These two teams are not in the top 16 of the second edition of SI.com's Bracket Watch, but they are rapidly improving their stock.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish: Behind the strength of the No. 5 offense in adjusted efficiency, according to KenPom, the Fighting Irish have moved up to No. 21 in both the AP and coaches’ polls. They lead the country in two-point field goal percentage and effective field goal percentage. They can also shoot from deep (18th in three-point percentage) and rarely give the ball away (third in turnover percentage).
It should come as no surprise that the offense has taken a step forward with the return of Jerian Grant. The senior guard was suspended for the latter half of the 2013-14 season due to academic issues. At the time of Grant’s suspension, Notre Dame was 8-4 and had just dropped a nail-biter to then-No. 3 Ohio State in which Grant scored 18 points. The Irish went 7-13 the rest of the way and did not play in a postseason tournament.
This season, Grant is averaging 18.9 points per game and 6.0 assists. He's shooting 57.8 percent from the floor and 37.8 percent from three, impressive efficiency that is helping him offset his decrease in free throw attempts. Grant is getting some help, too, with Zach Auguste (15.2), Demetrius Jackson (13.3) and Pat Connaughton (12.7) each averaging at least a dozen points per game. Auguste is shooting 65.3 percent from the field, Jackson is at 55.8 percent and Connaughton is knocking down nearly 45 percent of his three-point attempts.
The Irish face a daunting early ACC slate, with three of their first five games coming against ranked teams in North Carolina, Virginia and Miami. We should know by then whether the Irish belong on a top-four seed line, and whether or not Grant’s return has truly resurrected this program.
Maryland Terrapins: After languishing for years in the middle of the ACC, it was hard to know what to expect of the Terrapins entering their first season of Big Ten play. As the conferences’ annual challenge would indicate, the Big Ten has caught up to and surpassed the ACC, at least in terms of top-to-bottom strength. Would the Terps simply go from being a middling team in one of the country’s best leagues to a middling team in another?
Mark Turgeon’s bunch has answered that with an emphatic “No.” Maryland served notice with a 72-63 neutral-court win over Iowa State last month that it would be a factor in the Big Ten, and the Terps are now No. 22 in KenPom’s offensive efficiency rankings.
Maryland’s ascendancy hit a speed bump when leading scorer Dez Wells fractured his wrist in that Nov. 25 win over Iowa State. His absence was obvious when the Terps scored just 65 points, 10 fewer than their season average, in a loss to Virginia in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The good news, however, is that Wells should return by time the Terrapins kick off conference play at Michigan State on Dec. 30.
Among those who have stepped up in Well's absence is freshman guard Melo Trimble. The native of Upper Marlboro, Md., is averaging 15.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.0 assists in 31.4 minutes per game, while shooting 48.2 percent from the floor, 40 percent from behind the arc and 89.7 percent at the free throw line. It’s scary to think that he and Wells have barely had an opportunity to play together this season.
The Terrapins will have plenty of chances to prove their mettle in the Big Ten. A win in the aforementioned conference-opener in East Lansing could push them into the top-quarter of the bracket.
As for the teams that are in that first quarter, let’s get to this week’s edition of the Bracket Watch.
1. Kentucky (11-0, Last week: South 1): What did the Wildcats do in their first game after losing Alex Poythress to a season-ending knee injury? They went out and put up a 49-point first half on North Carolina, en route to an 84-70 victory. The Wildcats’ annual matchup with Louisville (Dec. 27) can’t get here soon enough.
2. Kansas (8-1, LW: Midwest 3): It seems cruel and unusual to have Kansas share a region with Kentucky, but that’s where the current S-curve places the Jayhawks. Chances are they’ll be better than the last No. 2 seed by season’s end. Bill Self’s group is really starting to come together, as evidenced by wins last week over Utah and Georgetown.
3. Gonzaga (10-1, LW: S2): The Bulldogs didn’t do anything to lose their spot on the 2-line, but they were surpassed by Kansas because of the S-curve. It’s still very early, but the Zags may not be able to climb much higher because they don't have a currently ranked team on their schedule for the rest of the season.
4. Utah (7-2, LW: East 4): The Utes may have lost two games in the non-conference portion of their schedule, but they don’t have to apologize for either defeat, given that one came by four points to then-No. 16 San Diego State on the road and the other was by three points to then-No. 10 Kansas on a neutral court. Combine those losses with a home win over Wichita State, and the Utes have done quite well for themselves.
1. Duke (9-0, LW: E1): It may have come against Elon, but Jahlil Okafor’s 25-point, 20-rebound line has to have the rest of the ACC wondering if they’ll be playing for second place. The Blue Devils are doing everything well on offense, ranking first in KenPom’s adjusted efficiency, second in effective field goal percentage and two-point field goal percentage and ninth in turnover percentage.
2. Villanova (10-0, LW: E2): Last week, we noted that the Wildcats were one of five teams in the top 15 in adjusted efficiency for offense and defense. They’re now one of three in the top 10 for both. The other two are Kentucky and Wisconsin.
3. Texas (8-1, LW: E3): The Longhorns are excelling on defense, where they rank fourth in the nation in adjusted efficiency. They’re also converting at the free throw line. Five of their seven players who are on the floor for at least 20 minutes per game are shooting 81.8 percent or better from the stripe.
4. Washington (8-0, LW: N/A): The Huskies cleared their only real hurdle of the year by beating San Diego State on Dec. 7. If they can knock off Oklahoma this weekend, we’ll know for sure that they’re a threat to be in the top-quarter of the bracket in March.
1. Arizona (10-0, LW: West 1): The Wildcats’ defense is ahead of their offense, which may not be a surprise after losing Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon to the NBA. There’s a chance they won’t be pushed until a Jan. 8 game at Oregon, or on Jan. 17, when they host Utah.
2. Virginia (9-0, LW: MW2): Despite ranking third in adjusted defensive efficiency, the Cavaliers have forced opponents into turnovers on just 17.9 percent of their possessions, which ranks 280th in the country.
3. Iowa State (8-1, LW: S4): The Cyclones have really struggled defensively this year, ranking No. 83 in adjusted efficiency. That could prove to be their undoing in the strong offensive environment of the Big 12.
4. Ohio State (8-1, LW: S3): A too-close-for-comfort win over Morehead State in Columbus pushed the Buckeyes down the S-curve. It must be noted that they dropped their only game against a KenPom top-100 team this season, a 64-55 loss to Louisville the first week of December.
1. Wisconsin (10-1, LW: MW1): The Badgers are doing what they’ve always done under Bo Ryan: protecting the ball and playing strong defense without fouling. They’re fourth in the country in turnover percentage and sixth in defensive free-throw rate. The best news, however, may be that Sam Dekker’s ankle finally appears to be 100 percent.
2. Louisville (9-0, LW: W2): Rick Pitino has the country’s top defense by adjusted efficiency, but the offense has been lacking at times. In particular, the Cardinals can’t shooting well. They’re 311th in the country in three-point percentage and 327th in free throw percentage.
3. Wichita State (7-1, LW: W3): The Shockers needed second-half rallies to beat Detroit and Alabama in their last two games. That isn’t good news for a team that won’t have a chance for a resume-building win for the rest of the season.
4. Oklahoma (6-2, LW: N/A): Junior guard Buddy Hield is shooting just 36.4 percent from the floor this year. He’ll have to pick up the efficiency for Oklahoma’s 51st-ranked offense (by adjusted efficiency) to keep up with the favorites in the Big 12.