The Big Ten should thank Iowa. Minnesota, too. And home court advantage. Actually, play it safe, Big Ten: Point your gratitude at all of the above.
On the first night of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge -- the 15th meeting between these two conferences, and the first in the ACC's new 15-team configuration -- the best the B1G could do was hold serve.
Iowa and Minnesota, the only two Big Ten teams playing at home Tuesday night, were also the league's only two wins. The rest of the ACC's impressive Tuesday ranged from businesslike wins to outright dominance. Suddenly, for the first time in at least three years, the conference that once swaggered supremely over this inter-conference competition -- that went 10-0 in the first 11 Challenges -- was in command once more.
Really, even the expected wins were hard-fought. Fran McCaffery's 23rd-ranked Hawkeyes were splendid on the break in their 98-93 Carver-Hawkeye Arena win over new ACC member Notre Dame. Five players scored in double figures, and forward Aaron White led the way with 20 points and seven rebounds, as Iowa outpaced Notre Dame to the tune of 1.40 points per possession. The win was not a surprise, but the conditions of it were: Iowa, a top-20 defense a season ago and one of the best per-possession units in the country to date, yielded nearly 1.3 points per trip to the Irish, including a 29-point, nine-rebound game from forward Garrick Sherman.
Not that the Big Ten was looking for style points by then. Minnesota, also playing at home, managed to hold off a Florida State team that dropped VCU and took Michigan to overtime in Puerto Rico (and lost by one point to Florida this week), a solid result for a team disappointed by a just-OK showing in Maui last week. Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins combined for 37 points, six assists and eight rebounds. They, more than anyone else, were the key difference, the catalysts that allowed the Gophers to a) score well above a point per trip and b) close the game out in the final minutes.
So, yeah. Solid win for Minnesota. Good stuff. Positive vibes. The rest was all ACC.
There were two types of Atlantic Coast Conference wins Tuesday night. The first kind came in Duke's workmanlike win over Michigan at Cameron Indoor Stadium, or in Pittsburgh's almost indifferent victory over Penn State. These were not spectacular victories; they came with plenty of nits to be picked. But they were wins all the same.
The second type was more devastating, if for different reasons. Syracuse essentially manhandled Indiana in the Carrier Dome Tuesday, holding the Hoosiers to just 23 second-half points in a 69-52 win. IU kept the game close for the first 20, and even led, 27-26, with 3:30 left in the first half. But the lead was short-lived, and once C.J. Fair and company got into a rhythm in the second half, Indiana's poor perimeter shooting -- by far the biggest difference between this young team and the one that earned a No. 1 seed before falling to Syracuse in the Sweet 16 last season -- left IU coach Tom Crean searching for answers on both ends of the floor. (He even tried a 1-3-1 zone for a while. It didn't help.)
Even worse -- both for the respective team itself and for the Big Ten's chances of toppling a suddenly potent ACC in this Challenge -- was Illinois' loss at Georgia Tech. The Illini owned most of the game. Joseph Bertrand was particularly impressive, all tight dribble moves and creative, challenged finishes. With 9:15 to play, Illinois led 60-48 -- and then it promptly let the game slip from its grasp. The Nnanna Egwu dunk that gave Illinois that lead was John Groce's team's last bucket for nearly eight minutes. In the meantime, Georgia Tech chipped away at the lead. By the final buzzer, the Yellow Jackets had finished on a 19-4 run, and what would have been a crucial break for the Big Ten on the road -- and an eminently winnable one, at that -- turned into a brutal road loss.
It is kind of silly to get too worked up over the actual tally of this competition. (Big Ten fans would argue this is especially true now that the ACC can leave three of its weaker programs -- Wake Forest, Clemson and Virginia Tech -- on the sidelines.) The real intrigue here is, or at least should be, focused on the teams themselves, on all of the little details therein.
But there's no way of getting around: The Big Ten-ACC Challenge is a macro competition, too. Right now, after one night, the Big Ten trails 4-2, and its Wednesday schedule offers little in the way of obvious advantages. No. 1 Michigan State gets North Carolina at home, sure, and Ohio State's insanely tough defense should make quick work of Maryland in Value City Arena. But other than that? Wisconsin is hardly a guarantee to knock off stylistic comrades Virginia in Charlottesville. Northwestern won't be a favorite at NC State. Purdue-Boston College and Miami-Nebraska are, well, your guess is as good as mine. Which means for the first time in three years, the ACC should -- repeat: should -- take back the Challenge it so ruthlessly dominated for the competition's first decade.
At the very least, something funky has to happen. Iowa and Minnesota were the Big Ten's lone bright spots Tuesday night, and the road back on Wednesday looks difficult indeed.