Heat Check: Irish Turning Up
The return of Jerian Grant has really made a huge difference for the Fighting Irish after an incredibly disappointing debut in the ACC. Grant may be the best college guard in a talented ACC that includes Tyus Jones and Marcus Paige. He’s leading the team in scoring and assists while sporting an impressive 6.2:1.6 assist to turnover ratio. Notre Dame doesn’t boast much size, but has beaten opponents by shooting over 40% from three as a team and only turning the ball over 10 times per game. They’ve gotten an incredible 14.7 PPG in just 24 minutes from much-improved junior Zach Auguste while Pat Connaughton has been averaging 8.2 RPG while playing a very undersized stretch four. However, the improvement of McDonald’s AA Demetrius Jackson in his sophomore year has really taken Mike Brey’s squad to the next level. This is still a thin team without much size to speak of beyond Auguste, but as long as Grant stays healthy they look like a great bet to finish in the top five in the ACC. Tonight’s game at UNC will be a true test for an undersized Irish team.
Heat Score – 8/10
Up to 12-2 after knocking off back-to-back ranked opponents last week, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Pirates crack the top 25 for the first time in three years. That season didn’t end well, but this team looks the part. Perhaps most surprising is that the Pirates are winning big games without McDonald’s AA Isaiah Whitehead who is currently out with a stress fracture in his foot. Junior Sterling Gibbs may have had the best week of any guard in the country and has shot an impressive 50% from three to date. Gibbs was the key to upset wins over Villanova and St. John’s to kick off their league slate in a tough Big East. Freshman Angel Delgado has been a force on the boards as advertised, and they’ve also had steady contributions from senior Brandon Mobley. However, without Whitehead they’ll need to continue to get solid contributions from sophomore guard Jaren Sina as well as freshman Khadeen Carrington. Carrington especially has really stepped up, averaging 14 points in 32 minutes in the last two games including clutch points down the stretch. Kudos to coach Kevin Willard for developing depth on his bench, and now has the Pirates playing very well to kick off Big East play.
Heat Score – 9/10
The Gamecocks turned some heads by upsetting Iowa State on a neutral court last week, but those who have been paying attention aren’t surprised to seeing big improvements coming from Columbia. Frank Martin has quietly had this much-maligned program trending in the right direction. Now those improvements are about as subtle as one of Martin’s infamous death stares. After an uneven start to the season, South Carolina has knocked off Clemson, Oklahoma State, and now Iowa State. Not bad for what was supposed to be a bottom of the pack team in a bad conference. Unsurprising for a Frank Martin team, the Gamecocks have been playing great defense including holding Iowa State to a shocking 1-18 from beyond the arc. What is surprising is that this team has been playing so well despite star guard Sindarius Thornwell mired in an offensive slump. Sophomore guard Duane Notice has played well as has Senior Tyrone Johnson. Junior Lithuanian big man Laimonas Chatkevicius has also made some big time improvements adding some much needed scoring next to Demetrius Henry down low. South Carolina opens SEC play against Florida and Ole Miss this week. Those games should give us a much better idea where the Gamecocks fit into the SEC pecking order in 2015.
Heat Score – 7/10
The Terps might just be the second best team in the Big 10 showing much better chemistry this year despite suffering a lot of attrition from last year’s team. Right now they’re sitting at 14-1 despite having Dez Wells miss seven games with a wrist injury. Freshman Melo Trimble has been doing even more for this team than his 16.2 PPG might suggest. An 87% free throw shooter, Trimble has excelled at getting to the line, attempting over 8 FTs per game. Jake Laymon and Damonte Dodd have anchored what looked like a thin frontcourt while senior Evan Smotrycz has slotted into a bench role after missing the first month of the season due to injury. However, Dez Wells might be a first team All Big 10 player. He makes this team go, and Mark Turgeon has to be ecstatic to get him back in the lineup in time for Big 10 play. The Terps already have a road wins over Michigan State, Oklahoma State, and a neutral site win over Iowa State while their only loss was to a top 5 Virginia team without Wells. Scary thing for the Big 10? They may not have played their best basketball yet. Also, the Big 10 schedule is favorable, getting Rutgers, Nebraska, and Penn State twice. A top three finish in the conference should be expected.
Heat Score – 8.5/10
Mid Major Heat
After getting six bids in the tournament last year, it might be tough to consider the A-10 a “mid major” conference, but the league certainly still has that feel. Davidson especially, entering their first year in the league, still embodies the mid major spirit, especially since they were mostly picked to finish close to the basement this season. The Wildcats don’t have any particularly impressive wins despite sitting at 10-2 with a conference win over Richmond. However, their two losses were fairly competitive against UNC and Virginia. The Virginia game particularly impressed me. Davidson’s offense gave the Cavaliers all they could handle in the first half before Virginia pulled away in the second half. Bob McKillop has this team clicking on all cylinders on offense scoring 85.8 points per game; good for fourth in the nation. When taken in context with that performance against Virginia, that number looks even more impressive. Much like the Irish, Davidson has been beating opponents with 40% shooting from beyond the arc while only turning the ball over 10 times per game. Even with a questionable at best defense, these Wildcats should cause some real problems in the A-10. If you get a chance to catch the Davidson-VCU game on Wednesday, keep an eye on sophomore Jack Gibbs. He’s be one of the best guards in the A-10, averaging 17 PPG on 48% shooting from three while averaging 4.8 assists and 58% shooting from the floor. Impressive.
Heat Score – 6/10