College Basketball Nation: Florida State Seminoles
For the third time since the ACC/Big Ten Challenge began in 1999, more teams have been added to the mix. The battle for conference supremacy started with just nine games deciding the outcome back when that was the extent of ACC membership.
The league has ballooned to 15 teams and now that the Big Ten expanded too, a slate of 14 games over three consecutive nights from Dec. 1-3 will determine bragging rights.
The ACC was 6-0 when just nine teams played in the Challenge. It was 4-2 after ACC expansion and 11 teams played. Since going to 12 teams the Big Ten won once and the Challenge has ended in consecutive ties.
The ACC still holds an advantage winning 10 of the 15 meetings overall, but it has not won the Challenge since 2008.
Louisville (ACC) and Rutgers (Big Ten) will make their respective debuts in the Challenge this season. Clemson, Wake Forest and Virginia Tech did not participate last season for the ACC. Boston College will sit this one out this season.
As Maryland changes allegiances from ACC charter member to Big Ten expansion team, it becomes the Big Ten team with the most wins. The Terrapins have participated in every challenge and has a 10-5 record, and trails only Duke (13) for most Challenge wins. Five Big Ten teams (Illinois, Minnesota, Ohio State, Purdue, Wisconsin) are tied with seven wins in the series.
From top to bottom, here are the best matchups of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge:
1. Duke at Wisconsin: It just might be an early Final Four preview. On paper, both have the rosters that could be playing the final weekend of the season. The Badgers, led by center Frank Kaminsky, return most of the rotation that got Bo Ryan to his first Final Four during his Wisconsin tenure. Duke restocks with the No. 1 recruiting class led by center Jahlil Okafor and guard Tyus Jones. The Blue Devils were 0-4 versus top 10 teams away from home last season in a year that ended with a NCAA second round flameout against Mercer. Wisconsin will be an early test to see if Duke will write a different narrative this season.
2. Iowa at North Carolina: Expect a high-scoring game because the Hawkeyes and Tar Heels both want to run early and often. Forward Jarrod Uthoff and center Gabriel Olaseni give Iowa a formidable frontcourt duo that will put up points in Fran McCaffery’s system despite their roster losses from last season. The Hawkeyes have never won on the road (0-5) in the Challenge. UNC will be a much more athletic team than it was last season with the addition of freshmen Joel Berry, Theo Pinson and Justin Jackson. The game could offer a small bit of redemption back home for guard Marcus Paige, who is a Marion, Iowa, native, after the Heels were bounced by Iowa State in the NCAA tournament.
3. Ohio State at Louisville: The last time Thad Matta squared off against Rick Pitino, Xavier upset the Cardinals in the 2004 NCAA tournament en route to the Elite Eight. It was the run that helped Matta land the Buckeyes job. Matta will learn what he’s working with in an early road test for a young, but talented team. The game will also serve as a homecoming for Ohio State freshman guard D’Angelo Russell, a Louisville native, who had an offer from Louisville. Ironically, next season, the Cards will rely heavily on sophomore guard Terry Rozier, a Cleveland native, who is expected to have a breakout year with the departure of Russ Smith. Montrezl Harrell’s decision to return to school was like a recruiting coup for the Cards.
4. Virginia at Maryland: A new twist to an old rivalry. The two foes have literally played the past 100 years, and as ACC rivals the game had the exalted status of the final regular season game for the better part of the last four decades. It could easily be the most intense game of the Challenge since both teams know each other so well. The backcourt battle pitting Virginia’s London Perrantes and Malcolm Brogdon against Maryland’s Seth Allen and Dez Wells could determine the outcome.
5. Michigan State at Notre Dame: From 1908 to 1979 the Spartans and Irish had a healthy basketball rivalry, meeting 94 times. It’s the first meeting between the schools since MSU beat the Irish in the Elite Eight en route to its 1979 national championship. The Spartans bring back Branden Dawson, who considered turning pro. The Irish welcome back Jerian Grant, who withdrew from school at the start of conference play due to an “academic matter.”
6. Syracuse at Michigan: Think of how great this game would have been with guard Tyler Ennis and forward Jerami Grant still suiting up for the Orange and guard Nik Stauskas, forward Glenn Robinson III and center Mitch McGary playing for the Wolverines. Instead, they form an all-star lineup of NBA early entries. In a rematch of the 2013 Final Four game, only a combined five players (Syracuse: Rakeem Christmas, Trevor Cooney; Michigan: Spike Albrecht, Caris LeVert) remain who played in the game.
7. Nebraska at Florida State: If the Cornhuskers plan on improving on last season's NCAA appearance, they have to learn to win games like this. The Huskers were just 3-8 last season on the road and Tallahassee can be a tough place to play. The Seminoles missed the NCAA tournament last season due to several close nonconference losses, a trend they’ll need to reverse this season.
8. Pittsburgh at Indiana: The Panthers haven’t played the Hoosiers in Bloomington since 1941 and Pitt's experienced guards Cameron Wright and James Robinson won’t be intimidated by Assembly Hall. Noah Vonleh’s decision to turn pro possibly set IU back in its bid to rejoin the nation’s elite. But guard Yogi Ferrell and newcomer James Blackmon Jr. means the Hoosiers' cupboard isn’t bare.
9. Illinois at Miami: The Illini could be a darkhorse in league and an early road win could prove it. Guard Rayvonte Rice will be even harder to stop if he can improve his 3-point shooting from 29.5 percent last season. The Canes return just three players from last season, who accounted for just 15 percent of their scoring. Transfers Angel Rodriguez (Kansas State) and Sheldon McClellan (Texas) should make immediate impact for Miami.
10. Minnesota at Wake Forest: Guards Deandre Mathieu and Andre Hollins give Minnesota backcourt stability. The Deacons counter with their top duo of leading scorer Codi Miller-McIntyre and leading rebounder Devin Thomas, who should help Danny Manning make a smooth transition in his first season as coach.
11. Rutgers at Clemson: The Mack and Jack show is back for Rutgers. Myles Mack and Kadeem Jack were the top two scorers from last season and a formidable duo. Clemson returned everyone of impact except leading scorer and rebounder K.J. McDaniels. Guard Rod Hall will likely expand his scoring role after leading the Tigers in assists.
12. NC State at Purdue: The Boilermakers are the hottest team in the Challenge with five straight wins. Junior 7-footer A.J. Hammons gives Purdue a solid centerpiece to build around. NCSU has the monumental task of replacing 2014 ACC Player of the Year T.J. Warren. The Wolfpack's fortunes could rest with talented, yet erratic, point guard Anthony Barber.
13. Georgia Tech at Northwestern: Both teams hope to get a boost from guards lost to injury last season. Tech’s Travis Jorgenson played in just four games before tearing his ACL. Northwestern’s oft-injured guard JerShon Cobb, its leading scorer returning, missed the last five games with a foot injury. The Yellow Jackets have only won once on the road in the Challenge.
