North Carolina Tar Heels: Illinois Fighting Illini
Some of the best one-on-one matchups will take place before the 2014-15 season tips off. They will come in the form of position battles within a team to determine a starter, which will in some cases shape an entire lineup.
Starting with point guard, ESPN.com will examine those quiet battles on a position-by-position basis this week while also promising we will never use the phrase "iron sharpens iron" to describe the competition.
Here are shooting guard battles to keep an eye on:
As C.L. noted Monday, Sulaimon won a big share of Quinn Cook's perimeter minutes down the stretch of the 2013-14 season, and there's good reason to be very bullish about Sulaimon's junior season. I'm so bullish Virginia fans thought I included Sulaimon at the expense of Virginia star Malcolm Brogdon last week. Brogdon was a regrettable omission, but I do think Sulaimon is "worth watching" for a whole variety of reasons, and this list is one of them. If Sulaimon has the same kind of early-season struggles as last season, he'll have a very capable five-star shooting guard in Allen just waiting to soak up his minutes at the 2 -- not to mention the chance that Coach K could decide to play Tyus Jones and Cook together. There is competition for minutes all over the Duke backcourt. If Sulaimon plays a lot, that means he'll be playing well.
Kentucky's most fascinating positional intrigue will come from the frontcourt, where John Calipari has approximately 754 NBA-prospect forwards to parse into some recognizable rotation. It's harder to imagine him shaking things up in the backcourt after March's runner-up run, especially now that the Harrisons seem to have figured things out. But Booker is absolutely a player to watch, especially if one or both of the Harrisons regress.
If trades were allowed in college basketball -- maybe this could be one of the hidden upsides of unionization! -- Indiana would be burning up the phones. The Hoosiers have real holes in their frontcourt after losing freshmen Noah Vonleh (to the lottery) and Luke Fischer (to transfer). But boy, do they have guards: Besides star point guard Yogi Ferrell, there's fan favorite Robinson, 6-foot-7 wing Troy Williams, and now two top-rated incoming freshmen. Five-star prospect Blackmon is too good to sit on the bench, but where does that leave Johnson, the No. 10-ranked shooting guard in the class? There are a lot of bodies here. The best possible outcome is that Tom Crean has a ton of 2005-era Phoenix Suns tape on his shelf, says "hey, why not," puts Williams at the center, and plays 80 possessions a game.
Illinois: Kendrick Nunn versus Ahmad Starks
John Groce has a bunch of starters back and an interesting little backcourt situation on his hands. Nunn looked promising as a freshman, but Starks was a knockdown shooter for Oregon State, and it's not like Rayvonte Rice is going to be giving up any of his minutes.
Given how awful Virginia Tech was last year, new coach Buzz Williams will put his best players on the floor regardless. But it is worth noting that his best players -- and the three best players in his four-person recruiting class -- are all designated as shooting guards. Ahmed Hill and Justin Bibbs are both top-100 guys, and Jalen Hudson should get some run, too.
Francis won't unseat Frazier -- you don't bench a guy who made 118 of his 264 3s a season ago -- but Francis may work his way into the backcourt as a more versatile change of pace if Frazier doesn't add a skill or two to his offensive set.
North Carolina, sort of
Having lost Leslie McDonald to graduation, J.P. Tokoto may now be the closest thing the Tar Heels will have to a shooting guard in 2014-15. The good news: Tokoto is a tough, physical player who excels in transition, and he's even better on the defensive end. The downside: He can't shoot. The question here is which of the Tar Heels' incoming players can provide perimeter production. Small forwards Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson are both top-10 overall players in the incoming class, and point guard Joel Berry may be able to play off the ball a bit as well. There isn't a good way to describe this personnel in the context of just one position. Save Marcus Paige, the shape of UNC's backcourt is very much up for grabs.
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.