North Carolina Tar Heels: Pittsburgh Panthers

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.

Look back, look ahead: ACC

April, 16, 2014
A basketball-related expansion -- an anomaly during the entire conference realignment shuffle -- was supposed to culminate by making the Atlantic Coast Conference rise above other conferences. The league was supposed to be the biggest and baddest of the major conferences thanks to its first season with Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame as league members.

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.

[+] EnlargeMike Krzyzewski
Tyler Smith/Getty ImagesWith a stellar recruiting class, Mike Krzyzewski's Blue Devils may be the ACC's best in 2014-15.
What we saw this season: The Cavaliers returned to prominence by winning their first outright ACC regular-season title since 1981. Criticism followed since the Cavs, who only played Syracuse, Duke and North Carolina once each and two of those games were in Charlottesville. It took winning the ACC tournament for Virginia to erase those doubts.

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

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.

Pitt too tough for North Carolina

March, 14, 2014

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Pittsburgh players entered their locker room for the final time during pregame warm-ups before taking on North Carolina in the ACC quarterfinals Friday when Durand Johnson erupted, yelling to no one in particular as the door closed behind him.

“They soft,” said Johnson, a redshirt sophomore who played 16 games before suffering a season-ending knee injury.

North Carolina did little to prove Johnson wrong for most of the Panthers’ 80-75 win that set up a semifinal matchup with No. 1 seed Virginia on Saturday.

“We got all the pieces, I believe, and we got the guys who are hungry,” Pitt fifth-year senior Lamar Patterson said. “That makes any team in March dangerous.”

Pitt’s veteran leadership provided the template that the Tar Heels were too young and inexperienced to duplicate. Pitt played with the urgency of a postseason team. Carolina played like a team that planned on calling “next” after the loss.

Early on it was clear the Heels just didn’t match the Panthers’ intensity. They missed point-blank shots inside en route to shooting just 1-of-10 from the field to start the game. Lazy passes were made. Defensive assignments were missed.

“I just felt like maybe our preparation wasn’t there, a lot of young guys,” UNC junior forward James Michael McAdoo said. “So I don’t think that necessarily should explain how we play, especially how we start the game off. They kind of hit us in the mouth.”

And kept hitting.

None hit harder than Pitt center Talib Zanna, who had a career-high 21 rebounds and 19 points. Five of Zanna’s eight baskets were on putbacks. He tied a tournament record with 10 offense rebounds.

Carolina coach Roy Williams tried a little bit of every post player he had to box out and control the boards against Zanna. None worked. When Desmond Hubert got his chance, Zanna threw him off, grabbed a missed shot and dunked in front of him.

[+] EnlargeTalib Zanna
Phil Ellsworth/ESPN ImagesTalib Zanna had a career-high 21 rebounds and 19 points in Pitt's win over North Carolina.
Zanna, who entered the game averaging 12 points, said he wasn’t out to be a part of the offense. His focus was on defense and rebounding.

“I was trying to be a workhorse down in the paint,” Zanna said. “I think that’s what I did today and that’s why we win the game.”

The 6-foot-9 Zanna, who is from Nigeria, speaks softly and is plainspoken. Pitt coach Jamie Dixon throughout the season has implored Zanna and Patterson to be more vocal.

“They’re both kind of quiet and reserved,” Dixon said. “We’ve been trying to get them to be more vocal and talk and I think even a little bit shows something to their teammates.”

They showed plenty with Zanna grabbing rebounds and Patterson making timely shots.

Carolina trailed by 20 with 7:20 left in the game. The Heels, with their partisan crowd in the Greensboro Coliseum, made smaller spurts only to watch the Panthers get a basket to stop their momentum.

“It was just frustrating to watch them get rebound after rebound, that was the thing for me,” said Marcus Paige, who led Carolina with 27 points. “There were possessions where we’d play some good defense and then Zanna would just come over everyone and put it back in. That’s just so deflating.”

The Heels used full-court pressure to get back in the game. They pulled within 77-73 with 1:03 left and still trailed by four when they made two mistakes that spoke to their postseason inexperience.

Paige, who scored 20 points in the second half, lost count of how many fouls he had and purposely committed his fifth thinking he still had one to give.