14. Virginia Tech at Penn State: The Nittany Lions return most of their rotation that lost eight games by five or fewer points. Senior guard D.J. Newbill, who led the team in scoring, is now the unequivocal leader with Tim Frazier gone. Buzz Williams begins Hokies rebuilding project with a good starting point -- guard Devin Wilson was on both the coaches and media all-ACC freshmen teams and ranked third in the league in assists.
However, the only thing that increased was disappointment in the league’s overall showing.
Expanding to 15 teams did little to affect the ACC’s reach in the NCAA tournament. Six teams received bids -- and that likely would have been just five until NC State’s late push (including its upset of Syracuse in the ACC tournament).
North Carolina and Duke both failed to advance into the NCAA tournament’s second weekend for the first time since 1979. The Blue Devils were upset by Mercer in the second round. The Tar Heels lost to Iowa State in the third round. The ACC has long depended on the bluebloods to carry the league’s baton, and this season did little to change that narrative.
Only Virginia, which earned a No. 1 seed by winning the league title, advanced to the Sweet 16. The Cavaliers were then eliminated by Michigan State.
The league should improve next postseason thanks in part to Carolina's and Duke's potential to have powerhouse squads.
Freshmen Tyler Ennis (Syracuse) and Jabari Parker (Duke) proved to be not only among the best players in the conference, but in the nation -- regardless of class.
Many ACC teams had outstanding individual talents -- NC State’s T.J. Warren (won the league’s player of the year award), Duke’s Rodney Hood, North Carolina’s Marcus Paige, Clemson’s K.J. McDaniels to name a few -- but those teams were heavily flawed. Opponents who stopped Lamar Patterson essentially stopped Pittsburgh. Syracuse had trouble scoring. Duke had a thin frontcourt. Carolina was limited by its shooting from the perimeter.
Syracuse started the season strong -- winning its first 25 games -- but faded down the stretch losing six of its last nine games, as its offense went on hiatus. The Orange did provide two classics sure to be talked about in ACC lore. Their first meeting with Duke was a thrilling 91-89 overtime win in the Carrier Dome and their 66-60 loss at Duke featured Jim Boeheim’s first ejection in a regular-season game.
As has long been a problem since the league expanded to 12 teams, the ACC failed to develop a strong second tier of added depth. The conference continued to be top-heavy as Florida State, Maryland, Clemson and Notre Dame never quite became teams to fear.
Three of the bottom four teams in the standings played poorly enough to end the season with their coaches being fired. Boston College arguably had the most disappointing seasons of them all relative to its talent level. The Eagles pulled it together long enough to hand Syracuse its first loss, which was the highlight of their season.
What we expect to see next season: More of the nation’s top freshmen. Duke’s recruiting class is considered tops in the land and is led by center Jahlil Okafor, who is ranked No. 1 overall in the ESPN 100, and Tyus Jones, the No. 1 point guard who is fourth overall. North Carolina also snagged two top-10 recruits in Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson and is ranked third as a class by ESPN.com.
Newcomers are great and all, but let’s also appreciate what we won’t see in the ACC for the first time in its existence. Maryland, a charter member of the conference started in 1953, will begin competing in the Big Ten. Let’s pause to remember the good times.
Long enough? OK.
Louisville obviously doesn’t compare to the tradition Maryland had within the league, but it could be considered an upgrade otherwise. With three national titles and a Hall of Fame coach currently on its sideline, the Cardinals fit the league’s basketball pedigree.
Their addition, plus Virginia’s returning most of its ACC title squad, should help the league become closer to the juggernaut many of its coaches expected this past season.
For all the hand-wringing over a change of guard in the ACC, the Blue Devils and Tar Heels look primed to re-establish their stranglehold on the top of the league standings. Regardless of how Parker’s NBA draft decision falls on Wednesday, Duke will have a good blend of experience (Quinn Cook, Rasheed Sulaimon and Amile Jefferson) and young talent (Okafor, Jones, Justise Winslow, Grayson Allen) at Mike Krzyzewski’s disposal.
Carolina returns the likely front-runner for preseason player of the year in Paige. Forward Brice Johnson and center Kennedy Meeks give the Heels an inside offensive scoring punch that will be hard to contain.
Because of those teams at the top, a trio of new coaches could face a harsh inaugural season in the league. Buzz Williams shocked many by leaving Marquette to take the reins at Virginia Tech, replacing James Johnson. Jim Christian (after a stint at Ohio) takes over Boston College, replacing Steve Donahue. And Danny Manning returns home to Tobacco Road to rebuild Wake Forest, replacing Jeff Bzdelik.
It could all add up and help the ACC live up to its own expectations as the best basketball conference in the nation.
Tipoff is at 7 p.m. ET, and you can watch the games on ESPN2.
HOME SWEET HOME: Brooklyn native and former Knicks coach Larry Brown returns to the Garden and should receive a warm welcome.
The 73-year-old Hall of Famer has rejuvenated the Southern Methodist basketball program in just two years at the helm. The Mustangs were 13-19 in 2011-12, prior to Brown's arrival. This season they have won 26 games, the second-most in school history.
SMU was the first team left out of the NCAA tournament field, and received one of four No. 1 seeds in the NIT.
When asked last week about returning to New York, Brown said, “I don’t look at it like that, for me. For me, for our kids to have an opportunity to keep playing is great.
"I’m happy for our team, I’m thrilled for our program. After the disappointment we had [Selection Sunday], this is a privilege to still be playing.”
GAME 1: SMU (26-9, 12-6 AAC) will play No. 3 seed Clemson (23-12, 10-8 ACC) in the first semifinal. The Mustangs finished tied for third in the American Athletic Conference with Final Four participant UConn, and beat the Huskies twice in the regular season. The Tigers, in their fourth year under coach Brad Brownell, finished sixth in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Their best win of the season was a 72-59 triumph over Duke at home on Jan. 11.
Two players average in double figures for SMU -- sophomore point guard Nic Moore (13.5 PPG, 4.9 APG) and sophomore forward Markus Kennedy (12.2 PPG, 7.0 RPG). Clemson has just one double-figure scorer -- junior forward K.J. McDaniels (17.2 PPG, 7.1 RPG). McDaniels was also the leading shot-blocker in the ACC (2.8 BPG).
The Mustangs are 18th in Division I in offensive field goal percentage (48.4), and seventh in defensive field goal percentage (38.2) -- quite a combination! The Tigers aren't nearly as good offensively, ranking 265th (42.4). But they are almost as good defensively, ranking 14th (39.3).
