College Basketball Nation: Big Ten/ACC Challenge 2011

Gophers win first game without Mbakwe

December, 1, 2011

MINNEAPOLIS -- When forward Trevor Mbakwe tore his ACL on Sunday, Minnesota's hopes of winning its Big Ten/ACC Challenge matchup against Virginia Tech on Wednesday – or any game, really – seemed to dwindle.

But adversity rarely arrives alone. During the past three seasons of Gophers basketball, it’s come in truckloads.

So it was only fitting that Minnesota’s tenure without Mbakwe – the senior will miss the rest of the season after suffering the injury during a loss to Dayton in the Old Spice Classic final in Orlando, Fla. – commenced with more bad news. Starting center Ralph Sampson III was sidelined with an ankle injury Wednesday.

And yet, a Minnesota starting lineup that featured two freshmen, a 6-foot-7 power forward who hadn’t played the position full-time since high school, a junior-college transfer making his first start for a major Division I program and a sophomore who’d suddenly become one of the team’s key veterans managed to thrive.

The Gophers regrouped and adjusted without Mbakwe and Sampson in the lineup and toppled the Hokies 58-55 in a game that wasn’t decided until the final seconds. The Gophers now have a 5-8 record in the Challenge.

Rodney Williams, the team’s new power forward, scored 14 points and grabbed 8 rebounds. Julian Welch, who played junior-college ball last season, manned the starting point-guard slot and recorded 15 points. Redshirt freshman Elliott Eliason finished with 8 points, 7 rebounds and 2 blocks. Freshman Andre Hollins and sophomore Austin Hollins – no relation – combined for 3 steals.

“It took a full team effort. Once we heard that [Trevor] was going down, we came to practice the next day and we found out that Ralph wouldn’t be playing, either. Everybody just took it upon themselves to get two really good days of practice in. And we came out ready today,” Williams said.

[+] EnlargeJulian Welch
AP Photo/Jim MoneJunior-college transfer Julian Welch scored 15 points, including the winning ones, for Minnesota.
Erick Green scored his last bucket (he had a game-high 25 points) with 23 seconds left, giving the Hokies a 55-54 lead. But a Jarell Eddie foul put Welch on the free-throw line. He hit both shots and the Gophers gained a 1-point edge.

Then, Robert Brown bobbled the inbounds pass and crossed midcourt on Virginia Tech’s next possession, a backcourt violation. It was a crucial turnover. Welch was fouled and went to the line and hit two more free throws as the Gophers stretched their lead to 3 in the closing seconds. Green’s 3-point attempt at the buzzer fell short.

The two-thirds-full Williams Arena vibrated as the Gophers dismissed their circumstances and bounced the Hokies back to Blacksburg, Va., in the latter’s first true road game of the season.

Virginia Tech suffered a loss that could haunt coach Seth Greenberg’s squad down the line. The Hokies shot 37.7 percent from the field. They committed a dozen turnovers. And although the Gophers only hit 2 of 13 3-pointers, Virginia Tech couldn’t contain them inside, where they scored 65 percent of their points.

When the college basketball world learned about Mbakwe’s season-ending injury Monday, the consensus was that Minnesota’s NCAA tournament aspirations were shot. Some even projected a finish at the bottom of the Big Ten standings.

Both remain possibilities.

The Gophers might be riding the temporary emotions sometimes spurred by a major setback. So it will take a few games before we know who these Gophers – playing without a potential All-America the rest of the season – really are.

But their quick turnaround during their biggest nonconference matchup suggests that they possess the mental fortitude to reinvent themselves in time to salvage the season.

They’ll never be who they could’ve been with Mbakwe in the lineup. But they’re clearly not ready to wave a white flag on their season. And that’s a good sign for a young team transitioning to its new identity.

“This group of guys, we all stayed together, we got the stops we needed,” Williams said.

Mbakwe delivered a pregame speech that inspired players. Welch wouldn’t reveal the details of Mbakwe’s message. He said its contents were “team confidential.”

What’s not a secret, however, is that the Gophers have more battles in their future. And they’ll have to continue to find ways to win without their best player, who’s just a cheerleader now.

Rapid Reaction: UNC 60, Wisconsin 57

November, 30, 2011

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- A quick look at No. 5 North Carolina’s 60-57 victory over seventh-ranked Wisconsin the Smith Center in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge on Wednesday night:

What it means: UNC forward Harrison Barnes’ ankle is fine. And it looks like the Tar Heels are going to be, as well. It wasn’t the prettiest outing, but North Carolina bounced back from losing its first game of the season -- and its No. 1 ranking -- by outrebounding the Badgers by 13 and holding them to less than 36 percent shooting. Barnes did most of the damage in the points column, scoring 14 of his 20 in the second half while junior John Henson did most of the damage on the backboards, pulling down 16 rebounds.

How it happened: It looked like UNC might pull away early, when a Barnes bucket put the Tar Heels ahead 19-10. But Wisconsin countered with a 12-2 run, taking a 22-21 lead on a Rob Wilson 3-pointer. That included about a four-minute span when no one scored.

