Tuesday, November 30, 2010
Breaking down the ACC/Big Ten Challenge
By Eamonn Brennan
It’s no secret the ACC has owned the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. (Or the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, depending on the year. This year, ACC comes first.) For the first 10 years of the competition, the ACC made a case for permanent masthead ownership: The conference went a perfect 10-for-10 in 10 seasons, collectively dominating its Midwestern brethren and -- coupled with the conference's five national titles since 2001 -- cementing itself as one of (if not the) premier basketball conferences of the past decade.
In 2009, the tides turned. For the first time, the Big Ten was victorious. It wasn’t easy: Illinois pulled off a statistically insane win after trailing at Clemson by 23 points in the second half and Wisconsin managed an upset win over Duke at the Kohl Center to seal a 6-5 Challenge victory.
Let's fast-forward to this season. With the exception of Duke, no one in the ACC has looked particularly impressive thus far, and a handful of teams appear to be downright bad. (We're looking at you, Wake.) The Big Ten still has its weaklings -- Indiana, Penn State, Iowa -- but there are seven teams in the league with realistic designs on an NCAA tournament berth.
Does that mean the Big Ten wins the Challenge? Maybe. But as last year showed us, nothing is guaranteed. Just ask Clemson. Or better yet, just ask 13th-ranked Minnesota, which lost at home Monday night to a Virginia team that had previously lost to Stanford by 21 and to Washington by 43.
In other words, trying to predict this thing is folly. But hey, let’s do it anyway! Here's a look at the rest of the 2010 ACC-Big Ten Challenge, previewed and predicted, just as soon as I dust off the tarot cards:
Tuesday, Nov. 30
Georgia Tech at Northwestern, 7 ET, ESPN2 Prediction: Northwestern wins 70-58
Why: Northwestern returns an offensively potent, veteran bunch, led by forward John Shurna and managed by senior point guard Michael Thompson. And the Wildcats have a pretty specific, obvious goal for the season: Get to the NCAA tournament for the first time ever. (No matter how often you talk about that stat, it never gets any less insane. No NCAA tournaments! Ever! How does that happen?!) Georgia Tech isn’t exactly the greatest test ever -- the Yellow Jackets have lost by 17 points to Kennesaw State, for cripes sake -- but Northwestern’s schedule to date has been so bad that this is the first time we’ll get a legitimate glimpse of just how capable these Wildcats can be. And Tech did show some signs of life this weekend in Atlantic City, beating UTEP and narrowly losing to Syracuse.
Iowa at Wake Forest, 7 ET, ESPNU Prediction: Iowa wins 76-69
Why: Because you have to pick someone to win this game, and Wake Forest might be the worst team in any major conference this season. The Demon Deacons have already dropped games to Stetson (89-79), VCU (90-69) and Winthrop (83-74). That’s, like, really bad. Of course, the Hawkeyes aren’t exactly world-beaters; they might be the worst team in a conference that also includes Penn State and Indiana and they have a couple of questionable losses (to South Dakota State and Long Beach State) of their own. But Fran McCaffery’s team has shown signs it can adapt to his up-tempo style, it will have the best player on the floor in guard Matt Gatens, and Iowa did manage to topple Alabama. That’s more than we can say for Wake. Both of these teams are bad -- Iowa just looks slightly less bad. But honestly, who knows?
No. 2 Ohio State at Florida State, 7:30 ET, ESPN Prediction: Ohio State wins, 64-60
Why: That score should tell you how tempted I was to pick this upset. In fact, I’m not sure it’s that much of an upset. Florida State has played defense as well as any team in the country this season -- no surprise, given how good the Seminoles were on the defensive end last season. Florida State finished last season ranked No. 1 in adjusted defensive efficiency; this season, it's No. 3. But the Seminoles have serious issues on the offensive end -- they scored 51 points in 60 possessions in a home loss to Florida Sunday night -- and their one weakness on defense (rebounding) is disconcerting, given they’ll be facing Jared Sullinger, Dallas Lauderdale and the rest of the Buckeyes, who are ranked No. 12 in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage. FSU’s perimeter defense will force plenty of misses outside, but Sully and crew will clean up down low, and that should be enough for a tough road win.
Michigan at Clemson, 9 ET, ESPN2 Prediction: Clemson wins 68-60
Why: Michigan fans should take heart -- after a brutal exhibition trip to Europe caused some to question whether John Beilein can last long-term in Ann Arbor, the rebuilding Wolverines have looked ... well, not all that bad actually. Michigan lost to Syracuse by only three on Friday, and though a so-so UTEP team topped them a day later, the Wolverines have gotten solid performances from youngsters such as Darius Morris and Tim Hardaway Jr. You might, in a fit of optimism, even call Michigan’s future “bright.” For now, though, Michigan’s challenge is steep: The Wolverines will travel to a tough home environment at Littlejohn Coliseum and face a Clemson team that looks just this side of capable. The Tigers’ only loss this season came in a one-point neutral-court thriller to a quality mid-major opponent (Old Dominion). Clemson followed up with a win over a talented and veteran Seton Hall team a day later. The Wolverines’ development this season will be intriguing, but for now, Clemson is your favorite.
North Carolina at No. 21 Illinois, 9:30 ET, ESPN Prediction: Illinois wins 80-72
Why: Whoever comes up with the ACC/Big Ten Challenge schedule deserves a nice big pat on the back. Not only did Mr. or Mrs. Scheduler manage to intelligently couple each league’s teams based on expected finish, he or she also gave us this matchup, which features two teams more similar than different. Both are coming off disappointing NIT seasons, both have faltered against tough competition early in the year, and both need to prove that they’re worthy of their respective preseason hype. Still, let’s give the clear advantage to the Illini: Bruce Weber’s team is full of veterans; it has the length and athleticism to match up with Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Tyler Zeller; and it will be playing in Assembly Hall, a major built-in boost no matter the opponent. And unless Roy Williams solved his point guard problems in the past week (hint: he didn’t), UNC will travel to Champaign with the same disjointed squad, a team much weaker than the sum of its very talented parts. (If someone can explain why North Carolina, a team that barely survived its home date with Charleston Sunday night, was ranked in the top 10 to begin the season, I'd like to hear it. It didn’t make sense then and it looks even worse now.)
