The ACC – Big Ten Challenge kicks off for the eighth time tonight when Virginia Tech visits Ohio State. In the previous six years, the ACC has won the “challenge” every single time. 6-0. If it were ping-pong, one more ACC win and the game would be over. Next. Are you ready Big East? Sure, you chickened out of the original challenge years ago, but maybe with the recent bad blood between the conferences, it’s time to try again. It sure would be fun!
But, back to reality. It’s the Big Ten that the ACC faces and despite six years of triumph (including margins of 7-2 each of the past two years), I think this will be a tough year for the ACC. So much talent left the conference for the NBA that there’s no way for this year to be anything other than a (relative) down year. Georgia Tech and North Carolina both have almost completely new teams and Wake Forest was hurt nearly as badly. At the same time, the Big Ten seems to be on an uptick this season.
Could this be the year that the Big Ten wins the Challenge? Probably so, but nothing is for certain.
Let’s run through the games. I’ll give you my picks and also drop a few opinions on the ACC teams based on what I’ve seen or read so far this year. Honestly, I haven’t seen any Big Ten ball outside of Michigan State this year, so take my picks with a grain of salt.
Monday: Virginia Tech at Ohio State, ESPN2, 7:30 – For the Buckeyes, this year is the Purgatory before heaven arrives next year in the form of 7 foot messiah Greg Oden and the rest of a phenomenal freshman class. Whatever they accomplish this year is pretty much gravy.
The Hokies have been their typical inconsistent selves in the early going, dropping a game to Bowling Green. While Tech really had a nice year last year, I suspect they’ll fall off a bit this season. It’s different when expectations are higher. Plus, Carlos Dixon really did a lot for that team, especially on the defensive end.
I’m going with Ohio State
Tuesday: Wisconsin at Wake Forest, ESPN, 7:00 – I really thought that people were wrong to say that Justin Gray would struggle at the point this season. He played quite a bit of the one when he was a freshman, and he played it well. I thought the bigger problems with moving him to the point would be his atrocious defense and the fact that they’d miss him at the shooting guard. Well, I got two out of three right. His defense still sucks and they missed him at the two, but he could not handle being the point guard. He looked simply awful against Florida.
Fortunately, Skip Prosser is a smart guy and moved Gray back. He’ll still have to switch back and forth, but that’s better than relying on him at the point and watching him turn the ball over 9-10 times a game while simultaneously not finding room to get off his threes.
Wake’s other problem is that their defense still sucks. I mentioned Gray, but Eric Williams is just as bad. He just doesn’t seem to get it. Florida passed the ball into good post position all night long.
On the flip side, Trent Strickland really seems to have elevated his game. Like Duke, Wake will need that third scorer to be a good team.
As for their matchup – I really like Wisconsin. Bo Ryan is a hell of a coach. I’m going with the Badgers.
Purdue at Florida State, ESPN2, 7:30 – The Seminoles seem every bit as flaky/bad as ever. I was really excited when I saw the score that they were up big on Florida in the second half. I was not surprised later when I saw the final score and knew that they had blown a 17-point second-half lead. Some things never change.
Fortunately for Florida State, Purdue really, really sucks.
Clemson at Penn State, ESPNU, 8:00 – Like the VT – tOSU matchup, this would be much better as a football game. Clemson actually seems like they are on the rise. Oliver Purnell has things headed in the right direction. Of course, that’s happened before at Clemson. It seems like the right direction tends to run into a lot of detours down there.
But Penn State is always bad. It’s like an axiom.
Pick: The Tiggers
Illinois at North Carolina, ESPN, 9:00 – This one certainly sounds juicy, doesn’t it? A big rematch of last year’s national championship game. It might well be a good game, but if so, it will have little to do with revenge. Carolina’s top seven players are gone and so are Illinois’ Luther Head and Deron Williams.
For the Heels, they of course are really hoping that their freshmen mature and play well enough to keep the program’s momentum going. So far, things look pretty promising. Tyler Hansbrough has played very well so far, and I was very impressed with Bobby Frasor when I saw him against UCSB the other night. That kid is fast! It’ll be a lot of fun to watch Frasor battle Duke’s Greg Paulus over the years.
One problem Carolina may have is finding the proper roles for their two “veterans,” David Noel and Rayshawn Terry. Neither was asked to do much during his career, but both seem determined to be the man now. Noel’s numbers have actually been pretty good, but watching them play, it looked to me like he was forcing things. Everyone hopes he becomes a reincarnation of Ademola Okulaja, but I just don’t think he’s that good. They’d be better off making Hansbrough the focus and using Terry and Noel as very solid sidekicks.
Miami at Michigan, ESPN2, 9:30 – Miami had a very surprising season last year and returned pretty much everyone. They should be really good this year, right? So why did they get waxed by Temple this weekend then? And what about that loss to Air Force? Something’s going wrong down there and I wonder if they won’t fall back to earth this season.
Michigan has very slowly been building themselves back up. They are still far from the program they were in the Fab Five days (maybe they need to increase the payroll!), but I like them at home over the erratic Hurricanes.
Wednesday: Georgia Tech at Michigan State, ESPN, 7:00 – Georgia Tech lost by 22 points to Illinois. Illinois-Chicago. At home.