North Carolina led 25-24 at halftime, but Wisconsin took a 36-31 lead in the second half. That’s when the Tar Heels pulled away, using an 18-5 run -- during which Barnes did most of the damage -- to take a 49-41 advantage. That was just-enough to survive UW's comeback try at the end.

Injury report: UNC freshman reserve P.J. Hairston fell on his left wrist during the second half, and was taken to the locker room. He returned to the bench, but not to the game.

Numbers to note: The Tar Heels buried eight straight free throws during their second-half 18-5 run; they were shooting only 60.7 from behind the line entering the game. ... The last time UNC lost to a nonconference opponent in the Smith Center was Nov. 29, 2005, to Illinois. ... Wisconsin point guard Jordan Taylor finished with 18 points and four assists, but made only 6 of 20 shots.

Hubbub: Shammond Williams, Mike Copeland, Antawn Jamison, Raymond Felton, Marvin Williams, Tyler Hansbrough and Rasheed Wallace were among the Tar Heel alumni in attendance. Wallace was wearing a red sweatshirt and was seated behind the bench, which caused some chuckles, considering Roy Williams’ comments Tuesday about red-wearing fans and BB guns.

What’s next: It doesn’t get any easier for the Tar Heels, who travel to Rupp Arena to face top-ranked Kentucky on Saturday. Wisconsin faces Marquette at home, also on Saturday.

Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.

UNC-Wisconsin: Halftime thoughts

November, 30, 2011
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- The good news for the Tar Heels: they’ve held Wisconsin to 32.3 percent shooting. The bad news for the Tar Heels: they only lead by one point at halftime, 25-24. A few quick thoughts:
  • North Carolina isn’t going to hit the two-Bojangles-biscuits-for-a-buck promotion, because there’s no way they’re going to hit 100 points. The scoring has been so slow-paced -- which favors the Badgers -- that both teams failed to score for about a four-minute span.
  • UNC forward Tyler Zeller’s parents -- fresh off watching their youngest son, Cody, score 19 points in Indiana’s win over NC State about 23 miles down the road, showed up during the first TV timeout. Was it a coincidence that Tyler scored his first points of the game right after his parents arrived? He has six points at the break.
  • First half numbers to know: The Tar Heels are shooting 47.8 percent, but have committed eight turnovers, compared to UW’s two. ... Starting shooting guard Dexter Strickland leads the Tar Heels with seven points, but he has three fouls. ... UW point guard Jordan Taylor leads all scorers with nine points, but he’s made only 3 of 9 shots. ... UNC leads on the boards, 20-15.

Video: Keith Appling leads Spartans to win

November, 30, 2011

Sophomore Keith Appling scored a career-high 24 points as Michigan State pulled away from Florida State 65-49.

Video: Unbeaten Hoosiers pick up road win

November, 30, 2011

Indiana improves to 7-0 with an 86-75 victory at North Carolina State.

UNC-Wisconsin: What to watch

November, 30, 2011
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina coach Roy Williams can’t help but be impressed by seventh-ranked Wisconsin, which plays his No. 5 Tar Heels in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge tonight.

"You watch them on tape, and they are really something," he said. “They’re shooting 47 percent as a team from the 3-point line. They have a guy who’s shooting 71 percent from (the) 3-point line. They’re out-rebounding people by 14 rebounds a game. They’re holding people to 39 points a game. And people can say, ‘Well, they’ve haven’t played that tough a schedule’ but it’s hard to hold people to 39 points a game after six games.”

But the stat Williams is most impressed by: 30.5. That's the percentage teams are shooting against the Badgers' defense.

“It’s a difficult matchup for us, there’s no question,’’ Williams said. “Our big guys have to be able to get out on the court. We have to be able to defend the 3-point line.”

[+] EnlargeTyler Zeller
Rob Kinnan/US PresswireThe Tar Heels are counting on Tyler Zeller to be more aggressive on the boards against Wisconsin.
They’ve also got to be able to rebound – something they struggled with in their loss to UNLV, when the Runnin’ Rebels out-toughed them, particularly on the offensive glass.

Some other things to watch tonight:

1. UNC forward Tyler Zeller

At the beginning of the season, the 7-foot senior said his most important personal goal was a high shooting percentage. But over his last two games, he’s made only 5 of his 18 shots, including a 1-for-6 night against UNLV. Foul trouble may have been a factor, but so was a lack of aggression.

“I used to say the greatest thing about Sean May and Tyler Hansbrough, both, is the last thing the opposing coach said before he left his locker room was, ‘We’ve got to stop May, we’ve got to stop Hansbrough,’" Williams said on his Monday night radio show. “They were the focus of the defense, but they still shot 54, 56, 58 percent. Brad Daugherty is the most efficient player who ever played here, the defense was designed to stop Brad, and he led the entire nation in field-goal percentage. So now, all of a sudden, defenses are really focusing on John [Henson] and Z.

“… He’s got to throw the ball out, and guys have got to do a better job of moving and making shots, and then it’s going to be more difficult to double on him.”

Zeller also need to me more of a factor on the boards – he’s only pulled down 12 rebounds his last two games.