GAME 2: A pair of No. 1 seeds, Minnesota (23-13, 8-10 Big Ten) and Florida State (22-13, 9-9 ACC), will meet in the second semifinal, tipping off at approximately 9:30 p.m. ET. The Golden Gophers, in their first year under coach Richard Pitino (Rick's son), finished seventh in the Big Ten. The Seminoles, in their 12th year under coach Leonard Hamilton, finished tied for seventh in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
These two teams met back on Dec. 3 in Minneapolis, with Minnesota winning 71-61. But the Golden Gophers' leading rebounder, junior center Elliott Eliason (5.1 PPG, 6.7 RPG), is likely out for this game due to an ankle injury, as reported by the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
Three players average in double figures for Minnesota -- junior guard Andre Hollins (13.6 PPG, 3.5 RPG), senior guard Austin Hollins (12.1 PPG, 5.1 RPG) and junior guard DeAndre Mathieu (11.8 PPG, 4.1 APG).
Three players average in double figures for Florida State, as well -- sophomore guard Aaron Thomas (14.8 PPG, 4.2 RPG), senior guard Ian Miller (13.7 PPG, 2.9 APG) and senior forward Okaro White (13.5 PPG, 6.6 RPG).
The Seminoles also stack up very well on both sides, ranking 49th in Division I in offensive field goal percentage (46.8) and 25th in defensive field goal percentage (39.9). The Golden Gophers trail significantly in both categories, ranking 142nd offensively (44.8) and 116th defensively (42.5).
In the latest edition, Dana O'Neil, C.L. Brown and Katz discuss which team may get the fourth No. 1 seed, who will be disappointed on Selection Sunday and the teams that made the biggest moves during Championship Week.
Read the full story here.
The national scene is beginning to take shape.
Last Saturday was proof. Kansas dismissed Oklahoma State with ease. Syracuse outplayed a good Pitt team down the stretch in the Carrier Dome. Wichita State remained perfect with a victory over Indiana State. And Louisville topped UConn.
My Tennessee over Kentucky pick looked solid for a chunk of the first half. But the Wildcats just had too many weapons for a Vols squad that's still looking for a signature win.
Let's see what happens this weekend. I mean, let's see what happens with college basketball.
Not the Grammys. But I can predict that, too.
Album of the Year? "Random Access Memories," Daft Punk. Best Country Album? "Based on a True Story," Blake Shelton. Best Rap Album? "Good Kid, M.A.A.D City," Kendrick Lamar. Sorry, Kanye.
Back to college basketball.
Remember, this is just one man's take. And I've been wrong before. Many times.
Disclaimer: Myron Medcalf’s views and opinions do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of other ESPN.com staffers, especially with regard to that ridiculous thing he said about Syracuse being better than Arizona last weekend.
Last week: 4-1
No. 21 Michigan at No. 3 Michigan State, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: I’m a big boxing fan. I love the hype that builds up a big fight. The biggest letdown, however, is when one fighter suffers a cut or some other injury that ruins the match. It’s deflating. And that’s how I feel about this heavyweight bout between the Big Ten’s best teams. Both Michigan and Michigan State have proved that they can overcome significant injuries. The Spartans haven’t been healthy all season and now there’s a strong chance that they’ll enter Saturday’s game without Adreian Payne (foot) or Branden Dawson (broken hand). Michigan has played most of the season without preseason All-American Mitch McGary. But the Wolverines are not wrestling with their identity. McGary is not coming back. And they’ve adapted to that on their way to becoming an elite team as Nik Stauskas, Caris LeVert and Glenn Robinson III have formed a potent trio. Michigan State remains a team in flux. Tom Izzo’s program has overcome injuries thus far in Big Ten play. But they’ll be costly Saturday when the Spartans suffer their first conference loss of the year. I’ll stick with this pick even if Payne miraculously returns to the floor.
Prediction: Michigan 79, Michigan State 72
Tennessee at No. 6 Florida, 4 p.m. ET, ESPN: In a weird way, Florida is flying under the radar. The Gators are the best team in the SEC. And they haven’t lost since Dec. 2. But there’s a bigger spotlight on some of the other top-10 teams right now. The Gators are clearly dangerous, especially with Wooden Award candidate Casey Prather healthy. Billy Donovan’s program hasn’t been complete for most of the season. And premier recruit Chris Walker is still unavailable because of eligibility issues. But they have the pieces to compete for a national title. The Gators have forced turnovers on 21.9 percent of their opponents’ possessions, 24th in the nation per Ken Pomeroy. They’ll face a desperate Tennessee team that held its own against Kentucky for a half last weekend but couldn’t finish. The Vols need quality wins. But the SEC won’t provide many opportunities to acquire them. They’ll still be searching after Saturday.
Prediction: Florida 74, Tennessee 66
No. 22 Kansas State at No. 16 Iowa State, 1:45 p.m. ET, ESPN3.com/WatchESPN: Bruce Weber could ultimately be in the running for national coach of the year. His best player is a freshman (Marcus Foster). But the Wildcats are 4-2 in the Big 12 after playing some of the best defense in the league (15th in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy). But it will be tough to get a win against an Iowa State team that has a chance to end its three-game losing streak in Ames. The Cyclones, however, are connecting on just 28 percent of their 3-point attempts in conference play. That’s a challenge for a program that has taken 40 percent of its overall field goal attempts from beyond the arc in its first five league games. It seems like a matter of time before the 3-ball becomes a more effective weapon for Iowa State again. And that’s vital. This upcoming stretch will make or break its waning Big 12 title dreams.
Prediction: Iowa State 80, Kansas State 79
Florida State at No. 18 Duke, 12 p.m. ET, ESPN: There are a lot of things that make Duke an intriguing team. The Blue Devils have an offense (second in adjusted offensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy) that’s led by a young man who could be a top-three draft pick this summer. And Jabari Parker is joined by steady offensive contributors Rodney Hood and Quinn Cook. But a unit that’s ranked 73rd in adjusted defensive efficiency by Ken Pomeroy can’t be trusted. Although it might not matter against a Florida State squad that has held opponents to a 42.6 effective field goal percentage, sixth in the nation. But Leonard Hamilton’s squad has big, strong guards, plus 6-foot-9 Okaro White could be a tough matchup for a Duke team that has struggled against good big men all season. This won’t be an easy game for Duke.
Prediction: Florida State 73, Duke 70
Texas at No. 24 Baylor, 1:30 p.m. ET, ESPN3.com/WatchESPN: Baylor has been up and down. It’s a confusing cycle for Scott Drew’s program. The Bears have wins over Kentucky and a healthy Colorado. But they’ve lost four of their first five Big 12 games. What’s wrong with Baylor? It isn't playing defense. All of those athletic weapons -- Isaiah Austin, Cory Jefferson and Rico Gathers. But the Bears ranked 103rd in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy. It’s a waste of talent. Baylor should be better. And maybe this game against Texas will allow it to reverse this messy start. But Texas is rolling. The Longhorns are coming off wins against Kansas State and Iowa State. Jonathan Holmes and Cameron Ridley are bullying teams inside. Javan Felix has really matured. It's a bad time to face Texas.
