This is our first Bracket Watch of 2015 and the last before the start of conference play, meaning we’ll soon unveil our first 68-team field of the season. While this is hardly a replication of the weekly AP poll, 14 of the top 16 teams in this week’s top 25 can be found below. Among the missing teams, I said last week that No. 16 Wichita State, which had been in our first three Bracket Watch columns, was barely hanging on after losing to unranked George Washington on Christmas Day, and an eight-point win over a 3-10 Drake team wasn't enough to keep them around.
The other team ranked in the top 16 by the AP that isn't listed below is one that has not been in Bracket Watch yet this season yet one you can rest assured will be in our 68-team field next week, and it could even be on a top-four seed line: St. John’s. Despite a New Year’s Eve loss at Seton Hall in its Big East opener, the Red Storm has surged to an 11-2 record and entered the week ranked No. 15 in the country.
After falling far short of expectations – and the NCAA tournament – with a 20-13 record a year ago, Steve Lavin’s bunch has been among the most surprising teams in the country. The Red Storm ranks sixth in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom, and has held opponents to 37.1 percent field goal shooting, best in the Big East. That could be huge in a conference with strong offensive teams like Georgetown, Villanova and Xavier.
As of right now, the Johnnies’ best wins are over Minnesota at home and Syracuse on the road. They’ve played just one ranked team – Gonzaga – to this point, and lost by seven in a game played at Madison Square Garden, their de facto home court. The Golden Gophers and the Orange are both top 30 teams on KenPom, but just one of St. John’s nine other wins has come against a team inside the top 100.
That’s what makes the early part of conference play so huge for the Johnnies. They get surprising Butler on Saturday and then No. 6 Villanova on Sunday, both at home. Up to this point, the Red Storm has not done enough to warrant inclusion in the top 16 of Bracket Watch. A sweep of those two games would change that and cement the Red Storm as a contender in the Big East.
1. Kentucky (13-0, Last week: South 1): It wasn’t the prettiest game, but the Wildcats took care of Louisville on the road last Saturday. They’ve now beaten four ranked teams – three of which were in the top 10 at the time of the game – and there isn’t a currently ranked team remaining on their regular season schedule. According to KenPom, the Cats have a 24.4 percent chance of going undefeated, but it might actually be even better than that.
2. Gonzaga (13-1, LW: S2): The Bulldogs cleared their biggest test of the West Coast Conference schedule right off the bat, beating BYU in Provo on Monday behind Kyle Wiltjer’s 24 points. They have just five games remaining with KenPom top 100 teams.
3. Texas (11-2, LW: S3): The Longhorns bounced back from an overtime loss to Stanford on Dec. 23 with an 11-point win over Rice on Monday by doing what they do best: owning the glass. Texas grabbed offensive rebounds on 18 of its 30 missed shots, an even better rate than its season-long showing of 42.7 percent, which ranks seventh in the country.
4. Notre Dame (13-1, LW: S4): The Fighting Irish are a force on offense. It ranks first in the country in two-point field goal percentage and effective field goal percentage, second in adjusted offensive efficiency, third in turnover percentage and seventh in three-point field goal percentage. Notre Dame has a couple early ACC tests coming up, with a visit to No 19 North Carolina on Jan. 5 and a home game against No. 3 Virginia on Jan. 10.
1. Duke (11-0, LW: East 1): Do we really have to wait a month for our first Duke-Notre Dame meeting this season? Those two games, on Jan. 28 in South Bend and Feb. 7 in Durham, could be offensive showcases. The second-ranked Blue Devils are first in adjusted offensive efficiency and second in effective field goal percentage.
2. Villanova (12-0, LW: E2): The Wildcats opened Big East play by beating Butler on New Year’s Eve, its only game of the past week. They get their first real conference test with that aforementioned trip to New York to play St. John’s on Tuesday.
3. Maryland (13-1, LW: E4): If there was any doubt about the Terrapins being a factor in its first season in the Big Ten, they dispelled it by knocking off Michigan State in East Lansing in their first ever game in that league. Guards Dez Wells (15.3 ppg) and Melo Trimble (15.9) could prove to be one of the best scoring combos in the conference.