2. The point guard matchup

Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan called the duel between UNC’s Kendall Marshall and Badgers senior Jordan Taylor ‘the challenge within the Challenge,’ and although there will be plenty of other factors in this game, which ballhandler helps his team control the pace could ultimately earn bragging rights.

Transition defense will be particularly key for the Badgers, Ryan said.

“The idea is to get back, protect the rim, and then protect against shooters – and that takes five guys,’’ he said. “You definitely want to be in a five-on-five games with them. If you’re in an open area of three-on-three, Carolina wins three-on-three. Carolina beats anybody in the country three-on-three, four-on-four. Five-on-five is your best chance.”

For UNC, whoever matches up with Taylor – and it probably will be shooting guard Dexter Strickland – has got to stop his dribble penetration in hopes of slowing a Badgers 3-point barrage.

“That’s what college basketball is these days,’’ Williams said. “You’ve got to do a better job guarding dribble penetration, and if they break you down off the dribble, and they can shoot it a lick, it’s difficult guard them.”

3. Harrison Barnes’ ankle

The sophomore wasn’t limping when he walked through the press room Tuesday, and he gave a thumbs-up sign when he walked back through, returning to practice. A team spokesman said he practiced fully, and was feeling good. But is that right ankle, turned during Saturday’s loss, 100 percent?

Robbi Pickeral can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @bylinerp.

TMA: The Big Ten pulls ahead

November, 30, 2011
The Morning After is our semi-daily recap of last night's best basketball action. Now that college hoops season is starting to settle into something resembling a normal schedule, it plans on being around more often.

As you probably already know, the Big Ten opened a slight lead on the first night of the 2011 Big Ten/ACC Challenge, going ahead 4-2 thanks to wins by Ohio State, Northwestern, Purdue and Illinois. Virginia toppled Michigan and Clemson got a sturdy win at Iowa. I, as well as my colleagues Andy Katz, Fran Fraschilla and John Gasaway, went 6-0 picking these games. (I just hurt my arm patting myself on the back. I have to stretch better next time.) Anyway, there, you're all caught up!

No. 2 Ohio State 85, No. 4 Duke 63: For a full recap of the game, check out the story Myron filed from Value City Arena last night. There isn't much more to say: Ohio State was very, very good on both offense and defense. Duke was ugly offensively and even worse on the defensive end. Ohio State deserves all of the love that has been or will be aimed in their direction in coming weeks; this was a dominant win over a good team. The Buckeyes are a national title contender of a certain sort. Duke isn't. That was abundantly clear.

That said, there are a few things to keep in mind, at least from Duke's perspective. For one, the Blue Devils just this weekend returned from a grueling trip to Maui, and looked every bit as tired as they were overmatched, which only exacerbated the result. Two, playing on the road is always hard. Three, Ohio State is a particularly bad matchup for this group of Blue Devils. Coach K's team is perimeter-oriented and not particularly athletic; it relies on penetration, spacing and screen action to free its coterie of spot-up shooters for open looks. When it runs into a team as uniquely deep and tough on the perimeter defensively as the Buckeyes are, Duke is always going to struggle. Fortunately for Coach K, there aren't very many Ohio States in the country this season. (There may be just one.)

Virginia 70, No. 15 Michigan 58: I'm going to leave this game be for now; instead, I'm going to spend my time discussing it in the Hoopsbag today, because I got a bunch of questions about why Virginia beating Michigan should have been considered "an upset" as I termed it in my Big Ten/ACC Challenge preview Tuesday. (That'll come later this afternoon.)

Northwestern 76, Georgia Tech 60: Is this what a healthy John Shurna looks like? The sharpshooting Northwestern forward lost much of his 2010-11 season to nagging injuries, injuries which kept him off the court for long stretches and made him ineffective in spurts. But Shurna appears to be in much better shape in 2011-12. His 25 points in a solid road win for Northwestern (against a tough defensive team to date) boosted his average to 21.8 points per game, leading all scorers in the Big Ten. But Shurna isn't just scoring; he had eight rebounds, three blocks, three steals and two assists at Tech, and he's averaging 6.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.8 blocks and 1.3 steals per game. This is a newer, more versatile Shurna, and he's leading the way for a Northwestern team that might be just a little bit better than we all think. (We'll get a good idea Sunday, when the Baylor Bears come to Welsh-Ryan. That one should be fascinating.)

Illinois 71, Maryland 62: It's hard to get a good feel for what this result means. Maryland, feisty though it was, is a shallow and injury ridden squad right now. Illinois, even a younger, more inexperienced group, should beat this Maryland team. The fact that it took the Illini so long to figure out -- Illinois trailed at the half and led by just one with eight minutes remaining before Sam Maniscalco knocked down two 3s to build an insurmountable lead -- is probably not the most encouraging sign. But there were some noticeable bright spots. Illinois forward Brandon Paul was great in the first half; he presents a strange, exciting new form of offense for Bruce Weber's formerly jump-shot-obsessed Illini. (It's called driving to the rim.) Maniscalco was excellent, too, scoring an efficient 24 points on 5-of-8 from beyond the arc. And Meyers Leonard -- perhaps Illinois's most promising and most important player -- went 6-of-9 from the field. Last season, Illinois couldn't get easy shots. Nor did it take enough 3s. Instead, the Illini frequently settled for long 2s. This season, Weber's combination of players and their various styles seems like it will be more efficient by default. It's a start.