“I didn’t remember the fourth one that I picked up during the press out of the trap when James [Robinson] turned into me,” Paige said. “That was the fourth one. I didn’t remember that one so when I committed the fifth that was my mistake, I should have been more aware of that.”

Freshman point guard Nate Britt had to handle the load with Paige fouled out for just the second time this season. Carolina had a chance to make it a two-point game with 17 seconds left. Britt had gained a step on his man and drove to the basket when Patterson flashed from the right side.

Britt attempted a double-clutching, twisting layup that hit the bottom of the rim.

“I was trying to draw contact,” Britt said. “Coach told me afterward I should have just gone up strong. I feel like if I would have just gone up strong instead of trying to draw the foul that I could have made the layup and put us in a better position to win the game.”

Pitt is in a much better position with the win over Carolina, its first over a ranked team this season. The Panthers needed to prove themselves after losing all five of their regular-season games against the top four in the ACC. Some were even questioning if the Panthers had done enough to be considered for an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament.

“I already knew what this team was capable of, today just confirmed it,” Patterson said. “That’s what this Pitt program is built on, is toughness.”

Tournament preview: ACC

March, 11, 2014

There are no longer any hot teams in the ACC, as Virginia, which won its first outright regular-season title since 1981, had its 13-game winning streak snapped by Maryland in overtime on Sunday and Duke took care of North Carolina’s 12-game winning streak on Saturday, which means no team enters the tournament having won more than two straight games.

The ACC plays its first season with a 15-team tournament format that includes double byes for Virginia, Syracuse, Duke and North Carolina. There's also a play-in round for teams situated from 10-15. A team from the bottom third would have to win five games in five days to earn the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

Unfortunately, watching an underdog rise in Greensboro, N.C., isn't likely to happen based on what happened in the regular season. This tournament could be one of the most predictable in some time. There seems to be a noticeable separation between the top four seeds and the rest of the league. The top four had a combined 56-8 record against the remaining 11 teams in the league.

What’s at stake?

 Mike Krzyzewski
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesThe ACC was top heavy in the regular season, but Mike Krzyzewski thinks the league deserves more than four NCAA tournament bids.
When the ACC sought to expand, it purposely targeted schools with basketball imprints like Syracuse and Louisville (the Cardinals don't join until next season). During the league’s media day, coach after coach talked about how it could be the best basketball conference ever assembled. But that dominance never manifested itself. Instead, the ACC was again a league that’s top heavy and incredibly average after the top four teams.

Sensing the way Selection Sunday may develop, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski made a preemptive strike on the ACC’s teleconference last week. Speaking as a de facto ambassador, Krzyzewski said the league deserved more than five bids to the NCAA tournament. “I have a hard team thinking that our 15-team league would only get five bids,” Krzyzewski said. “I find that hard to believe.”

However, there’s really no reason that this league should be guaranteed more than four bids. Pittsburgh, which finished fifth, went 0-for-5 against the league’s top four teams and its best nonconference win was over Stanford. That’s why Florida State, Clemson, NC State and conceivably the Panthers are fighting to make an 11th-hour impression on the NCAA tournament selection committee.

“[On Selection Sunday] hopefully we’re congratulating seven or eight teams that get into the NCAA tournament from the ACC,” Krzyzewski said.

Should the ACC get only five teams in, it would mark the third time in the past four seasons that only a third of the conference received bids.

Teams with the most to gain

Syracuse needs to halt its slide and rebuild its confidence heading into the NCAA tournament. After a 25-0 start, the Orange have stumbled down the stretch, including losses to cellar-dwellers Boston College and Georgia Tech. Injuries to an already-thin rotation haven’t helped, but they are hopeful sophomore forward Jerami Grant can return to form after battling back issues since the loss to Duke on Feb. 22. The Orange need to find a way to bring their offense back to life as they've scored more than 62 points just once since beating Duke 91-89 in overtime on Feb. 1.

Virginia may be the least celebrated regular-season champion in conference history. Because of the unbalanced schedule, it played the remaining top three teams only once each and only the Duke game, a 69-65 loss, came on the road.

