Welcome into a new Rauf Report, where I highlight my biggest takeaways from the weekend in college basketball.
This week’s slate was pretty light compared to what we’ve been treated to this season. There were only two ranked vs. ranked matchups —both of those were thrilling one-point contests — and not much else. No ranked teams were upset by unranked foes for the first time this season which is, well, a pretty big accomplishment given the turnover we’ve seen in the bottom half of the top 25 this season.
Of course, that may just make for a crazy weekend, but I digress.
It’s hard to believe we’re already nearing February, right? It feels like the season just started, yet here we are at the stretch run, where every game is of vital importance. Teams only have a limited amount of time to resolve their problems which is a problem for the first team we’re going to talk about in this article.
Let’s kick off this Rauf Report with a look at why Tennessee —who we used to think was the third-best team in the country — is struggling so much right now.
Why Tennessee is struggling
I know that “struggling” is a relative term here because there are so many teams that would love to be ranked where Tennessee is and have an 11-3 record on the season. But, considering what we saw from them in December (7-0) compared to what we’ve seen from them in January (4-3), there’s no doubt this group has regressed.
Defensively, Tennessee is still great. The Vols are second in the country in defensive efficiency, 10th in turnovers forced and fifth in block rate. It has been the offense that has taken a major step back.
It is worth noting that Tennessee is just 1-3 in games where the Vols allowed at least 70 points, but that’s the crux of the problem – an elite team should have an offense capable of hitting that mark on a consistent basis. And for the season’s first month, that wasn’t a problem. The Vols averaged 79.7 points per game during their undefeated start. Since then, however, that number has plunged to 65.7.
How does an offense get 14 points worse so quickly?
We have to start that explanation by going back to the defensive end. One of the areas Tennessee excels at is turning defense into offense, getting out in transition and converting easy baskets on the break. That’s where the Volunteer athleticism really shines. It’s their preferred style of play and where they excel.
Well, when you can’t get out in transition as much, points are harder to come by. Additionally, Tennessee’s half-court offense has been bad.
Alabama was the first team Tennessee played that was able to keep pace with them and force the Vols to play in the half court. The Crimson Tide won the game and others started following suit. Tennessee has since played much closer games — wins over Arkansas and Mississippi State by a combined eight points _ and suffered losses to Florida and Missouri (the Vols still blew out Texas A&M and Vanderbilt).
The numbers bear out Tennessee’s significant struggles when forced to slow down offensively.
Now, Tennessee doesn’t exactly play fast, ranking 301st in tempo. However, that is largely skewed because, like Virginia, its defense forces opponents to take up much of the shot clock. The Volunteers’ offense (200th in average possession length) prefers to move quicker when possible.
Opponents have picked up on this weakness of Tennessee and are exploiting. As such, the Vols have to improve their halfcourt offense if they want to turn their season around.
The key behind UNC’s turnaround
Flipping the momentum here, North Carolina has been able to rebound (pun intended) from its slow start, winning six of the last seven games. None of the victories were significant in nature — the Heels lost their only game against a team in our latest projected NCAA Tournament field — but going on this run after starting 5-4 is extremely important on its own, no matter the opponent.
The turnaround started right after freshman Kerwin Walton entered the starting lineup, and his play has been one of the biggest keys to this stretch for the Tar Heels.
I know what you’re thinking — how does someone averaging just 6.5 points and 2.0 assists per game make such a difference?
It’s all about fit. North Carolina is one of the worst shooting teams in the nation, relying on its plethora of talented bigs to win the rebounding battle and provide extra possessions. It’s a recipe that has worked for Roy Williams but the rebounding through the first eight games was so poor that UNC’s rebounding couldn’t make up the difference. Walton is not a great rebounder or defender, but he’s perhaps the only player on this roster who can efficiently score from all three levels right now.
Williams inserted Walton into the starting lineup before the Georgia Tech game and UNC’s shooting has taken off since then.
Overall, his play has given the Tar Heels a very slight bump in most of these areas with the exception of three-point shooting. Perimeter shooting has been the most important aspect, though, as his presence has significantly opened up UNC’s offense. Garrison Brooks & Co. have more room to operate on the perimeter and Caleb Love and the rest of the backcourt have more lanes to drive and attack the basket.
Obviously, this group isn’t perfect, but Walton’s presence has made offense easier and more efficient for the Tar Heels.
That efficiency will be tested in a big way over the next two weeks. The Tar Heels will face Clemson, Duke and Virginia all on the road before Valentine’s Day. Their play in those games will tell us if this group is “back” or not, but Walton’s increased playing time gives them a better chance of performing well.
Speaking of BACK, Rutgers moved to 9-6 with a dominant 67-37 victory over Michigan State on Thursday night. It was Rutgers’ best defensive performance of the season — the first time the Spartans failed to score 40 points in 12 years — and a reminder of how good we thought this team was in mid-December.