Purdue 76, Miami 65: Hey, Jim Larranaga had to try something. The new Hurricanes coach had seen the tape on Purdue. He knew they were a perimeter-oriented team. He knew his team's bigs have been decimated by injury, but hey, Purdue plays so outside-in, maybe he didn't need bigs at all. So Larranaga started a lineup in which no player was taller than 6-foot-6. It did not pay off. Purdue, showing a bit of versatility previously unseen in its offensive attack, got the ball into the paint and scored with will inside the arc. Things were never particularly difficult. In the meantime, Robbie Hummel's comeback tour continues to roll on: Hummel shot 5-of-8, scored 17 points and grabbed five rebounds in his 32 minutes Tuesday night. He looks healthy. If it weren't for the two big knee braces, you could convince a novice Hummel had never been injured at all.

Clemson 71, Iowa 55: Year 2 of the Fran McCaffery rebuilding project has officially hit a snag. Or maybe that was last week, when Iowa lost at home to the Campbell Fighting Camels. (Amazing nickname, by the way. I would not want to fight a camel.) Either way, the Hawkeyes shot -- get this -- 16-of-56 from the field last night, including 3-of-11 from beyond the arc. That ice-cold shooting work graded out as an effective field goal percentage of 31.2. The Hawkeyes scored just .80 points per possession. It's a little baffling: This team could score in stretches in 2011, it appeared to be more balanced and improved all over the floor, forward Melsahn Basabe was coming off a breakout year -- there appeared to be signs of progress in Iowa City. Let's not take anything away from Clemson, which has defended very well to begin this season. But 16-of-56 on your home floor? I mean, look at this box score! Yikes.
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- The first time North Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall remembers meeting Wisconsin ballhandler Jordan Taylor was at last summer’s Chris Paul camp -- and Marshall really wanted to hate him.

“We play the same position, people are going to compare us. He's a great player,’’ Marshall explained. “ But ... once I got to know him off the court, he's very cool to be around, and I admire how much he's gotten better over the years and done things the right way.”

[+] EnlargeKendall Marshall
Bob Donnon/US PresswireKendall Marshall will be matched up with one of the top point guards in college basketball in Jordan Taylor when North Carolina faces Wisconsin.
Marshall, though, has tried to put all that friendliness aside this week, as Taylor’s seventh-ranked Badgers come to town to face the No. 5 Tar Heels.

Although there will be plenty of keys to Wednesday night's Big Ten/ACC matchup -- rebounding, outside shooting, which team sets the pace -- the point guard showdown will be what Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan dubbed “a challenge within the Challenge.”

“Those two guys, they understand the game, they understand what the team needs, and they bring that every night when they are on the floor,’’ Ryan told reporters Monday. “Some nights are better than others. But in college basketball, I think that’s pretty exciting, having attempted the position as a player and having coached some guys who I thought were pretty good point guards.”

The two ballhandlers key vastly different styles of offenses. Taylor’s Badgers play at a deliberate pace that tends to cut down on possessions while looking for the best shot (often a 3-pointer, of which they are making 47.2 percent). Marshall’s Tar Heels, meanwhile, prefer a breakneck transition game in which even the 7-footers try to beat everyone else down the floor.

The former is right-handed and averages 11 points and 5.8 assists per game; the latter is a leftie who is averaging 4.8 points and 10.8 assists. One wasn’t highly recruited; the other was a McDonald's All-American.

But it’s their similarities that make them two of the top point guards in the country.

“Both of them really like to make their team win,’’ UNC coach Roy Williams said. “They try to make their [teammates] better. They try to get the ball to other people. They’re more facilitators than scorers, although Jordan can really score.

“He is really, really good. Everybody’s going to be treated to watch this kid play, because he is really, really good. He plays it on both ends on the court, he can drive and pull up, he’s strong, he can go to the basket, and he can shoot the ball from the outside.”

Indeed, Marshall said what he admires most about the 6-foot-1 senior is that he’s multidimensional. Taylor, in turn, called the 6-4 sophomore “the consummate point guard.”

“What I admire about his game is the way he sees the floor,’’ Taylor said. “ He’s always finding the open guy and he’s really unselfish.”

Whether the duo will match up one-on-one for the entire game, though, is in doubt. To make up for Marshall’s lack of defensive footspeed, UNC usually puts shooting guard Dexter Strickland on an opponent’s quickest scorer.

Even if that happens, expect all eyes to be on the ballhandlers -- who, since last summer, have kept in touch via text messaging.

(Although not this week.)

“I try not to be too friendly with my competitors days before the game,’’ Marshall said. “I'm sure once the game goes by, we'll talk about it, and hopefully I'll be able to have bragging rights.”

Robbi Pickeral can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @bylinerp.

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- As Deshaun Thomas exited the postgame press conference that followed No. 2 Ohio State’s 85-63 victory over Duke on Tuesday night, NBA stars LeBron James and Dwyane Wade escaped Value City Arena through a nearby loading dock.