Needless to say, things aren’t good in Atlanta. You just can’t lose your whole starting five and expect to compete the next season unless your jersey is a certain shade of light or dark blue. I think Paul Hewitt is a very good coach and he’ll get some good results this year, but this team is going to struggle at times.
Michigan State had a bad loss to Hawaii, but rebounded to nearly beat Gonzaga in that incredible triple-overtime game. They then knocked off a very talented Arizona squad. This team can play and they’ve already been battle-hardened.
Pick: Michigan State in a rout
Minnesota at Maryland, ESPN2, 7:30 – I really don’t know anything about Minnesota this year. Although they are losing to Gardner-Webb by eleven points right now (update: and they went on to lose to G-W).
Maryland has had a good start and I think they’ll have a good season. The loss of Gilchrist will prove to be addition by subtraction. Getting DJ Strawberry back is addition by, uh, addition, although I’m surprised to see him playing point guard. Strawberry is a versatile, athletic player, but I don’t think he’s a point.
Pick: The Terps
Northwestern at Virginia, ESPNU, 8:00 – I watched UVA play Arizona last night and was very impressed – for a half. Even at full strength, the Cavs are limited, but right now they are without injured players TJ Bannister, their second point guard, and Donte Minter, their only low-post scorer. Without those two, Virginia is relying almost entirely on star point guard Sean Singletary and shooting guard JR Reynolds for their offense. No one can score inside – not even Jason Cain and his Camaro ‘stache (but you know that look allows him to score elsewhere).
But back to being impressed in that Arizona game – Virginia was actually up five late in the first half – a road game against a very talented top-ten team. Then things got ugly. Really ugly. Johnnie Rhodes ugly. Over a stretch of something 97 minutes, the Cats outscored Virginia 29-1. Evidently, Arizona figured out that they really only needed to stop two players and stop them they did.
So, Virginia’s pretty bad. Singletary is very good, but a great PG can only do so much if he has nowhere to throw the ball.
Northwestern plays that snooze-inducing Princeton offense that will probably keep the Cavs in the game. If Virginia hits some outside shots (and by “Virginia,” I mean Singletary and Reynolds), they can actually win this game.
It helps that Northwestern isn’t just slow – they’re bad.
Duke at Indiana, ESPN, 9:00 – Duke. I have seen them by far the most of any team so far, largely because they played in the preseason NIT. And won it.
Duke is #1 and they deserve that ranking, but they are not the juggernaut of some past #1 Duke teams. This is not the 2002 squad of Battier, Williams, Boozer and Dunleavy. It’s not the 1999 squad of Brand, Avery, Langdon and Maggette. Not even close. While Redick and Williams are outstanding players, they are somewhat limited. Both play hard and smart, but neither is terribly quick or fast. Dockery really hasn’t become the player that most thought he would be. They can’t rely on him to be the point guard, and as we saw against Memphis, he can’t be relied on to hit the open jumper when the defense collapses on Redick. Melchionni could be the guy to hit those shots, but he is also athletically limited and he’s not hitting his shots yet.
DeMarcus Nelson is a terribly important part of the team, but he’s out for a while now with a broken ankle.
So, that leaves the freshmen. Duke has a very good crop, but they will need to continue to live up to expectations. Paulus looked excellent against Memphis. Pocius is really fast, but judging by the minutes he’s getting, he has a lot to learn. McRoberts looks like he could be a deadly complement to Williams inside, but it really doesn’t appear that the team is getting him the ball that much. It seemed to me like he got his points more off of broken plays, although I’m guessing that will change.
So, all that adds up to a flawed team. They might become a great team, but they aren’t one now.
Indiana appears to have a very good team this year, but they haven’t played anyone yet. They certainly have the talent to beat Duke. And it’s on their court. But their coach is Mike Davis, and I don’t trust him.
I say Duke wins, but I wouldn’t be shocked if there’s an upset here.
Pick: The Dookies
NC State at Iowa, ESPN2, 9:30 – I have a feeling that NC State is going to have a very good year. Julius Hodge was a great player for State, but his departure has all the makings of a Ewing Theory case study. Hodge got all the attention at State, and he did many things for the program. But he wasn’t that good. While he scored, rebounded, passed, defended (sometimes) and led, he also seemed to take on too much. The Wolfpack has a bunch of versatile players, but they always deferred to Jules when things got tight – almost out of deference. I think they’ll be a better team without him.
So far, the early returns back up my claim. State has killed their cupcakes (not a given in years past) and went on the road for a very impressive road win over Notre Dame this weekend.
On the other hand, non-conference games have been Herb Sendek’s Achilles heel in recent years. It always seems like the Pack can beat the teams it knows, but can’t beat the South Carolinas and St. Johns on their schedule.
Iowa is a tough team and would be very hard to beat on the road. They like and support their basketball out there. I’m going to go with the Hawkeyes, but I think this could be a really good game.
Add it all up and it comes out to 6-5 Big Ten. I hope I’m wrong. If I’m right, and I get the order right, it’ll all come down to the last game at Iowa. That would be pretty cool, huh?
Duke Basketball Report
Update: One tidbit I forgot to add … It’s not preemptive excuse-making, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Boston College, ostensibly the ACC’s second-best team and the #8 squad in the nation, is not playing in this year’s Challenge. BC would be the second-highest ranked team in the Challenge, behind only #1 Duke. The highest ranked Big Ten squads are Illinois and Michigan State at 12 and 13 (or 14, depending on the poll).