Add that to the fact that technically, the ACC doesn’t recognize its regular-season winner as the league’s champion. That honor is reserved for the winner of the tournament, which is a holdover from the times when the league tournament determined the lone NCAA tournament representative. And it means the Cavaliers are coming to Greensboro with a collective chip on their shoulders. Once again the Cavs will look to make history. Since the ACC tournament began in 1954, the Cavs have won it only once -- in 1976.

For Maryland, a charter member of the ACC, it’s one last, awkward trip to Tobacco Road. The Terrapins didn’t always feel welcomed in those parts. They felt the conference leaned too heavily toward the state of North Carolina, where it has held 49 of its 60 league tournaments. That unresolved tension that was decades in the making played a small role in the Terps' break from the conference. The acrimonious split caused a curious omission from Maryland’s home schedule this season. The Terps did not get to host Duke or North Carolina, which have typically been the most anticipated and best-attended games throughout the years. With all of that as a backdrop, the Terps would sure like to go out on top before heading to the Big Ten next season.

With expansion, ACC gets its depth back

October, 30, 2013

The previous time the ACC expanded -- in a move clearly made to boost football -- the impact on basketball simply equated to scheduling more games. The league didn’t get stronger. In fact, in some ways it appeared to get weaker.

The latest expansion will be different, league coaches and players say. Newcomers Syracuse, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh -- with Louisville joining in 2014 -- will elevate the ACC back to what some would say is its rightful standing as the nation’s best basketball conference.

“Our league now -- the depth of the league, the tradition, the history, the success that all the programs have had -- is unmatched,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said.

[+] EnlargeC.J. Fair
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesSyracuse forward C.J. Fair is hoping the Orange can end the stranglehold Duke and UNC have had on ACC bragging rights.
The depth. That’s what the ACC has been sorely missing. Virginia, Wake Forest, NC State and Georgia Tech used to be reasons why the conference was strong. But none of those programs has been consistent the past decade.

As the first expansion proved, depth doesn’t come from merely adding schools to the mix. Miami, Boston College and Virginia Tech have combined to win one regular-season league title. On four occasions, one of those teams has finished last in the conference.

The Irish, Orange and Panthers, however, are expected to live in the upper echelon of the conference, as they did in the Big East. Pitt finished fourth or better in the 16-team Big East in three of the past four seasons, including winning the 2011 regular-season title. The team that finished second to Pitt that season was Notre Dame, which placed third or better in two of the past three seasons.

Syracuse and eventually Louisville, both of which have both won national titles and made multiple Final Four appearances, add historically elite-level programs to the league. Syracuse has the potential to immediately loosen Duke and North Carolina’s vise grip on the crown.

“I read a stat as far as Duke and North Carolina -- they’re the only two teams that be winning it,” Syracuse forward C.J. Fair said. “We want to win the ACC and start off right and have bragging rights early.”

The ACC has been shallow for too long, dependent on Duke and North Carolina to carry the league. The pair from Tobacco Road has accounted for at least a share of every conference regular-season title but three since 1997, and 10 of the league’s 13 Final Four appearances in that same span.

Consider that since Georgia Tech appeared in the 2004 national title game, no team from the league outside of the Blue Devils and Tar Heels has reached the NCAA tournament’s Elite Eight, and only five have been to the Sweet 16.

Only four teams from the ACC received NCAA tournament bids last season. That has been closer to the norm than the exception since expanding to 12 teams in the 2005-06 season.

In eight seasons, the league put only four teams in the Big Dance on four occasions. Considering North Carolina and Duke made it in each of those seasons where the ACC had only four teams in the tournament, that means only two other programs were representing the conference.

Compare that to the span of 1992 to 2004, when as a nine-member league, the ACC received six tournament bids on five occasions.

“Those were glory days in the ACC ... But you know what, I think bigger glory days are coming with this thing,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said.

The ACC had its best seasons in 2006-07 and 2008-09, when seven teams received NCAA tournament bids. Brey believes that number will only increase based on how the depth of the Big East bolstered its tournament bids.

“We had years where we were under .500 in the league in early February, but you have enough big games on your schedule where if you get one or two of them, they’re RPI top 50, top 25 wins, all of a sudden you’re 9-9 and you’re on the board,” Brey said. “You’re never dead in a league like this.”

Thanks to the expansion, the ACC will feel alive again.