The duo watched Thomas and Co. destroy the fourth-ranked Blue Devils in the most marquee matchup of this year's Big Ten/ACC Challenge. When James and Wade arrived, photographers scurried like paparazzi on a red carpet.

“I saw them,” said Thomas, who scored 18 points. “It was great motivation to show off for them because they show off for us all the time on TV.”

But LeBron and D-Wade weren’t the headliners on this night.

Under the brightest lights of the young season, Ohio State embraced the moment and destroyed a team that just won the prestigious Maui Invitational, handing Duke its most lopsided nonconference loss in the regular season since 1995.

[+] EnlargeLeBron James, Dwyane Wade
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteThe stars were out in force in Columbus on Tuesday, including LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
The Buckeyes weren’t distracted by the frenzy that preceded the game -- fans had camped outside the venue for days and there was legitimate buzz in a city and on a campus dominated by football and the arrival of new coach Urban Meyer.

Competing while two NBA All-Stars sat courtside obviously didn’t rattle them, either. And more importantly, Duke’s threats of 3-balls and aggressive interior defense never moved beyond the planning phase due to Ohio State’s execution.

The Buckeyes put together the most defining performance of the 2011-12 season and legitimized all the “Ohio State is the best team in America right now” kudos that will follow.

OSU nailed a ridiculous 59 percent of its shots -- a mere 57 percent from beyond the arc. Beyond the box score, however, the Bucks had the backbone to crush a vulnerable opponent when the opportunity arose. That’s the DNA of a champion.

They turned a 26-17 edge with eight minutes to play in the first half into a 19-point halftime lead.

“This basketball team is tough," said Jared Sullinger, who scored a team-high 21 points. "That’s pretty much our motto: mental toughness and physical toughness, and we showed that today."

Against Ohio State’s defense, Duke played like a claustrophobe stuck in a trunk.

Freshman Austin Rivers scored 22 points, but threw away about a half-dozen opportunities because OSU wouldn’t let him finish at the rim. Seth Curry called a timeout on his team’s first possession with Ohio State’s Lenzelle Smith Jr. swarming him. It was a sign of things to come.

A Blue Devils team with a 46 percent success rate from long range before Tuesday’s game hit just 3 of 15 on this night.

A Blue Devils defense that gave up just 61 points in its Maui final victory over Kansas gave up 47 to Ohio State -- in the first half.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said the fatigue from last week’s trip to Hawaii played a role in the Blue Devils’ struggles.

“I thought Ohio State played a great game against us. They were a fresher team,” he said. “I thought our team played tired.”

But getting whipped for 40 minutes will wear down any team.

Despite losing 3-point ace Jon Diebler, versatile performer David Lighty and shot-blocker Dallas Lauderdale to graduation, these Buckeyes might have more potential than last season’s squad, which won 34 games but was knocked out as a 1-seed in the Sweet 16.

They’re more athletic, and with the evolution of Thomas and sophomore point guard Aaron Craft, they’re more versatile on both ends of the floor.

Craft alone held Duke’s guards to four points on 2-of-8 shooting and four turnovers. Thomas entered the game shooting 28 percent from beyond the arc, but connected on 2 of 4 treys Tuesday.

[+] EnlargeJared Sullinger
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteJared Sullinger contributed 21 points and eight boards against the Duke frontline.
In the first half, former Ohio State stars Greg Oden, Mike Conley Jr., Daequan Cook, Evan Turner and Michael Redd were introduced at midcourt. Oden, Cook and Conley formed the nucleus of Ohio State’s 2006-07 team, which lost in the national title game to back-to-back champion Florida.

Sullinger said he’s learned from predecessors who fell short of their national championship dreams.

“You just gotta keep your composure,” he said when asked what it will take for this year’s team to fulfill its potential.

Ohio State is as balanced as any team in the country. And with a stud point guard, a consistent wing (William Buford scored 20 points) and a big man like Sullinger, the Buckeyes appear to be as well-equipped for March Madness as any squad in the country.

But coach Thad Matta would like to erase the preceding sentences. The hoopla is premature, he said during his postgame delivery.

He said he’s paranoid about praising his team too early because that’s what happened just before Turner broke his back during the 2009-10 season.

Plus, the program suffered a backlash last season, when Matta’s team won its first 24 games but ultimately ended in disappointment in the NCAA regional semifinal against Kentucky.

Perhaps that’s why he dismissed any comparisons to the 2006-07 team.

“No. Honestly, I don’t. You had some veteran players, you had some seniors,” Matta said when he was asked if he saw any similarities between this season’s team and Oden’s squad.

That team, however, was led by freshmen. This season’s Buckeyes are guided by three outstanding sophomores.

“That team would do things in practice that I had never seen before,” Matta added later.

Well, how many times has a top-five Duke team taken that kind of a beating? Duke’s 63 points and three 3-pointers were both season lows.

“I still think this team has so far to go,” Matta concluded.

The latter is understandable for a coach who doesn’t want young players to get overconfident. And based on the multiple years he’s had where in-season success failed to match postseason projections, Matta's refusal to get too excited about the victory makes sense.