Prediction: Texas 78, Baylor 74
- Florida State commit Cinmeon Bowers, one of the top junior-college prospects in the country, was enjoying a night out with Chipola College teammates Torian Graham and Jamaar McKay-Taylor last Thursday when Marianna, Fla., police officers pulled them over for speeding. The officers smelled marijuana in the car, and what happened next, according to a report from the Marianna Police Department, was a partial homage to the opening scene of “Super Troopers:” “According to the Marianna Police Department, officers smelled marijuana coming from the car after the vehicle was pulled over for a speeding violation. Bowers, 20, and Chipola teammates Torian Graham, 20, and Jamaar McKay-Taylor, 19, ate the marijuana in an attempt to conceal it from the officers, according to the police statement. They were charged with tampering with evidence and taken to the Jackson County Correctional Facility.”
- Rejoice: John Gasaway’s first full Tuesday truths of the season is here. Perhaps the biggest tempo-related surprises involve the ACC -- where Syracuse is averaging less than 55 possessions a game, and the league as a whole is averaging a Missouri Valley Conference-esque 62.9. Strange times.
- Speaking of the ACC, are you interested in watching NC State coach Mark Gottfried celebrate his 50th birthday with some sort of horrific locker room dance? You are? What a coincidence!
- Still think no team will finish the regular season undefeated? You’re probably right … but the odds aren’t as long as you think.
- Andrew Wiggins’ winter break is already better than yours, in the following ways: 1. He saw the “Yeezus” show in Toronto Sunday night, and 2. He met Kanye West backstage after the show -- and posed for a photo with the man himself so good it might have to become my new iPhone wallpaper. It’s the stuff Tumblrs are made of. It’s that awesome.
- The 2012-13 season was a profoundly weird one in Tallahassee, and not just because the Seminoles were so mediocre. No, it was the way in which FSU was mediocre, how after years of singular defensive dominance Leonard Hamilton’s team was suddenly more permissive than NJIT. (No offense to NJIT … but that’s insane.) That aberrant FSU edition is gone in 2013-14; as Rush the Court details Monday, the Seminoles (ranked No. 7 in AdjD to date) are back to their old defensive ways.
- This week’s new AP top 25 is a rather tepid affair: The top eight teams held the same spots as last week. (Rightfully so.)
- A Sea of Blue charts Kentucky’s defensive performance against Belmont and finds a UK team that is still playing just meh basketball on its own end. The best solution I can see is to keep scoring 1.29 points per possession ever game. It’s just that easy!
- Whatever’s ailing the Maryland Terrapins on the court -- the subject of this morning’s Game Plan, in case you missed it -- bears no relation to their holiday cheer off it. Via College Basketball Talk and CSN Baltimore’s Dan Martin comes a rather excellent holiday greeting card the Terrapins recorded in the form of a horribly butchered, collectively “sung” edition of “Jingle Bell Rock.” The outtakes, which begin after 90 seconds of what can best be described as pained wailing, are the best part. In other words: This is the “Rush Hour 2” of Christmas Jumbotron videos. Merry Christmas.
We’re a long way from March. So I’m sure I’ll miss a bunch.
But in last week’s picks, I was accurate on every game except Iowa-Iowa State. That Cyclones-Hawkeyes matchup was one of the best games of the season. Great finish between a pair of talented teams.
This weekend’s slate is stacked, too.
Last week: 4-1
No. 7 Oklahoma State vs. No. 20 Colorado (Las Vegas), 11:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2: Colorado has already upset one Big 12 contender (Kansas). Will Oklahoma State be next? Well, maybe. Colorado hasn’t lost since suffering its season-opening 72-60 loss to Baylor and have knocked off Harvard and Kansas during this 10-game winning streak. But Oklahoma State will be a different test for Colorado. Marcus Smart, Markel Brown, Le’Bryan Nash and Co. can’t match the size of a team that’s fourth in offensive rebounding percentage per Ken Pomeroy, but Oklahoma State’s speed, athleticism and sheer star-power will push Colorado’s bigs out of their comfort zones. It’d be easier to believe in Colorado’s chances to win what I expect to be a tight game if it weren’t one of the Pac-12’s worst 3-point shooting teams (32 percent).
Prediction: Oklahoma State 80, Colorado 76
No. 5 Michigan State at Texas, 4 p.m. ET, CBS: The Spartans picked a bad time to play the Longhorns in Austin. Rick Barnes’ squad is filled with confidence after upsetting North Carolina in Chapel Hill -- in Chapel Hill?!? -- on Wednesday night. Barnes’ team was projected to finish at the bottom of the Big 12 standings after losing its top four scorers from last season. But Javan Felix, Demarcus Holland, Jonathan Holmes and Isaiah Taylor comprise a legit unit that anchors, somehow, a Big 12 sleeper. But Michigan State won’t squander the opportunities that North Carolina -- the same North Carolina that beat Michigan State earlier this month -- missed against the Longhorns, although the Spartans are struggling from the free throw line (68.2 percent), too. The Spartans will definitely be ready for the Longhorns on Saturday. One problem, though. Texas will be ready, too.
Prediction: Texas 78, Michigan State 74
Notre Dame vs. No. 3 Ohio State (New York City), 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2: The Fighting Irish began the year as a nationally ranked team. That status made sense with Jerian Grant and some of the key contributors returning from a Notre Dame team that reached the NCAA tournament last season. But Notre Dame’s defensive gaps have been its downfall so far this season (125th in adjusted defensive efficiency). The Fighting Irish, however, were better last week in a win over Indiana in Indianapolis when Yogi Ferrell went 5-for-14, but Ohio State is on another level. The Buckeyes are a defensive force (first in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy) and they possess one of the nation’s most-balanced scoring attacks.
Prediction: Ohio State 73, Notre Dame 63
Georgetown at No. 18 Kansas, 12 p.m. ET, ESPN: When he was a pro wrestler, the Rock (Dwayne Johnson) would say, “Finally, the Rock has come home to …” whenever he’d enter an arena. The Jayhawks probably feel that way entering their first game in Lawrence, Kan., since Nov. 22 (88-58 win over Towson). The roller coaster that they’ve been on for the last month has changed early projections about a team that might boast the top two NBA prospects in next summer’s draft (Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins). It should be a pleasant homecoming. Josh Smith will struggle against Wiggins, Embiid and Perry Ellis inside. And the Hoyas will face a variety of defensive matchup problems against the Jayhawks in their first true road game of the season. Kansas has been criticized for its recent mishaps. But Saturday should be another positive mark for the program.
