats suffered by ranked teams since Monday night, continuing what has been a wild, up-and-down season for pretty much everyone outside of Purdue.

Tennessee, which rose to No. 2 in the AP poll this week, thought it was in that conversation with the Boilermakers until Wednesday, when the Vols became one of the nine. They were beaten soundly on the road by a Florida team that is now back in the NCAA Tournament bubble conversation, serving as a bit of a reality check for Rick Barnes’ squad.

While the Vols are tracking to have one of the best defenses ever recorded, it’s still hard to trust this team. They are susceptible to putting up dreadful offensive performances, and they likely aren’t as good as their metrics indicate. That’s where we’ll start this Rauf Report.

Bracketology: Purdue remains steady in top overall seed
Bubble Watch: Who’s on the bubble entering February?
First Dance: Ranking the first-time March Madness hopefuls

Why Tennessee is overrated

Let’s dive into those offensive performances first, because this is something that has plagued Tennessee since Rick Barnes took over. It consistently has elite defenses that allows it to beat up on lesser competition yet, when it gets into a game where it needs a player or two to create consistent offense, it hasn’t been able to. The Vols haven’t had that guy – and they don’t this season, either.

Five different players are averaging at least 9.5 points per game, which showcases good balance, but no one is averaging more than 12.2 points. That means no one has shown the consistent ability to will Tennessee out of a rut and carry the load when their sets break down or aren’t being effective.

In that loss to Florida, Tennessee had an effective field goal percentage of 31.6. Even adjusted to count 3-pointers as 1.5 field goals, the Vols’ eFG was still worse than just about every team’s raw field goal percentage.

That’s a bad game, yes, but this happens more than you might think. Tennessee has four games this season with an eFG% under 40 and another five when it’s under 50. The Vols are only 5-4 in such games, with three of those victories coming against much lesser opponents (Eastern Kentucky, Ole Miss, Georgia).

This highlights a small portion of the efficiency disparity that is propping Tennessee up analytically. The Vols are great at dominating the average and below average teams on their schedule. For the most part, they annihilate these foes in a way indicative of a top team. But, when Tennessee starts going up against better teams, those warts really begin to show.

Just look at the disparity in their efficiency in games against the top two quadrants vs. the bottom two quadrants:

Now, as I said earlier, this doesn’t preclude Tennessee from winning against some of the better teams on its schedule. It does have a 14-point victory over Kansas and an 11-point victory over Texas, which it just picked up last weekend.

However, some of those warts have popped up in those bigger wins. Against USC, the Vols blew a second-half lead and needed to come back and force overtime before ultimately winning. Against Maryland, they nearly blew a 21-point lead in what was ultimately a three-point victory.

Context matters in those cases.

Tennessee is still trending towards a high seed in the NCAA Tournament because of the strength of its metrics and those top end wins over Kansas and Texas. It would be the fourth time in the last five tournaments that the Vols had a No. 3 seed or better. In those previous three cases, the Vols only made the Sweet 16 once, and those teams showed warts very similar to this groups.

As of now, I don’t have confidence in Tennessee making much noise come March.

Here’s why Texas is primed for tournament success

The difference in what drives success in the regular season vs. the one game do-or-die pressure cooker that is the NCAA Tournament can be funny sometimes. It’s why I think Texas could be poised for a long run through the Big Dance while the Vols – who just beat the Longhorns – may fall flat on their face.

Guard play and individual playmakers simply matter more in the NCAA Tournament. It’s a theory proven true every March.

Texas, for its part, has excelled in these areas. Marcus Carr and Tyrese Hunter have their weak spots — 3-point shooting, to be specific — yet each have also shown the ability to score 20 points any given night against elite competition. The same goes for sixth man Sir’Jabari Rice, who has emerged as one of the best closers in all of college basketball.

Some of that was on full display Monday in a 76-71 win over Baylor. Rice finished with a game-high 21 points, 15 of which came in the second half, while Carr and Hunter played excellent defense on Baylor’s star backcourt. Carr also hit a few key shots late as well that proved to be the difference.