But Matta can’t completely disregard what happened here at Value City Arena. His young roster dominated a previously unbeaten Duke team in every area of the game.

That doesn’t guarantee any success in the future. But as of now, it’s undeniable proof that the Buckeyes are as good as, and probably better than, any team in the country.

“What can I say -- this basketball team is something special,” Sullinger said.

He probably shouldn’t convey that thought to his coach.

But most who watched Tuesday’s game would agree.

Video: Dick Vitale on Ohio State's blowout

November, 30, 2011

Dick Vitale breaks down Ohio State's 22-point crushing of Duke.

Rapid Reaction: Ohio State 85, Duke 63

November, 29, 2011

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A quick look at No. 2 Ohio State's dominating 85-63 victory over No. 4 Duke at Value City Arena ...

Overview: Ohio State kicked off Tuesday's 22-point win over Duke in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge with an 11-0 start. By the end of the first half, the Buckeyes led 47-28. Duke, which never led in the game, found itself in that hole after the Buckeyes shot 61 percent from the floor before the break as the Blue Devils were missing 6 of 7 shots from behind the arc. The latter entered the game shooting 46 percent from 3-point range.

Star of the night: Sophomore Deshaun Thomas was a stud for the Buckeyes. He went 8-for-12 from the field and scored 18 points. He even connected on 2 of 4 attempts from long range, despite entering the game with a 28 percent success rate from the 3-point line. The Blue Devils didn’t have an answer for him. He scored 13 points in the final eight minutes of the first half as the Buckeyes turned a nine-point lead into a 19-point edge at halftime. Of course, Jared Sullinger (21 points), William Buford (20 points) and Aaron Craft (17 points, eight assists) were their normal standout selves.

Turning point: Coming out of a timeout with just under eight minutes to play in the first half -- Ohio State led 26-17 at the time -- the Buckeyes went for blood instead of resting on their lead. They outscored Duke 21-11 to end the half. That eight-minute rally -- Duke even tried a zone! -- turned a manageable deficit into an insurmountable one for the Blue Devils.

Why Ohio State won: The Buckeyes shot a stunning 59.3 percent from the floor, and 57.1 percent from beyond the arc. That's about all you need to know.

Why Duke lost: The Blue Devils have lived off 3-pointers this season. Against OSU, they hit just 20 percent of their attempts (3 of 15).

Other observations: Aaron Craft is one of the best on-the-ball defenders in America. Period. … Deshaun Thomas is a much smarter player compared to last season. He’s exploiting the gaps created by Jared Sullinger’s presence on the floor. … Not sure any defender in the country can stick with Austin Rivers off the dribble, but he’s uneasy once he arrives at the rim. … Duke’s limited athleticism could be its biggest challenge in March. … William Buford doesn’t get enough respect for what he’s doing this season and for what’s he’s done during his career with the Buckeyes.

What’s next: Duke has some well-deserved time off before hosting Colorado State on Dec. 7, while Ohio State remains at home to face Texas-Pan American on Saturday.

Video: Analyzing Northwestern's victory

November, 29, 2011

Jon Barry and Rob Stone discuss Northwestern's 76-60 win at Georgia Tech and the team's star duo of John Shurna and Drew Crawford.

Video: Burke and Pasch on Illini victory

November, 29, 2011

Doris Burke and Dave Pasch discuss Illinois' 71-62 victory at Maryland and the tough upcoming schedule for the 7-0 Illini.

Austin Rivers and shades of gray

November, 29, 2011
Austin RiversAP Photo/Eugene TannerAfter seven games Duke's Austin Rivers is neither a star nor a bust, but rather overwhelmingly solid.
It's not exactly easy to feel sympathy for a hyper-talented 19-year-old college basketball star. Really, it's the life. Not only do you get to be in college -- an enviable existence no matter what -- but you get to be young and famous and soon-to-be-rich and very good at a sport most of us play just because we love it.

But the life of the hyper-talented 19-year-old college basketball star has its challenges, too. Among them? Living up to the immense hype that awaits you before you ever take a step on a college basketball court. In an ideal world, we'd all sit back and say: Well, hey, he's a freshman. He may struggle for a bit. It happens. He'll probably figure it out. Give him time. But because the exceptions are what we remember -- the Kevin Durants and John Walls and Kevin Loves and Michael Beasleys and Jared Sullingers -- we expect Mr. Highly Touted Freshman to be brilliant from Day 1. If he is, he's the next big thing. If he isn't, he's a bust. We rarely allow for the middle-ground.

Imagine this kind of scrutiny being paid to your activities as a 19-year-old. "Brennan, a touted student entering college, has disappointed thus far. He clearly didn't do his reading before PoliSci 202: Political Parties and Interest Groups, was obviously unprepared to answer Prof. Hershey's questions, and had to ask the girl setting next to him if he could borrow a pen and a sheet of paper for notes. If Brennan keeps this up, professional scouts will be sure to take notice." See?