Prediction: Kansas 69, Georgetown 65
No. 22 UMass vs. Florida State (Sunrise, Fla.), 2 p.m. ET, No TV: The Minutemen continue to fly under the radar, but at this rate, they might be college basketball’s last undefeated team. They’ll be tested in the Atlantic 10, but will face Saint Louis and VCU, their toughest A10 opponents, in Amherst. A favorable schedule is certainly a plus for Derek Kellogg’s squad. But Saturday’s game against Florida State could be its toughest matchup of the year to date. Ian Miller is the star of a strong backcourt. The Seminoles can also play big inside with Okaro White and Boris Bojanovsky. Massachusetts can match that size with Cady Lalanne, Maxie Esho, Raphiael Putney and Sampson Carter. And the Minutemen will push the pace beyond what Florida State experienced in a recent 10-point loss at Minnesota. Chaz Williams, however, has to be calm and careful because turnovers have been an issue all year for the Minutemen. But they’ll maintain their unblemished record. Barely.
Prediction: UMass 76, FSU 74
On Holiday is College Basketball Nation's daily rundown of the holiday tournaments, complete with previews, recaps and links to all of the early-season tournament info you'll need in the weeks to come.
College football was more exciting Saturday, and I don't love college football: "On a slow Saturday for college basketball, there just weren’t many gems. North Carolina struggled with Richmond but eventually pulled away to win 82-72. Louisville dismissed Fairfield 71-57, which set up a marquee Sunday matchup against the Tar Heels. Winless Tulsa gave Creighton a scare. But overall, it certainly wasn’t the game’s sexiest Saturday. But there were a variety of under-the-radar and mid-major programs that offered some impressive individual efforts." -- Myron Medcalf, ESPN.com
COACHES V. CANCER: Michigan State "got punched, almost KO'd' by Oklahoma; wins Coaches' title 87-76 anyway: "The Sooners came out with something to prove. The Spartans did not. They won anyway, 87-76, despite falling behind by double digits midway through the first half in the finals of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic. And despite building an 18-point second-half lead, only to fritter it away with turnovers and missed free throws. … They might not have were it not for Keith Appling, whose 3-pointer in the first half ignited a run for MSU and whose three-point play in the second half stopped a run for Oklahoma. That driving layup and ensuing free throw began a run of seven consecutive points for Appling. He finished with 27 -- a career high. He scored many of them down the stretch, driving into the lane, tossing acrobatic floaters." --Shawn Windsor, Detroit Free Press
**HALL OF FAME TIP-OFF: No. 3 Louisville, No. 24 North Carolina survive in semis, give us marquee title game -- with one caveat: The tournament organizers at the Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, CT could rest easy Saturday afternoon. Defending national champs Louisville handled Fairfield 71-57 and continued to look impressive. North Carolina, on the other hand, was a little bit shakier against Richmond -- a more solid, healthier Richmond than in recent seasons, but Richmond all the same.
Strong recap from C.L.: "Erase for a minute everything you’re used to assuming about a North Carolina basketball team under coach Roy Williams. The No. 24 Tar Heels are not that team." -- C.L. Brown, ESPN.com.
They're also not last season's team, in one very obvious way. The Tar Heels still won't have last season's leading scorer, P.J. Hairston, against Louisville on Sunday, though that is not exactly new news. What is new, now, is the open question of whether Hairston might ever come back for North Carolina. To put it simply, if Williams and UNC are worried that Hairston's summertime dalliances with convicted felon Haydn "Fats" Thomas (and the rental cars Hairston was driving that led back to Thomas's payment info and addresses at rental vendors), then he can't play. If he did, and the NCAA ruled against Hairston or UNC in the future, every game it played in the time being -- whether Richmond or Louisville or wherever -- would be in dispute.
For the first time since Hairston was pulled over, North Carolina officials -- down to Williams himself -- aren't evincing optimism about his return.
— Will Williams ever coach Hairston again? "I think I will," he said. "There's no doubt in my mind that I think I will. But I don't know." To understand the weight of that quote you need to understand that Williams would never rule anything out until it's officially ruled out. He's forever positive and hopeful. But it should be noted that even the Hall of Fame coach has changed his position since the preseason. Back then, Williams admittedly seemed unsure about how much time Hairston might miss, but he never publicly entertained the idea that Hairston would not play for the Tar Heels again. Now, Williams acknowledges he just doesn't know, and that public uncertainty can be interpreted as serious doubt. … But the prevailing theory among sources around the North Carolina program is that Hairston might not have been completely honest with investigators about the extent of his use of rental cars connected to a convicted felon named Haydn 'Fats' Thomas that were seemingly occupied by Hairston in violation of NCAA bylaws." -- Gary Parrish, CBS
Oh, also: Louisville: It would be a shame to allow the ongoing North Carolina psychodrama to blot out Russ Smith and the Cardinals. Sure, Saturday represents Louisville's first test against quality competition -- besides Fairfield, the Cardinals have treated College of Charleston, Hofstra, Cornell and Hartford like a bored housecat with a mouse. But two things stand out about Louisville thus far:
- Much like VCU, it is still turning people over at the same rate as in 2012-13 despite the new handchecking rules.
- The Cardinals are not turning the ball over themselves. They finished No. 77 in turnover rate in 2012-13 -- coughing up on 18.3 percent of their trips. This season, with Chris Jones installed in place of departed senior Peyton Siva, the Cardinals are turning it over just 11.3 percent of the time.
The small sample size disclaimer applies here. Actually, make that a double disclaimer -- small sample size and poor competition. Jones is unlikely to make things look this easy all season. But the juco transfer junior hasn't missed a step in his first season in Louisville, Smith is even better offensively thus far, and the Cardinals are rolling as a result.
Paradise Jam (updated bracket) semifinal rounds: Seeds mostly held on Day 1 of the Paradise Jam, which I think we should abbreviate to "PJ," even if support among my colleagues remains tepid. Northern Iowa and Maryland square off at 7 p.m. ET, and La Salle gets Providence at 9:30 ET in the winners' half of the bracket.
Puerto Rico Tip-Off (updated bracket): Will Act III be as crazy as the first two? Georgetown-VCU sounds like a pretty solid November nonconference game, right? By March, it might be possible for both teams to have fully shaken off the reasons why they played on the final day of Puerto Rico; they may have improved so much by then we'll look back on today's consolation -- yes, consolation -- in a whole different context.
Today, however, it's a product of the unpredictability of the week in Puerto Rico -- where Florida State manhandled VCU and probably should have beaten Michigan late; where Northeastern made Georgetown look like a fellow CAA team, and not a very good one; where Charlotte, a seemingly nondescript program at this point, finds itself in today's 6:30 p.m. ET title game in Bayamon, PR.
With all due respect to the 49ers, the Florida State game may well have hardened Michigan in crucial ways. The Wolverines were physically dominated and just straight-up played badly and still, thanks to some timely, late heroics, managed to dispatch Leonard Hamilton's team and progress to the title game. It's hard to see them losing to Charlotte now.
Then again, we've been wrong before -- which is how we got Georgetown and VCU in the 2 p.m. ET consolation game in the first place. VCU was the favorite coming in to Puerto Rico, but FSU did a number on the Rams in Round 1, and Long Beach State kept that crucial turnover number startlingly low in VCU's win in Round 2. Georgetown has not protected the ball particularly well to date. The Hoyas turn it over on 18.0 percent of their offensive possessions. And their one clear personnel advantage -- massive center Josh Smith -- may not be able to stay on the court in an uptempo affair.