Between those three and Timmy Allen, Texas has four players on the court in crunch time who can handle the ball and create their own shot. That puts extreme pressure on opposing defenses and has paid off for the Longhorns. The Longhorns have played seven games that were either decided by five or fewer points in regulation or that went to overtime. They are 6-1 in those close matchups.

Texas is going to lose again in the regular season, likely multiple times considering how strong the Big 12 is. Heck, they have a road trip to face Kansas State on Saturday and Kansas on Monday. But the makeup of the roster, combined with the production and resolve it has shown through the season’s first three months, has me thinking this is a team perfectly suited to handle the rigors of the NCAA Tournament.

Clemson’s resume conundrum

Clemson might have the strangest resume to this point. The Tigers are in first place in the ACC with a half-game lead over Virginia, yet they find themselves squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble, per Heat Check CBB bracketologist Lukas Harkins.

How can that be?

Well, Brad Brownell’s squad has matched above-average victories with terrible losses. They are 7-2 in Quad 1+2 games with the exact same 7-2 record in Quad 4 — along with an additional Q3 loss to Boston College that they suffered on Tuesday. As Harkins mentions in his weekly Bubble Watch column (subscribe to HC+ today!), only six teams have earned an at-large berth with three Quad 3+4 losses, and only one has done so with four such defeats.

In other words, Clemson will likely be fine as long as it handles its business the rest of the way. The problem is that, recently, it hasn’t been doing that.

Clemson’s home victory over Duke on Jan. 14 pushed the Tigers to 7-0 in league play and sent a statement to the rest of the country that they should be taken seriously. Since then, however, the Tigers have struggled mightily.

The two losses include that defeat to BC, while two of the victories came by one point apiece — including in another Q3 game against Florida State.

The immediate road does not get any easier for the Tigers. They will host Miami on Saturday before facing UNC in Chapel Hill next weekend, a place where Clemson has only won once in its history. This stretch presents Clemson a chance to get right — or fall into even more bubblicious territory.

More Tyler Kolek Appreciation

It has been nearly a month and a half since I last wrote about Tyler Kolek being one of the nation’s most underrated and underappreciated players, and it’s worth writing about again because he has only improved.

Marquette’s starting point guard is captaining the nation’s most efficient offense, which is on pace to post the fourth highest efficiency rating on KenPom in the last four seasons (trailing only Gonzaga, Baylor and Iowa from 2020-21). Kolek doesn’t get the credit for it because he’s not a high scorer (11.2 ppg), but he is the engine that makes everything go.

Here is where he ranks nationally in some very notable categories:

  • 2nd in assist/turnover ratio
  • 3rd in assists with 7.9 per game (1st in the Big East by 2.6 per game)
  • 3rd in EvanMiya’s Box BPR, which measures overall player impact
  • 8th in assist rate

Kolek is also the guy Marquette goes to whenever the game is on the line! He has the kind of moxie and basketball savvy to do whatever it takes to beat the opponent across from him.

I firmly believe that if he played for a team like Villanova, Duke or Kansas, there would be a bigger national conversation about his standing among the nation’s best point guards. Maybe even some debate over his status as an All-American. He is that good, and it’s time we started appreciating that.

UAB’s Statement

Remember when UAB entered the season as a borderline top-25 team and mid-major darling?

The Blazers largely fell out of the national consciousness when they went 1-5 during a six-game stretch in mid-January, but Andy Kennedy’s squad made a statement on Thursday that they’re still a forced to be reckoned with.

UAB beat Florida Atlantic 86-77 to end the Owls’ 20-game win streak, which was the longest in the nation. The Blazers did so in convincing fashion, too, leading by double digits for most of the game.

Remember earlier, when I said context matters? It matters when talking about the Blazers’ tough stretch, too.

Four of those five losses came by three points or fewer, two of those coming in overtime. Three of their five losses were Quad 1 or 2 games, which won’t exactly hurt their tournament resume. Star guard Jelly Walker also missed some of those games with a foot injury; in his return from the sideline, Walker had 13 points and six assists off the bench in the win over FAU.

UAB’s hopes of earning an at-large bid are gone. Beating FAU didn’t change that. At the same time, the Blazers are now healthy again and beating FAU the way they did was a reminder of the kind of force this team can be in March.