Wednesday, Dec. 1
NC State at Wisconsin, 7:15 p.m. ET, ESPN2 Prediction: Wisconsin wins 57-51
Why: If NC State senior Tracy Smith was playing in this game, the temptation to pick the Wolfpack would be almost overwhelming. After all, Wisconsin is a team with two losses already: a tough three-point loss at UNLV, which is forgivable, and an ugly seven-point defeat at the hands of Notre Dame, which is less so. The Badgers don’t yet have that stable, competent look of a Bo Ryan team. Sunday night’s loss to the Irish came after Wisconsin squandered an 11-point second-half lead and gave up 15 straight points to Notre Dame in the game’s final four minutes. Warts or no, though, Wisconsin almost never loses at the Kohl Center -- the Badgers are 138-11 at home in the Ryan era -- and the loss of Smith robs NC State of the sort of experienced presence you need in such an environment. It also robs the Wolfpack of rebounding. UW is the No. 6 team in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage; NC State ranks No. 319 at keeping opposing offenses off the glass. That’s a recipe for rebounding disaster, and the Pack won’t be able to overcome it.
Indiana at Boston College, 7:15 p.m. ET, ESPNU Prediction: Boston College wins 62-59
Why: File this prediction under “I really have no idea, so let’s just go with it.” Just what are we supposed to make of these two teams? Boston College has one quality win on its résumé: a 67-65 win over Texas A&M on Thursday (which looked even better after the Aggies toppled Temple on Sunday). But the Eagles also suffered one of the uglier defeats -- an eight-point home loss to Yale on Nov. 18 -- of any major-conference team in 2010. Indiana, on the other hand, has no losses, but also no quality wins. The Hoosiers have filled up on high-fructose cupcakes in their first six games, going 6-0 against the murderer’s row that is Florida Gulf Coast, Wright State, Mississippi Valley State, Evansville, North Carolina Central and Northwestern State. (At least the Evansville win looks a bit better, given the Purple Aces’ upset over Butler at Hinkle this weekend.) We have no proof that this Indiana group is better than last season’s dreadful record, but we also have no proof it is not. Let’s give BC the benefit of home-court advantage -- Indiana hasn’t left the comfy confines of Assembly Hall, after all -- but honestly, your guess is as good as mine.
No. 18 Purdue at Virginia Tech, 7:30 ET, ESPN Prediction: Purdue wins, 66-63
Why: The Boilermakers are coming off a brutal shooting performance in a loss to Richmond on Saturday. Purdue shot 30 percent for the game and scored a paltry 14 points in the first half in the Chicago Invitational tournament final, and even the Boilers’ 40-point second half wasn’t enough to catch up to the brilliance of Spiders guard Kevin Anderson. But even if it plays that poorly on offense in Blacksburg, Purdue’s defense should be good enough to see it through. There’s also the matter of matchups. Thanks to some frontcourt injuries, Virginia Tech is short on consistent frontline performers, and Purdue forward JaJuan Johnson should present constant matchup problems under the rim. This is another of the Challenge games that could go either way. Malcolm Delaney is pretty good, after all, and the Hokies’ two losses this season -- to Kansas State and UNLV -- are nothing to be ashamed of. But if I had to guess (and I do, because it’s my job), I’d go with a bounceback effort from Purdue here. We’ll see.
Maryland at Penn State, 9:15 ET, ESPN2 Prediction: Maryland wins 82-68
Why: Pity poor Talor Battle. The Penn State guard is the best player on the floor nearly every time he steps on it, but the Nittany Lions are so bereft at nearly every other position -- especially in the low block -- that his individual brilliance frequently goes wasted. That will likely be the case again Wednesday night. Maryland has already posted several impressive early-season efforts, especially in hard-fought losses to Illinois and Pittsburgh in Madison Square Garden. The Terps have a budding star in sophomore forward Jordan Williams, who’s averaging a double-double (17.4 points, 11.9 rebounds) in their six games. He’s done that against quality frontcourts, too, so it’ll be fun to see what he does against Penn State’s sluggish bunch. That is, fun for everyone but Penn State.
No. 6 Michigan State at No. 1 Duke, 9:30 ET, ESPN Prediction: Duke wins 84-72
Why: Entering the season, this game -- with the possible exception of Duke-Kansas State, which we saw unfold last week -- was the biggest mark-your-calendar event of the nonconference season. It’s still a thoroughly awesome fixture, but it did lose some of its luster after Michigan State’s stagnant performance in the Maui Invitational. The Spartans barely held on to beat Chaminade and then lost to a Kemba Walker-led Connecticut team in the tournament semifinals. Meanwhile, Duke thoroughly dominated Kansas State in what was essentially a road game at the Sprint Center in Kansas City. Given all that, a Spartans win appears unlikely. The good news for Michigan State’s title hopes? For one, they don’t play the NCAA tournament in Durham, N.C. Second, Tom Izzo's teams are always much better come tourney time than they are in November. Given what we saw last week, though, it’s hard to envision Michigan State going into Cameron Indoor Stadium and taking down Kyle Singler, Kyrie Irving, Nolan Smith and the rest of the impressive Dukies at this stage of the season. Expect Duke to look good again, and expect the snickers about an undefeated season to escalate into a bona fide discussion.