And that's it: There are other tournaments out there, but only so much space on the Internet to discuss them. Enjoy the Sunday of hoops everyone.
New Mexico is not (Charleston Classic): New Mexico's struggles in Charleston didn't end with UAB. A day after an occasionally thrilling, often ugly two-overtime survival of the Blazers, Kendall Williams & Co. lost for the first time this season, 81-65 to Massachusetts.
New Mexico fans shouldn't panic, and not only because it's still just Nov. 22. For one, UMass is an experienced team on the cusp of a very good season. They also happen to play very fast basketball — difficult to slow down, anyway, but especially so just one day after a double-overtime scrap. New Mexico played the Minutemen even through 30 minutes. In the final 10, they were outscored 22-8. That reeks of fatigue.
Michigan (somehow) survived Florida State in OT (Puerto Rico Tip-Off): "Michigan’s offense was as effective in the second half as it was dreadful in the first. The Wolverines scored 27 points on 30 first-half possessions compared to 55 points on 42 possessions in the second half and overtime. That’s 0.9 points per possession in first and 1.31 points per possession after the halftime horn. Florida State’s length was as advertised inside and Michigan shot just 46 percent on twos but made some threes, 37.5 percent, and got to the free-throw line. Converting the freebies was a different story; Michigan was just 17-of-27 at the stripe. The free-throw shooting almost cost the Wolverines down to the final horn, when Florida State had a desperation heave at the win. … A loss to Florida State would have been crippling to Michigan with games against Duke, Arizona and Stanford still on the schedule." — Dylan Burkhardt, UMHoops
In Puerto Rico, Florida State pounded VCU and took Michigan to the wire — and honestly, probably should have finished the Wolverines off in regulation. I don't know whether this is a short-term November blip or a sign of a team that is much better than anyone outside Tallahassee expected — but the latter option is officially on the table.
VCU survived, too, needing an eight-point second-half run, and an 8-of-14 night from Juvonte Reddic, to shed Long Beach State. A win's a win and all, but the no-turnover-no-stop formula that eventually sank VCU last March reared its ugly head again here (Long Beach turned it over on 16.4 percent of its possessions and scored 1.10 points per trip.)
Michigan State got by Virginia Tech with relative ease, their first cruise since beating Kentucky and earning the No. 1 ranking 10 days ago. Next up is Oklahoma, a more challenging, but still eminently winnable, test.
What else? The semifinal rounds of the Hall of Fame Tip-Off are under way as of this writing; read Andy Katz, Dana O'Neil and C.L. Brown on North Carolina and Louisville (and their opponents Fairfield and Richmond) here.
Here are previews for each team in the ACC:
Boston College Eagles
Clemson Tigers (free)
Duke Blue Devils
Florida State Seminoles
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
North Carolina Tar Heels
North Carolina State Wolfpack
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Virginia Tech Hokies
Wake Forest Demon Deacons
Toughest: 2K Sports Classic (Nov. 21-22), at Purdue (Dec. 4), vs. VCU (Dec. 28 in Brooklyn), at Harvard (Jan. 1)
Next-toughest: at Providence (Nov. 8), vs. UMass (Nov. 10 at TD Garden, Boston)
The rest: Toledo (Nov. 14), Florida Atlantic (Nov. 17), Sacred Heart (Nov. 26), at USC (Dec. 8), vs. Philadelphia (Dec. 15), at Auburn (Dec. 22)
Toughness scale (1-10): 7 — The differences between Boston College's 2012-13 schedule and its slate in 2013-14 mirror the differences in the two squads' expectations. Last season's Eagles were young and still very much rebuilding; this year's group, led by Ryan Anderson and Olivier Hanlan, has serious sleeper potential. We'll get to see just how much in late November, when Steve Donahue's team takes on UConn and then either Indiana or Washington in Madison Square Garden, followed by a trip to Purdue, a New Year's date at Harvard, and what should be a fascinating nonconference sojourn to New York City to play VCU.
Toughest: Charleston Classic (Nov. 21-24), at Arkansas (Dec. 7)
Next-toughest: South Carolina (Nov. 17)
The rest: Stetson (Nov. 8), Delaware State (Nov. 13), Coastal Carolina (Nov. 29), South Carolina State (Dec. 3), Furman (Dec. 14), at Auburn (Dec. 19), VMI (Dec. 30)
Toughness scale (1-10): 2 — I'm not sure whether it's possible to hand out a zero in these nonconference rankings. I'm pretty sure it's never been done. And I haven't seen every schedule in the country yet, I admit. But still: Clemson's schedule is … not great. It is possessed of exactly one interesting event -- the Charleston Classic, aka "a bunch of so-so teams and New Mexico" -- and, save a trip to Arkansas (if that), nothing else. (This isn't actual criticism, by the way. Clemson looks as if it's in the process of a big rebuild, and you wouldn't expect it to schedule hard in advance of this loaded ACC. But still. Ick.)
Toughest: vs. Kansas (Nov. 12 in Chicago), NIT Season Tip-Off (Nov. 27-29), Michigan (Dec. 3), vs. UCLA (Dec. 19 in New York City)
Next-toughest: Davidson (Nov. 8)
The rest: Florida Atlantic (Nov. 15), UNC Asheville (Nov. 18), East Carolina/Norfolk State (Nov. 19), Vermont (Nov. 24), Gardner-Webb (Dec. 16), Eastern Michigan (Dec. 28), Elon (Dec. 31)
Toughness scale (1-10): 8 — The Blue Devils rarely overdo it with their schedules, but just as rarely make it to ACC season without at least a handful of solid results on their docket. So it is again in 2013-14, if slightly tougher than the norm. That's true for a few reasons: Duke drew high-powered Michigan in its ACC/Big Ten matchup; Duke plays Kansas, which landed uber-recruit Andrew Wiggins this summer, in the Champions Classic in November; the Blue Devils look likely to get Arizona in the NIT Season Tip-Off; and UCLA could be formidable if the leftover talent from Ben Howland's tenure jells under Steve Alford. But all of these games are safely within the Blue Devils' sphere of influence. Somehow, Coach K managed to get two of the West Coast's marquee programs without going any farther west than Chicago. Same as it ever was.
