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Wednesday, November 28, 2012
Saddle Up: ACC/Big Ten, part deux

By Eamonn Brennan

Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action. To see the ACC/Big Ten Challenge predictions from our six writers -- Who do they like tonight? How did they do in Day 1? -- click here. And visit last night's Home Court Live for a recap of Tuesday night's Challenge.

No. 13 Michigan State at Miami, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN: Usually, teams with obvious Final Four potential coast through most of the early portions of their season, saving their most cardiac-arrest-inducing performances for exempt tournaments and conference play. Home games against Boise State and Louisiana-Lafayette are supposed to be easy. They're tune-ups, cupcakes, guarantees. For this Michigan State team, which beat Boise 74-70 and barely scraped by Lafayette Sunday 63-60, nothing much has come easy yet this season.

That will be the case again Wednesday night. Sure, Miami lost to Florida Gulf Coast by 12, but, (a) that was on the road, and (b) Florida Gulf Coast is really not that bad. (For comparison's sake, FGCU is No. 137 in Pomeroy's efficiency rankings; UL-Lafayette is No. 228.) Miami has a bruising veteran frontcourt (Kenny Kadji, Reggie Johnson), which is exactly the kind of thing you need to play against Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne, and guard Durand Scott will present plenty of issues for the Spartans' guards on the perimeter. Chances this game is close are far greater than the chances Michigan State just rolls in Coral Gables and does whatever it wants.

Virginia at Wisconsin, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2: Do you like fast-paced basketball? Then this game will not be for you.

Keep in mind, that is not a criticism. Some like to have a go at Wisconsin for their low-low tempo, but I am not one of these people. Indeed, I have no problem watching one team take the air out of the ball, particularly if that team is as well-drilled, intelligent and efficient as Bo Ryan's teams typically are.

That said, there is simply no denying this game is going to be as slow as Division I college basketball gets. Last season, per KenPom, the Badgers finished No. 345 in pace. This season, Tony Bennett's Mike Scott-less Virginia team ranks No. 345. When forward Jared Berggren told me at Big Ten media day that Wisconsin could speed up if it wanted to, that must have been what he meant.

So what you'll get when you tune in to the Challenge's first game Wednesday night won't be fast-paced basketball. It will be slow, methodical and defensive, with both teams playing some form of the pack line principles Bennett's father, Dick, pioneered two decades ago at Wisconsin-Green Bay. The difference is that Wisconsin is a much more efficient offensive team than Virginia these days -- that was true when Mike Scott played in Charlottesville last season, and it remains true this season -- and the Cavaliers have to play in a building where Bo Ryan-coached teams almost never lose. It will be low scoring, it will be tight and boy, it will be slow -- but it is hard to picture Virginia coming out of Madison with a win.

Purdue at Clemson, 7:15 p.m. ET, ESPNU: In 2008, a young, freshman-oriented Matt Painter-coached team lost at Clemson in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. That team went on to win 25 games, and -- with freshmen Robbie Hummel, E'Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson -- form the foundation for a rebirth of success in West Lafayette.

That era is (finally) over now, and some have drawn comparisons between that class and this fall's Indiana-oriented recruiting reboot. Those comparisons may be valid, but the Boilermakers aren't there yet. Were Purdue granted a different matchup (cough, Wake Forest, cough, Boston College) or not forced to go play Clemson on the road, you might like its chances as a sleeper/upset pick. But if Purdue is not as bad as you think (and it isn't), Clemson -- led by seniors Devin Booker and Milton Jennings, and getting great stuff from freshman Adonis Filer -- embodies that quality much more fully.
(Editor's Note: Shortly after this article was posted, Clemson announced that Jennings -- Clemson's leading scorer and second-leading rebounder -- is suspended for tonight's game due to a violation of team rules)

Georgia Tech at No. 22 Illinois, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2: For whatever reason, last season Illinois just flat quit on Bruce Weber. Maybe that was Weber's fault. He just stopped connecting. Or maybe it was his players' fault. Maybe it's both. But after a 7-0 start, there is no denying the simple fact that this group of Illinois players -- guards Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Tracy Abrams, forwards Tyler Griffey and Myke Henry and Joseph Bertrand and Nnanna Egwu -- is not nearly as talented as last season's team but is already also playing about 5,000 times more coherent, cohesive basketball than that team ever did.

At Big Ten media day this season, Paul -- a notoriously inefficient, often wild scorer in his three years before this one -- told me about the kinds of things his new coach was teaching him: patience, selflessness, the importance of bringing teammates along for the ride. John Groce said the biggest side for Paul was "mental -- who did you help today?" That sort of total reset appears to have been exactly what Paul needed. He's taking fewer bad shots. Illinois looks better for it. And Georgia Tech, as well as Brian Gregory has been coaching them so far this season, appears to have much more than it bargained for awaiting it in Champaign, Ill., tonight.

Boston College at Penn State, 9:15 p.m. ET, ESPNU: One of the underrated glories of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge is that games like this -- which, let's be honest, most nonpartisan viewers would need some sort of compensation to consider watching -- can determine the whole thing. I think that's unlikely this season (the Big Ten should win its fourth straight Challenge, and easily) but do keep an eye on the final tally. You never know.

Meantime, Penn State is recovering from the loss of Tim Frazier, who might have been the single most important player to any one team in the country. Now transfer D.J. Newbill has to step up, or the Nittany Lions' season gets far uglier than anticipated.

No. 4 Ohio State at No. 2 Duke, 9:30 p.m. ET,  ESPNU: Our reporter in ACC country, Robbi Pickeral, has you covered with a full-featured preview of this game, so I won't spend much time on the narrative. Instead, let's focus on the key matchups: Aaron Craft versus Duke's guards, and Deshaun Thomas versus Duke's bigs.

Don't get me wrong: How Ohio State matches up with Mason Plumlee will be a major key, too. With the exception of 6-foot-11 forward Amir Williams, the Buckeyes don't have a great individual option for Plumlee.

But Duke's guards have thus far been just as great -- if not greater -- key to the Blue Devils' impressive early success. Craft happens to be the single-best perimeter defender in the country. But he can't guard Quinn Cook, Seth Curry and Rasheed Sulaimon all at the same time ... can he? How will Thad Matta employ him? Will he stop the point of attack? Take on whatever player has the hottest hand?

As for Thomas, well, check the technique. Through four games your boy is averaging 24.0 points and 7.3 rebounds per game, with shooting averages of 54.0/48.0/94.1. Lines don't get much better than that. Once regarded as a possession-hogging chucker, Thomas is now capable of a month that good (albeit against some mostly subpar competition), and that's Duke's single biggest concern is figuring him out on the defensive end. Ryan Kelly is probably the best matchup; despite his scrawny, slightly goofy look, Kelly is an excellent player and an underrated defender to boot. In any case, he's probably Duke's best chance, because Thomas is such a matchup nightmare -- too quick and perimeter-oriented for bigs like Plumlee, Josh Hairston or Amile Jefferson; too big for guards and small forwards -- that very few players (if any) can actually play him straight up.

You have to like Duke here. The Blue Devils are already battle-tested (no team has better wins thus far this season), they know their roles, they're smart and they finally get to play a big game at home. But Ohio State has Craft and Thomas and its always-excellent defense. If ever a team was going to win in Cameron, perhaps this is it.