Duke freshman Austin Rivers is a study in this dynamic. Rivers arrived at Duke accompanied by immense prep hype. His first few games were struggles; his decision-making drew analytic question marks; his feel for the game (easily the biggest question mark for NBA scouts at the Nike Skills Camps I attended this summer) wasn't quite adjusted to the collegiate level. Some were quick to bust out "bust." Duke fans eagerly leapt to Rivers' defense. It was practically a repeat of last year's early-season Harrison Barnes doubts, this time cast upon UNC's hated rival.

In advance of another high-profile game Tuesday night -- Duke travels to Ohio State this evening, in case you hadn't heard -- how does Rivers feel about all the talk? From the Charlotte Observer:
"I never ever worry about it," Rivers said. "Those people's jobs are to critique. The coaches and my teammates are happy with the way I'm playing. It's sports and there's nothing I can do about it. I'm not going to call ESPN and be like, 'Hey, can you stop that.' " [...] "I see it as motivation and they will be wrong by the end of the year," Rivers said of his critics.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Rivers -- or maybe it's the debate in general -- is how polarizing he seems to be. Either Rivers is a bust, or he isn't. Either he's Duke's next great guard, or he isn't. The reason for this duality is simple: Rivers can be mercurial on the floor. At times, he can make the spectacular look simple. At other times, he can make the simple look silly. He takes and makes long 3-pointers, but they aren't always good shots. He destroys defenders with lightning-quick crossovers only to force a bad shot once he gets in the lane. If you're looking for a specific quality in Rivers' game, whether that quality is negative or positive, you're likely to find it.

But here's the thing, after seven games -- including wins over Belmont, Michigan State, Tennessee, Michigan and Kansas -- Rivers is neither a bust nor a star. Basketball Prospectus and ESPN Insider scribe John Gasaway described it best in his Big Ten/ACC Challenge preview:
Forget Austin Rivers, if only for a moment. He’ll be drafted before any of these other guys he’s playing with, but right now he’s more solid than stellar. Rivers is shooting 37 percent on his threes, 46 percent on his twos, and 65 percent at the line. For a freshman to do that at Duke while attempting 28 percent of his team’s shots is certainly noteworthy, but at the same time it confirms what Mike Krzyzewski told Luke Winn in October. Seen in context Rivers has been great, but he suffers from invidious comparisons to a certain predecessor. He hasn’t been instant-sensation Kyrie Irving-great. With the likes of Irving, Wall, Rose, and Durant, context is never invoked.

In other words, Rivers has been good so far this year. Not bad. Not great. Good. Solid. Better than average. Insert your preferred synonym here.

He's another good player on a team full of good players, particularly on the perimeter. Duke's early success this season has something to do with Rivers, but it also has to do with Andre Dawkins and Seth Curry's hot shooting, Ryan Kelly's immense improvement and Mason Plumlee's strength in the low block. Just because Rivers hasn't quite been Irving doesn't mean he's a bust. Just because he's been solid doesn't mean he's a star. There are more than two ways to look at Rivers' game. To this point in the season, the label dichotomy doesn't apply.

Chances are, by the end of the year, Rivers will be right. He will continue to improve. His decision-making will get sharper, his drive-kick-score instincts more refined. Those who called him a bust in early November -- and really, this number has to be small -- will have been proven wrong.

In the meantime, though, it's something to keep in mind. Rivers isn't a star yet, nor he is a bust. His play to date deserves classification in that wide expanse of middle ground -- a middle ground we fans and writers all too often ignore. But it exists all the same.

Big Ten/ACC Challenge Day 2 preview

November, 29, 2011
For my predictions and analysis of the six Big Ten/ACC games on Tuesday, click here. Let's preview Day 2 of the Challenge:

Indiana at North Carolina State, 7:15 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Prediction: Indiana wins, 82-80
Why: It would appear, based solely on statistical output through six games, that Indiana is easily better than NC State. Sure, Indiana has dominated a slate of cupcake opponents, with its only notable win coming over what appears to be a thoroughly mediocre Butler team Sunday, but they've looked good doing it. The Hoosiers are ranked No. 20 in adjusted efficiency after their first six games. The addition of touted freshman center Cody Zeller has made this team more balanced, more likely to retrieve its own misses and less susceptible to constant (dumb) fouls. The emergence of guards Victor Oladipo and Will Sheehey has given the Hoosiers viable slashing and perimeter scoring options. And yet, doubt remains. Before a win at Evansville this season, Indiana had yet to win a true road game in the Tom Crean era. And NC State is not Evansville. Sure, this team is improved. But is it improved enough to beat a (finally) well-coached and talented NC State team? The Wolfpack hung with Vanderbilt for 40 minutes and rallied in the final minutes to beat Texas 77-74 at the Legends Classic. Can they do it on the road? I'll guess yes, but I have no clue. The jury is still out.

Penn State at Boston College, 7:15 p.m. ET, ESPNU
Prediction: Boston College wins, 62-59
Why: How bad are Steve Donahue's Eagles right now? The losses -- to Holy Cross, UMass, St. Louis and New Mexico -- are one thing. The margins -- 86-64, 82-46, 62-51, 75-57 -- are another. (Strangely enough, the only respectable margin of defeat came against St. Louis, the only top 25 team on the docket. Weird.) The Eagles appear to have joined Wake Forest and the usual batch of candidates in the "worst power-six team in the country" race. Penn State, for its part, is in a similar rebuilding phase, but at least the Nittany Lions have a go-to player (Tim Frazier, averaging 19.1 points, 6.0 rebounds, 7.1 assists and 2.4 steals per game) and have shown the ability to hang with teams of the caliber of, say, Holy Cross. Then again, Penn State did look thoroughly ugly in a 65-47 loss at Saint Joseph's Saturday, so who knows? One thing's for sure: This is the worst matchup of the Challenge. I hate to pile on, but yeah. It's bad.