Back then, the Scarlet Knights were 6-0, ranked No. 11 in the country, and were being heralded as a team with Final Four potential. The wheels then fell off as they lost six of seven, including a 23-point loss to the same Michigan State team they beat by 30 on Thursday.
So, what changed? Well, star freshman big man Cliff Omoruyi missed five of those seven games due to a knee injury, leaving the Scarlet Knights with an extremely short rotation, particularly in the frontcourt. Head coach Steve Pikiell generally employs an eight-man rotation with Omoruyi and starter Myles Johnson serving as the two frontcourt anchors. Rutgers was left in a pinch and didn’t handle it well.
They did lose to Wisconsin and Penn State in the two games immediately following Omoruyi’s return, though he was not handling his full workload in those games.
This coincided with an injury to potential All-Big Ten wing Ron Harper Jr., who injured his ankle in the first of those six losses and really struggled immediately thereafter. During the 6-0 start, Harper’s average offensive rating was an astounding 143, per KenPom. In their six losses, which were the next six games he played, that number dropped to 93.8. Harper starting to come back a bit with an average ORtg of 100 during their last two games — wins over Indiana and Michigan State — shows signs of progress.
We saw how good this Rutgers team can be when they’re fully healthy. They were banged up for a while and struggled mightily. But now they’re back to flying a bit under the radar even though they should be a factor over the season’s final two months.
Team to watch out West
Another team that has been flying under the radar — partially due to location and partially due to conference — is Colorado State. The Rams can claim first place in the Mountain West with a win over Boise State on Friday night, something that would be fitting considering what this group has been able to accomplish in January.
Nonconference was … not great for Colorado State. They only played one notable game, at Saint Mary’s, and scored 33 points in a 20-point loss, so they were mostly written off. However, in conference play, the Rams have taken care of business, beating who they’re supposed to and splitting with the conference’s best teams.
The Mountain West is one of those conferences using the back-to-back format where two teams face off twice in three days at the same location to cut down on travel and, while some have struggled, the Rams certainly haven’t. They’ve swept the teams they’ve faced in the middle of the conference (Fresno State, UNLV, San Jose State) and already have a win over the other three Mountain West contenders (San Diego State, Utah State, Boise State). They’re the only one of those four with that accomplishment, meaning — should the Rams find themselves in an at-large situation — they might have the bid advantage.
With the other contenders out of the way, Colorado State will only face teams in the bottom half of the conference for the remainder of the season after the Boise State series. KenPom projects the Rams will win the rest of their games, which would put them at 22-3 on the season and likely make them a tournament lock.
There is a lot to like about this group. Head coach Niko Medved wants to win the battle on the perimeter, and it’s worked for them so far this season. They shoot the ball extremely well, ranking 21st nationally in three-point percentage, 18th in effective field goal percentage, and 16th in 3PA/FGA. The Rams do that while remaining stringent defensively, ranking 35th in three-point defense.
Will that strategy lead them to the NCAA Tournament? Right now, it looks like it will. This is a team to keep an eye on because they’ll be dangerous if they show up on your bracket.
Mac McClung, All-American
Earlier this month, I led a Rauf Report with my questioning of Texas Tech’s legitimacy. The Red Raiders had essentially beaten up on bad teams and lost to good teams for a year and half, and one of the reasons for those close losses was the lack of a go-to guy at the end of games. Essentially, Chris Beard had not found another Keenan Evans or Jarrett Culver.
Mac McClung has become that guy.
The Georgetown transfer has made Texas Tech his team over the past month with a string of stellar performances and clutch shots. McClung leads the Red Raiders in scoring at 17.2 points per game, but he has upped that to 21.8 during the month of January. And as Texas Tech has faced their best competition – their last three games have been against top 11 teams in Texas, Baylor, and West Virginia – the 6-2 guard has also been at his best.
This stretch started with a 22-point performance against the Longhorns that was capped by this game-winning three.
Then he followed it up with a 24-point performance against Baylor and the nation’s top defense, a game in which he was the only Texas Tech player to score over 10 points or make more than three shots from the field.
Then on Monday, against West Virginia, McClung dropped a season-high 30 points and engaged in a thrilling duel with Miles McBride.
This has been the kind of stretch that can make McClung an All-American. Not a first team guy, but he is playing like one of the 15 best players in the country. He has received a star in each of Texas Tech’s last three games, per The Gold Star Guide, and is the highest rated non-Baylor player in the Big 12 on EvanMiya.com.
He developed a reputation as a low efficiency volume shooter at Georgetown, but he has been nothing short of spectacular with the Red Raiders. McClung has been one of college basketball’s biggest stars since he arrived thanks to his YouTube fame and, now, he’s starting to play like one.