4. Kansas (10-2, LW: W4): Even with the ugly 25-point loss to Temple on Dec. 22, the Jayhawks are still the No. 14 team on KenPom, not bad considering they’ve played the nation’s eighth-toughest non-conference schedule according to that same metric. Kansas still has one more test before opening Big 12 play – hosting UNLV on Sunday – but it will need more consistent perimeter scoring if it is to win its 11th straight Big 12 regular season title, and it has gotten that punch recently from Kelly Oubre Jr. The heralded freshman guard had struggled for much of the season, but he had 23 points against Lafayette on Dec. 20 and 20 against Kent State on Tuesday.
1. Wisconsin (12-1, LW: Midwest 1): The Badgers got more of a game from Buffalo at the Kohl Center than they likely expected on Dec. 28, winning by 12, before routing Penn State by 17 in their Big Ten opener on Wednesday. Wisconsin shot 6-of-13 from three-point range in that latter game but its outside shooting has been a surprising Achilles’ heel this season; the Badgers are still just 135th in the nation in three-point percentage.
2. Arizona (12-1, LW: MW2): The Wildcats have been off since their loss at UNLV on Dec. 23, and they don’t get back on the court until Sunday in their Pac-12 opener against Arizona State. It will be interesting to see if freshman forward Stanley Johnson can continue his stellar season against tougher competition; he leads the team in scoring (14.5 ppg) and rebounding (6.8 rpg).
3. Iowa State (9-1, LW: MW3): The Cyclones will get tested right away in the Big 12, with consecutive games against No. 17 West Virginia, No. 22 Baylor and No. 13 Kansas. That will be a defining stretch for a team that has lost to the only team it has played that is currently ranked (now-No. 12 Maryland, which was outside the top 25 when it beat Iowa State by nine on Nov. 25).
4. North Carolina (10-3, LW: N/A): The Tar Heels are ranked 19th but are back in the top 16 of Bracket Watch after wins over then-No. 12 Ohio State, UAB and William and Mary over the past two weeks. The key to further advancement will be getting junior guard Marcus Paige to perform as expected. The preseason ACC player of the year enters conference play scoring just 13.6 points per game, way down from his 17.5 output a year ago. UNC opens its ACC schedule at Clemson on Saturday night and then hosts two highly-ranked teams in Chapel Hill next week: No. 14 Notre Dame on Monday and No. 5 Louisville on Jan. 10.
1. Virginia (12-0, LW: West 1): The Cavaliers survived a first-half scare against Davidson on Tuesday, eventually pulling away to win by 11. That wrapped up an undefeated non-conference schedule in which only one win (by eight against LaSalle on Nov. 28) was by fewer than double-digits. The competition figures to be tougher in the loaded ACC, which begins for Virginia against Miami on Saturday.
2. Louisville (11-1, LW: W2): Losing to the unquestioned best team in the country, even at home, shouldn’t send you sliding down the rankings, so it’s not surprising that the Cardinals only dropped one spot in the AP poll and didn’t fall in Bracket Watch at all. Nevertheless, their flaws were on display against Kentucky, as they shot just 26 percent from the field. Even accounting for how good the Wildcats are defensively, this team is desperate for offense: The Cards are shooting just 43.1 percent on the season and rank 69th in adjusted efficiency. Louisville opens its debut season in the ACC with two visits to Tobacco Road among its first three league games: at Wake Forest on Sunday and at North Carolina on Jan. 10.
3. Utah (10-2, LW: W3): Like the team right above them, the Utes are strong defensively (Louisville is No. 2 in defensive efficiency, Utah No. 12) but still appear to be offensively challenged, ranking 61st in offensive efficiency. We may not know how significantly that will limit their ceiling until we see them play at Arizona on Jan. 17.
4. West Virginia (12-1, LW: N/A): After routing Virginia Tech by 31 points on Tuesday to wrap up a non-conference slate in which their only loss came by one point to LSU, the Mountaineers make their season debut in Bracket Watch this week. They’re 13th overall on KenPom thanks to a suffocating defense that ranks first in turnover percentage. Having a guard like Juwan Staten (15.9 ppg) doesn’t hurt, either.