Toughest: Puerto Rico Tip-Off (Nov. 21-24), at Florida (Nov. 29)
Next-toughest: at Minnesota (Dec. 3)
The rest: Jacksonville (Nov. 8), at UCF (Nov. 13), UT-Martin (Nov. 17), Jacksonville State (Dec. 8), Charlotte (Dec. 17), vs. Massachusetts (Dec. 21 in Sunrise, Fla.), Charleston Southern (Dec. 30)
Toughness scale (1-10): 7 — Florida State's season would have looked much different if two freshmen -- Wiggins, who looked hard at his parents' alma mater before choosing to go to Kansas instead; and Xavier Rathan-Mayes, a top-50 recruit who did not get through the NCAA clearinghouse this spring -- had joined up. Without them, star forward Okaro White has a daunting challenge ahead of him all season, beginning with a really good field in Puerto Rico (with first-round opponent VCU, plus Michigan, Georgetown, Kansas State in the mix), followed by road trips to Florida and Minnesota in close succession.
Toughest: Barclays Center Classic (Nov. 29-30), Illinois (Dec. 3)
Next-toughest: at Georgia (Nov. 15), Dayton (Nov. 20) The rest: Presbyterian (Nov. 8), Delaware State (Nov. 11), North Carolina A&T (Nov. 24), Mississippi Valley State (Nov. 26), East Tennessee State (Dec. 7), Kennesaw State (Dec. 16), at Vanderbilt (Dec. 21), at Charlotte (Dec. 29)
Toughness scale (1-10): 5 — The Yellow Jackets don't have a ton here, but what they do have is solid enough, given where the program is sitting (probably best described as "getting better, if slowly") under third-year coach Brian Gregory. The Barclays Center Classic is a better-than-you-think event, with Ole Miss (and Marshall Henderson, which should be fun) followed by Penn State or St. John's, both of which should be improved over 2012-13. Illinois is the other notable nonconference game, a rematch of last season's 75-62 loss in Champaign, Ill.
Toughest: UConn (Nov. 8 in Brooklyn), at Ohio State (Dec. 4)
Next-toughest: Oregon State (Nov. 17), Paradise Jam (Nov. 22-25)
The rest: Abilene Christian (Nov. 13), Morgan State (Nov. 29), at George Washington (Dec. 8), Florida Atlantic (Dec. 14), Boston University (Dec. 21), Tulsa (Dec. 29), North Carolina Central (Dec. 31)
Toughness scale (1-10): 6 — The Terrapins won't get much in the way of RPI boost out of their early-season tournament; La Salle, Providence and maybe Northern Iowa appear to be the only reasonable challengers in the Virgin Islands. But the Terps do have a good opening night date with UConn in Brooklyn, similar to last year's near miss against Kentucky, and the Big Ten-ACC Challenge sends them to Ohio State, which is guaranteed to be a win on the RPI sheet no matter what happens on the floor.
Toughest: Wooden Legacy (Nov. 28-Dec. 1)
Next-toughest: La Salle (Dec. 22)
The rest: St. Francis (Nov. 8), Georgia Southern (Nov. 11), Texas Southern (Nov. 14), at Charleston (Nov. 18), UCF (Nov. 21), Nebraska (Dec. 4), at Savannah State (Dec. 19), Loyola-Md. (Dec. 30)
Toughness scale (1-10): 6 — After a thoroughly euphoric 2012-13 season marked by an ACC regular-season and tournament title, a No. 2 tournament seed, and a first-round draft pick (point guard Shane Larkin), the Hurricanes are due for a serious hangover in 2013-14. Fortunately, their nonconference schedule shouldn't be too punishing. Other than the Wooden Legacy -- a quality field featuring Creighton, Marquette, San Diego State and Arizona State -- La Salle is the one real opponent of note, and the Explorers have to come to Coral Gables.
Toughest: Hall of Fame Tipoff (Nov. 23-24), at Michigan State (Dec. 4), Kentucky (Dec. 14)
Next-toughest: Texas (Dec. 18)
The rest: Oakland (Nov. 8), Holy Cross (Nov. 15), Belmont (Nov. 17), at UAB (Dec. 1), UNC Greensboro (Dec. 7), Davidson (Dec. 21), Northern Kentucky (Dec. 27), UNC Wilmington (Dec. 31)
Toughness scale (1-10): 9 — The usual North Carolina scheduling partners are all here. There's that trip to Michigan State (this time thanks to the ACC/Big Ten Challenge), the home-and-home with Texas, the huge mid-December date with Kentucky -- it's all there. This year, UNC even adds to that with the Hall of Fame Tipoff tournament, which, if expectations hold, will put the Tar Heels up against defending national champion Louisville in Uncasville, Conn. (after an opening game against Richmond). That means the Heels are likely to face the preseason No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 teams in the country before the middle of December. Not too shabby.
Toughest: at Cincinnati (Nov. 12), at Tennessee (Dec. 18)
Next-toughest: Missouri (Dec. 28)
The rest: Appalachian State (Nov. 8), Campbell (Nov. 16), North Carolina Central (Nov. 20), Florida Gulf Coast (Nov. 26), Eastern Kentucky (Nov. 30), Northwestern (Dec. 4), Long Beach State (Dec. 7), Detroit (Dec. 14), East Carolina (Dec. 21)
Toughness scale (1-10): 5 -- NC State's young but promising batch of talent might surprise some people this season, particularly if the Wolfpack are ready for those key road dates at Cincinnati and Tennessee. It's hard to know what to expect from Missouri this season, but that could end up being a quality chance for a nonconference win in Raleigh. A two-loss nonconference run -- or better -- would have folks jumping aboard the T.J. Warren bandwagon just in time for ACC play.
Toughest: at Iowa (Dec. 3), vs. Ohio State (Dec. 21 in New York)
Next-toughest: vs. Indiana (Dec. 14 in Indianapolis, Ind.)
The rest: Miami (Ohio) (Nov. 8), Stetson (Nov. 10), Indiana State (Nov. 17), Santa Clara (Nov. 22), Army (Nov. 24), Cornell (Dec. 1), Delaware (Dec. 7), Bryant (Dec. 9), North Dakota State (Dec. 11), Canisius (Dec. 29)
Toughness scale (1-10): 7 -- Notre Dame's official welcome to the ACC doesn't come in January but rather in the first week of December, when the Irish travel to Iowa for their first ACC/Big Ten Challenge matchup. At any point in the past few years, that would have been a perfectly manageable game, but the ascending Hawkeyes are one of the best defensive teams in their league, and Carver-Hawkeye is close to full, rollicking buy-in once more. The Crossroads Classic draw against Indiana is interesting, if not as intimidating as last season, and the Gotham Classic will match Mike Brey's team with the stifling Ohio State defense in Madison Square Garden just before Christmas break.
