The first big night of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge went almost as I predicted it. The only game I got wrong was the Wake Forest – Wisconsin game. Wake played much better than I expected and outlasted the Badgers in an outstanding game. Of the other results, the only real surprise was the margin by which Florida State beat Purdue. The Seminoles were up 35 points at the half! By they time I caught up to start watching it, the second half, it was already garbage time.
Back to that Wake Forest game … I was very impressed with how the Deacons played. Moving Justin Gray back to the shooting guard and slotting in freshman Harvey Hale made all of the difference. Gray was back to his old self last night – fearless and confident. He couldn’t have been more different than the guy who committed 27 turnovers in his first three games as a point guard this year. While Hale is no Chris Paul, he is an adequate one – he can get the ball up the court and to guys who can do something with it. I was impressed with Hale’s confidence. He’ll only improve as he plays more and the Wake Forest will be all the better for it.
Eric Williams also played very well last night, particularly after he came back in with his four fouls. He scored three big inside baskets that really helped Wake right the ship after Wisconsin had taken the lead. The other player who was outstanding last night was Kyle Visser, a guy who sort of disappeared last year. Visser defended, scored and rebounded. With him, Williams and Chris Ellis, the Deacons can really go with a big look if they need to. It appears that they have all the parts they need to be a very good team. I hope they can keep it up and that last night doesn’t prove to be a high point of the season.
I already mentioned Florida State’s shocking output last night, but I want to give Clemson some credit as well. I wasn’t able to watch them play, but you have to like that they build a 19 point half-halftimetime lead on the road. They got it over 20 a couple of times in the second half and then held off a late charge to get the critical win. Sure, it was just Penn State, but road wins over major conference opponents should never be ignored, especially for a program like Clemson.
The Carolina – Illinois game went about as I expected. Both teams are tying to figure out exactly how they are going to play this year and are trying to mix in new players. Only two starters return from last year’s championship game, both on Illinois. While the Illini held off a late charge from the Heels, no one who watched could help but be impressed with the Tar Heel freshmen. Tyler Hansbrough, Marcus Ginyard, Bobby Frasor and Danny Green all played well. Hansbrough got most of the attention from Dick Vitale (we get it Dick, you think he plays hard and is going to be a superstar), but I was equally impressed with Green and Ginyard. Both of those guys contributed in multiple ways and even seemed to have a connection between each other. Several times, they hit each other with excellent passes leading to easy buckets. Those guys are going to be good. Frasor still looks very talented, but hasn’t yet learned how to run an offense. If he does, UNC could be a very good team by March.
The way that Miami crapped the laundry hamper against Michigan didn’t surprise me so much as disappoint me. Their results in previous games made me suspicious and their play last night confirmed my fears. They are a talented team (Robert Hite, Guillermo Diaz, Anthony King and impressive freshmen PG Denis Clemente), but they seem to have no idea how to play together. Coach Frank Haith got a lot of praise for Miami’s play last year, but don’t forget how they fell apart late in the season. Could it be that teams just underestimated them early on? Maybe they got a look at the Hurricanes’ talented trio of guards (including the now-injured Anthony Harris) and figured out a way to stop them. They certainly don’t look like a well-coached squad now. Put all that talent in Mike Krzyzewski or Roy Williams’ hands and that would be a top-fifteen squad, easy.
So, where does that leave the Challenge? At this point, the ACC is one game ahead of where I figured they’d be. With five games remaining, it’s all square at 3-3. Of tonight’s five games, two are no-brainers – Maryland beating Minnesota and Michigan State beating Georgia Tech. That means that whoever gets the best of the remaining three games will win the Challenge. The NC State – Iowa game will be played last and it may well decide who wins this thing. The lynchpin though might be that Virginia – Northwestern game that no one will watch. Northwestern plays that boring, but difficult Princeton style, but keep in mind that UVA has already seen that style once this year. They beat Richmond, who just switched this season. Richmond is no Northwestern, but just having the experience (plus, UVA played and beat Northwestern last season) will help. The Cavaliers are limited in what they can do, but I like what I’ve seen so far of Dave Leitao’s work with the Hoos. They are much more disciplined than in years past, although frankly that’s not saying much. If the Cavaliers can maintain their poise against the patient Wildcats, the only thing that can keep the ACC from a seventh straight Challenge victory would be an upset of Duke by Indiana (which isn’t out of the question).