Florida State at Michigan State, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Prediction: Michigan State wins, 59-55
Why: This one is all about capital-D Defense. Florida State is probably the nation's best defensive team and they have been for the past two seasons. They're off to a rousing start on that end of the floor in 2011-12. Michigan State, meanwhile, didn't flash much offensive touch in its season-opening losses to Duke and North Carolina, but the Spartans did show an ability to get stops on a per-possession basis. They're ranked No. 6 in defensive efficiency thus far while Florida State is ranked No. 4. Thus, predicting a low-scoring affair is not exactly rocket science. Frankly, it's tough to find the difference here. Perhaps home court can provide it. Perhaps having the best player on the floor, as Michigan State does in forward Draymond Green, can help, too. Green's versatility and ability to handle the ball in spots outside the paint could give the Spartans a little more room to work their offense. But with big FSU forward Bernard James patrolling the paint, that room is always going to be minimal. In any case, it won't be pretty. But it should be fun.

Virginia Tech at Minnesota, 9:15 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Prediction: Virginia Tech wins, 73-60
Why: That seems like a large margin of victory for a team like Virginia Tech to maintain over a team like Minnesota. The Hokies aren't that good, are they? Well, probably not. But they have been more impressive than expected early in the year, giving Syracuse a serious run in the first half of their 69-58 loss in the NIT Season Tip-Off last week before bouncing back to drop Oklahoma State 59-57 a night later. Even so, this expectation is more about Minnesota. On Sunday night, in an 86-70 loss to Dayton in the Old Spice Classic, Gophers forward Trevor Mbakwe tore his ACL. He will be out for the year. It's hard to describe how devastating this injury is. It's devastating to Mbakwe -- it is likely to end his collegiate career -- but it's devastating to Minnesota, too, as Mbakwe was the bruising, dominating centerpiece of a team that after two straight seasons of personnel defections and untimely injuries had almost no margin for error or loss. It's going to be difficult to move on without Mbakwe. Expecting the Gophers to do so by Wednesday seems borderline unfair.

Wake Forest at Nebraska, 9:15 p.m. ET, ESPNU
Prediction: Nebraska wins, 75-65
Why: After one of the worst years in program history, Wake Forest remains a work in progress. An 84-56 loss to Arizona State -- a 2-4 team that itself has lost to Pepperdine, New Mexico, Fairfield and DePaul -- is evidence enough. In another year, even a bad Wake team might stand a decent chance at Nebraska, but it would appear the Cornhuskers are a little bit more game this season. Nebraska got a pretty impressive little win at USC (in double-overtime, no less) on Nov. 14, and their only negative result thus far is a reasonable home loss to Oregon. Do guard Bo Spencer (16.0 points, 4.4 rebounds, 4.2 assists per game) and company have enough to get to the NCAA tournament this season? I'm not sure. Do they have enough to handle Wake at home? It would seem so.

Wisconsin at North Carolina, 9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Prediction: North Carolina wins, 68-65
Why: Tough break for Wisconsin. After all, if you're going to play North Carolina in Chapel Hill, it might as well be when the Tar Heels are ranked No. 1 overall. As it is, the Tar Heels lost to UNLV Saturday night, losing their No. 1 ranking in the process. What's worse, any hope the Badgers had of catching UNC on one of those less-engaged, let's-just-coast kind of nights -- which is rare in the first place -- is essentially zero now. Chances are, this is North Carolina's win. The Tar Heels have more talented at nearly every position and they’re taller and faster and more athletic. Wisconsin is many things, but athletic and fast are not included.

What the Badgers are -- and why this game may be a bit closer than most expect -- is everything a Wisconsin team should be. The Badgers are deliberate (another word for “slow”), which is deserved when you average the fewest number of possessions per game in the country. They are excellent defensively, ranked No. 1 in opponents’ effective field goal percentage and No. 1 in opponents’ offensive rebounding percentage and, as you might assume, No. 1 in overall defensive efficiency. They are excellent offensively, ranked No. 4 in effective field goal percentage and No. 2 in 3-point field goal percentage. Led by Jordan Taylor and complemented by a batch of just-right shooters and role-player types, the Badgers do almost everything well.

Of course, it's still early, and Wisconsin has yet to try to contain a team with North Carolina's explosive fast-break offense. The Badgers may have some issue keeping the Tar Heels in check. They will have to make shots and prevent long rebounds. They will have to control the pace of the game by running down the shot clock to its final seconds. But these are all things the Badgers do already. If North Carolina's athleticism forces the Badgers into bad shots, they'll have no chance. But if the game is in the 60s in both pace and points, Wisconsin can keep it close.