Toughest: vs. Cincinnati (Dec. 17 in New York)
The rest: Savannah State (Nov. 8), Fresno State (Nov. 12), Howard (Nov. 17), Lehigh (Nov. 20), Legends Classic (Nov. 25-26 in Brooklyn), Duquesne (Nov. 30), Penn State (Dec. 3), Loyola Marymount (Dec. 6), Youngstown State (Dec. 14), Cal Poly (Dec. 21), Albany (Dec. 31)
Toughness scale (1-10): 1. In recent seasons, few coaches have proved as good at gaming the Rating Percentage Index as Jamie Dixon. This is not a criticism; the NCAA's current system is made to be gamed, and, by this point, coaches who don't at least try to use the faulty system to their advantage are leaving potential seed-line improvements on the table. So I'm guessing that, by the end of the season, Pitt's RPI will be in solid shape. (And maybe the new-look ACC will take care of that on its own.) But that aside, this is a straight-up awful basketball schedule. Just … ugh. Cincinnati in Madison Square Garden is the only "marquee" game on the list, and that's a generous application of the term. The Legends Classic features an opening game against Texas Tech and a second-round matchup against either Stanford or Houston. None of those teams is truly awful -- same goes for Penn State on Dec. 3 -- but they're hardly inspiring opponents, either.
Toughest: Maui Invitational (Nov. 25-27), Indiana (Dec. 3)
Next-toughest: Villanova (Dec. 28), at St. John's (Dec. 15)
The rest: Cornell (Nov. 8), Fordham (Nov. 12), Colgate (Nov. 16, St. Francis-N.Y. (Nov. 18), Binghamton (Dec. 7), High Point (Dec. 20), Eastern Michigan (Dec. 31)
Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- This score is awarded mostly for the Maui Invitational, which boasts a typically deep, if not vintage, field (Gonzaga, Baylor, Minnesota, Cal, Dayton, Arkansas, Chaminade). But it's worth noting that Indiana game at the Carrier Dome, which will be more of a test for the young Hoosiers, sure, but is nonetheless a big rematch of Syracuse's dominant Sweet 16 win in March. There are also two fixtures against former Big East foes Villanova and St. John's. The former is an improving, defensive group that took down the Orange in Philly last season; the latter is a road game against a talented but disjointed Red Storm.
Toughest: VCU (Nov. 12), Wisconsin (Dec. 4), at Tennessee (Dec. 30)
Next-toughest: Northern Iowa (Dec. 21)
The rest: James Madison (Nov. 8), vs. Davidson (Nov. 16 in Charlotte), Navy (Nov. 19), Liberty (Nov. 23), Hampton (Nov. 26), Corpus Christi Challenge (Nov. 29-30), at Green Bay (Dec. 7), Norfolk State (Dec. 23)
Toughness scale (1-10): 7 -- VCU and Virginia don't have much of a historical basketball rivalry because why would they? But now that Shaka Smart's program has become the state's most notable, it makes sense for Tony Bennett to schedule the Rams, whose pressure defense will be a huge stylistic test for the slow-and-steady Cavaliers in Charlottesville. Wisconsin, which lost to Virginia in Madison last season, won't be that but will be a tough home date in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, and a road trip at Tennessee rounds out the slate. UVa missed the tournament last season mostly thanks to (a) a bad noncon schedule and (b) a bunch of really bad noncon losses. This slate should help nullify both concerns.
Toughest: Coaches vs. Cancer (Nov. 22-23), vs. VCU (Dec. 21 at Richmond Coliseum)
Next-toughest: West Virginia (Nov. 12)
The rest: USC Upstate (Nov. 9), Western Carolina (Nov. 15), VMI (Nov. 18), Furman (Nov. 26), Radford (Nov. 29), Winthrop (Dec. 3), UNC Greensboro (Dec. 28), Maryland-Eastern Shore (Dec. 31)
Toughness scale (1-10): 4 -- The Coaches vs. Cancer event at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn features a first-round game against Michigan State and a matchup against either Oklahoma or Seton Hall, and the home date against VCU at the Richmond Coliseum is really more like a road game. And honestly, that's probably good enough for the Hokies right now. Virginia Tech was a bit of a mess in James Johnson's first season, and that was with guard Erick Green, who submitted one of the best, most efficient all-around offensive seasons of the past half decade or so. Without him, it's going to get ugly.
Toughest: Battle 4 Atlantis (Nov. 28-30), at Xavier (Dec. 28)
Next-toughest: Richmond (Dec. 7)
The rest: Colgate (Nov. 8), VMI (Nov. 12), Presbyterian (Nov. 15), Jacksonville (Nov. 18), The Citadel (Nov. 21), Tulane (Dec. 4), St. Bonaventure (Dec. 17), UNC Greensboro (Dec. 21)
Toughness scale (1-10): 5 — Even if Xavier still isn't back to Top 25-level hoops by late December, the Cintas Center is a brutal place to play. But the main feature of this nonconference schedule is Wake's trip to the Bahamas for the Battle 4 Atlantis, where it will play Wiggins and Kansas in the first round (which, good luck with that), followed by USC or Villanova, with Iowa, Tennessee, UTEP and Xavier lurking on the other side of the bracket. This is a crucial year for maligned coach Jeff Bzdelik and his boss, athletic director Ron Wellman. The Deacs absolutely have to show some signs of progress early on.
2. The ageless Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton, who turned 65 earlier this month and has looked the same for the past 20 years, got exactly what he wanted in the trip to Greece. He scheduled practices and games against the Greek national team. He didn't want any soft competition. He wanted his players to experience professionals at the highest level overseas. "It was more like midseason practices,'' said Hamilton. "It was very good for our guys. We played at a high level and had to be focused offensively and defensively to compete.'' Hamilton said he never thought his team was in sync last season after finishing 18-16 overall and 9-9 in the ACC, a year after winning the conference tournament title for the first time. "We had seven first-year players and five freshmen and JC kids and international players,'' said Hamilton. "I thought we were always thinking and responding and reacting last season. But I saw a better grasp of execution [on this trip]. We showed signs we can get back to what we did during our four-year run of going to the NCAA tournament and winning the ACC title.'' Hamilton said different players were productive on the trip but the two leaders were as expected Ian Miller and Kiel Turpin. "They played very well together and as a team,'' said Hamilton. "We actually practiced zone defensive possessions. We had game-like practices. We didn't keep score in those or keep track but we had a lot of game-like scrimmages where we were rotating guys in and out. It was really, really good for us to correct our mistakes.'' Hamilton said this was also a positive trip for Michael Ojo, Boris Bojanovsky and Robert Gilchrist, the bigs who will be behind Turpin or at times next to him. Hamilton said he absolutely loves what he's doing, "loves the young people, traveling with them, being with them every day. Each year I have more energy. I'm excited about the new ACC. It gives you another shot of adrenaline. I'm excited to be a part of it and it does motivate you.''
3. Few teams needed something positive more than Auburn basketball on a foreign trip. Auburn coach Tony Barbee was buzzing about the excursion to the Bahamas. "I learned two things: we can really shoot the ball as a group,'' said Barbee. "We made 13 3s in a game from international distance. And juco transfer Chris Griffin made six. We should be able to score the ball better. We could have four or five double-figure scorers. A year ago, we only had one.'' K.T. Harrell will be a reliable scorer but if there are multiple scorers then the Tigers will at least have a chance to move up in a muddled SEC. The Tigers enter the season with six freshmen on the roster.