- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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Yes, that's right: It's the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. Not the other way around.
Before you ACC fans fire up the angry email machine, don't blame me for the naming convention. It's simply a matter of ritual. Every year, the Big Ten and ACC take turns sharing this two-day competition's first billing. Last year it was the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. This year it's the Big Ten/ACC.
If yours truly had his druthers, the name would be determined by the winner of the previous year's contest. The ACC would have loved this for the first decade of the competition, when it went 10-0 and earned a truly daunting array of bragging rights over its Midwestern brethren. But the Big Ten has experienced a minor renaissance the past two seasons, winning both in 2009 and 2010 and closing the considerable gap, if only slightly, in the ACC's all-time Challenge lead.
Who takes the title home this season? All signs point to the Big Ten being the much stronger, deeper conference overall, but that hardly guarantees victory. As always, the Big Ten/ACC winner will be the league that gets wins in the most opportunistic ways -- usually with a batch of upsets mixed in.
Let's break down those matchups. And while we're at it, since you don't already have enough to send me angry emails about, I might as well throw in a few predictions, too. I eagerly await your "How could you pick Team X over Team Y YOU IDIOT?!?!" emails Wednesday morning. Should be fun. Not as much fun as the Big Ten/ACC Challenge itself, of course. But fun all the same.
Let's begin with Tuesday's games. For my predictions and analysis of each of the Wednesday games, click here.
Tuesday, Nov. 29
Michigan at Virginia, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Prediction: Virginia wins 65-63
Why: Don't get me wrong, that predicted score line is most definitely an upset. In fact, it would be the upset of the Challenge. But there are a few things to take into account here. One: Virginia's brutally slow pace tends to make its opponents play on its terms, and the Cavaliers could force the Wolverines into a grinding half-court game. Two: Michigan is coming off a rather long and arduous trip to the Maui Invitational, which not only involved flights to and from Maui but three tough games in three straight days. Three: It's always tougher to win on the road. Four: As in the NCAA tournament, there are always upsets in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. If Virginia is as improved as many preseason prognosticators have asserted, and if it can keep the air out of the ball, pressure Michigan guard Trey Burke at the point of attack, and prevent Tim Hardaway Jr. from finding a scoring groove, anything can happen. Which is not the most ringing endorsement, I know. But I had to pick an upset somewhere.
Northwestern at Georgia Tech, 7:15 p.m. ET, ESPNU
Prediction: Northwestern wins 80-70
Why: Much like last season, opportunities to scout and gauge the ability of the Northwestern Wildcats prior to the Big Ten/ACC Challenge have been minimal. Northwestern has looked good, but we're not really sure how good. Wins over LSU, Tulsa and Seton Hall in the Charleston Classic are nice, but they're hardly going to convince you of this team's ability to, say, make its first NCAA tournament appearance in school history. Georgia Tech may provide a slightly stiffer test, and not only because the game is on the road. Under first-year Yellow Jackets coach Brian Gregory, Georgia Tech has been brutally ugly on the offensive end but solid defensively, ranking No. 25 in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency thanks in large part to strong perimeter defending and rebounding. Still, Northwestern, with the ever-efficient John Shurna leading the way, should be able to overcome.
Illinois at Maryland, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Prediction: Illinois wins 65-56
Why: At this point in the season, Maryland is just holding on for dear life. That's what happens when you lose a center like Jordan Williams to the NBA and return in the fall to find your point guard (Pe'Shon Howard) and your would-be center (Alex Len) missing thanks to injury and suspension, respectively. Howard's absence has forced guard Nick Faust to take over point responsibilities, a role he told the Washington Post he hasn't played since he was 10 or 11, and Maryland's early results -- with two blowout losses to Alabama and Iona -- have made the difficult transition glaringly noticeable. Meanwhile, Illinois will get its first reasonably difficult game of the season. All six of the Illini's wins to date have been, as colleague Dick Vitale might say, Cupcake City. But the Illini do have talent here, in the form of veteran guards Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson and vastly improved center Meyers Leonard, who will come into Tuesday night's game averaging 12.3 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.2 blocks per game.
Miami at Purdue, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Prediction: Purdue wins 72-66
Why: Purdue has been almost entirely perimeter-oriented this season. Robbie Hummel, Lewis Jackson and Ryne Smith are this rebuilt team's best and most important offensive players. Even Hummel, who has the size to go down low, has spent most of his effective comeback season playing around the edges of the defense. When the Boilermakers have to face a live frontcourt -- or at least a team that works inside-out rather than outside-in -- they could really struggle. Miami is not that team. The Hurricanes were devastated by injuries to big men Reggie Johnson and Julian Gamble in the offseason, and Jim Larranaga's team has had to get by on little more than the backcourt performance of guards Malcolm Grant and Durand Scott. At home, with the insane folks in the Paint Crew on their side, Purdue should be the favorite
Clemson at Iowa, 9:15 p.m. ET, ESPNU
Prediction: Clemson wins 68-60
Why: If you look only at records -- which would be weird and a not-very-good way to analyze college basketball, but hey, to each his own! -- you might think Iowa and Clemson are on similar ground heading into this one. You would be wrong. Iowa's two losses -- a blowout to a good Creighton team on a neutral court and a 77-61 (!) home loss to none other than the Campbell Fighting Camels -- look very bad indeed. Clemson's two losses, on the other hand, came to reasonably solid mid-majors (Coastal Carolina and College of Charleston) and were the product of one-possession deficits. In the meantime, Clemson ended last week ranked No. 49 in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings thanks in large part to a No. 18-ranked defense. Iowa ended last week ranked No. 109. Iowa's home court can be loud at its best and depressingly quiet at its worst, so as long as Clemson can overcome the Hawks' comfort with the fast-break style in Carver Hawkeye-Arena, Brad Brownell's team should be able to get the win.
Duke at Ohio State, 9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Prediction: Ohio State wins 79-74
Why: On the ESPNU College Basketball podcast on Monday (sorry: shameless plug), our own Doug Gottlieb made a rather trenchant observation regarding Ohio State forward Jared Sullinger's matchup with the Duke frontcourt Tuesday night. He pointed out that Sullinger is best-defended by an athletic, strong big who can play behind him, forcing him to work for position on the offensive end, and who is tall enough to challenge Sullinger's moves around the rim. Mason Plumlee qualifies for this role. Likewise, Duke's offense presents some issues for Sullinger defensively, because the big fella -- for all his incredible strengths on the floor -- struggled at times last season to hedge ball screens and recover in time to seal around the rim. In case you haven't noticed, Duke runs a lot of ball screens. In other words, this might not be Sully's best game. Despite all that, the reason Ohio State wins is perimeter defense. Aaron Craft is as good an on-ball perimeter defender as there is in the country, and Thad Matta's team is loaded with players who can challenge shots and pressure the ball without committing fouls. Duke hasn't played a perimeter defense this capable yet; so many of the things that got them open looks in Maui will be challenged well by Craft & Co. In the meantime, Ohio State's offense -- which is still dynamic but with the added benefit of insane depth -- should put up enough points to hold Duke off in the end.