ACC/Big Ten Challenge
By Gus Elvin
Always one of the better early season college basketball events, the annual ACC/Big Ten challenge matches up the 12 teams from the ACC with the 12 teams of the Big Ten in a 2 day series for conference bragging rights. For a longtime this event was dominated by the ACC, who after winning the first 10 challenges have now dropped the last 3. The Big Ten looks to make it 4 in a row in 2012, as top 5 teams Indiana, Michigan and Ohio State headline the lineup for the 3 time defending champions. The ACC though believes they have what it takes to knock off the mighty Big Ten in 2012, as the Tobacco Road trio of #2 Duke, #14 North Carolina and #18 North Carolina State tries to lead the challengers to an upset. This will be the last year of the current format, as next season the ACC is set to add Pittsburgh and Syracuse, while the Big Ten announced last week it will be adding Maryland and Rutgers. Late Wednesday night we will find out which conference will have bragging rights for the coming year with 7 wins needed to clinch the series. As a final note, since there are now 12 games, if there were a tie the Commissioner’s Cup would remain with the previous year’s winner if the series were to finish 6-6. That’s all from me, as here is a game by game breakdown of the 2012 ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
DAY 1: Tuesday 11/27
7:15PM- #21 Minnesota @ Florida State (ESPN2)- This is a tough game to project, as it all depends on which Florida State team shows up. Will it be the FSU team that lost to South Alabama on opening night or the Seminole team that impressively beat BYU and Saint Joseph’s back to back nights at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn? I tend to lean toward the latter, as while the Seminoles are not pretty to watch offensively, they are very strong defensively and always take on the toughness of their head coach Leonard Hamilton. I am tempted to go with the road Gophers, as Tubby Smith has his best team yet at Minnesota but on the road, the ‘Noles will be too tough and will grit out an ugly win. Minnesota is led by All-American candidate Trevor Mbakwe and point guard Andre Hollins but FSU makes a living off suffocating defense and toughness, the 2 reasons I like FSU at home. Minnesota has the better offensive weapons but in a physical game where toughness will be paramount, gimme the Seminoles, as Michael Snaer (16ppg, 6.4ppg) once again will provide the offense down the stretch.
Pick: Florida State
7:15PM- Iowa @ Virginia Tech (ESPNU)- This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Hokies but up to this point Virginia Tech has had little trouble, starting out 5-0, albeit against lesser opposition. The Hawkeyes on the other hand, were picked to finish in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten and expected to contend for an NCAA Tournament berth. In this game something has to give, as Virginia Tech will be playing their toughest opposition of the season by far, while the Hawkeyes look to get back on track after an abysmal shooting performance (26%) in the finals of the Cancun Classic against Wichita State. Virginia Tech early this season has been putting up high scoring totals, as the Hokies rank 9th in the nation in scoring at over 85ppg. Much of that scoring has been done by the 1-2 scoring combination of Erick Green (24.4ppg) and Jarell Eddie (18.8ppg), who rank as the 4th highest scoring tandem in all of college basketball. Iowa is a strict contrast to the Hokies, as the Hawkeyes rank just 162nd in the nation in scoring at 69ppg, led by Roy Devyn-Marble at 13.5ppg. That being said, Iowa is consistently getting better under Fran McCaffery and on the road against an untested Virginia Tech club I am going with the Hawkeyes in a bit of an upset. Iowa has some size in Aaron White (12.5ppg, 6.5rpg), Melsahn Basabe (7.3ppg, 4.8rpg) and Adam Woodbury (5.5ppg, 4.8rpg), and against a guard oriented Hokie team look for Iowa’s size to be the difference. The Hawkeyes have balance, size and are well coached and even on the road in Blacksburg, I like the Hawkeyes to bring Virginia Tech back down to earth in what is the Hokies’ 1st true test of the season.
7:30PM- #18 NC State @#3 Michigan (ESPN)- One of the premier games of the series, the highly hyped Wolfpack of North Carolina State travel to Ann Arbor to take on one of best teams in America; the Michigan Wolverines. Both of these teams were top 10 teams entering the season but after NC State was humbled by Oklahoma State in Puerto Rico, this game has lost some of the hype it had before the start of the season. NC State then narrowly escaped UNC Ashville 82-80 and come in as huge ‘dogs at Crisler Arena against the high flying Wolverines. I think NC State is a lot better than we have seen thus far this season and in a big game on national television, I expect the ‘Pack to rise to the occasion. NC State has as good a top 6 as you will find in college basketball with C.J. Leslie, Richard Howell, Scott Wood, Rodney Purvis, Lorenzo Brown and T.J Warren and against a highly rated opponent, expect this group to play to their ability. Michigan on the other hand is coming off the NIT Season Tip-Off title and may have America’s best court in Trey Burke (16.4ppg, 6.8apg) and Tim Hardaway Jr. (18.2ppg, 6.8rpg). The Wolverines have been one of America’s most efficient teams thus far this season, as Big Blue ranks 5th in the nation in field goal percentage (54%), 5th in 3-point percentage (44%) and 20th in fewest turnovers per game at 10tpg. Trey Burke has been unstoppable so far this season but in a big time point guard matchup with Lorenzo Brown, Burke will be asked to carry the Wolverines and control the game. Despite all these statistics and the play of Burke, I like NC State in this one, as the Wolfpack have the talent and balance to compete for 40 minutes with the high flying Wolverines. Look for C.J. Leslie and Richard Howell to have big games, as the rugged Wolfpack duo is too athletic and too strong for Michigan’s frontcourt of Jordan Morgan and Mitch McGary. Mark Gottfried’s bunch has been going through the motions so far this season but in a big event, look for NC State to find their mojo and have a big statement game against the #3 Wolverines. Michigan’s frontcourt is still a work in progress in my opinion and if NC State’s duo of Leslie and Howell can stay out of foul trouble look for the Wolfpack to dominate the paint and pull off the upset on the road. As a final factor, NC State’s freshmen trio of Warren, Purvis and Lewis will outplay Michigan’s trio of Robinson Jr., Stauskas and McGary to help the Wolfpack pull off the shocker in Ann Arbor.
Pick: North Carolina State
9:15PM- Maryland @ Northwestern (ESPN2)- In what could be a critical matchup in terms of deciding the series, unbeaten Northwestern hosts Mark Turgeon and his much improved 4-1 Maryland squad. The Wildcats have fared well early on this season despite losing all-time leading scorer John Shurna to graduation, as Northwestern is 6-0 overall and is coming off an impressive win over Illinois State at the South Padre Invitational. The Wildcats have expectedly been led by seniors Drew Crawford (13.7ppg) and Jared Swopshire (12ppg, 6.5rgp) but a 3rd key senior Reggie Hearn has emerged out of nowhere. Hearn has been the biggest key for Bill Carmody’s team, averaging 13.7 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.8 assists, while shooting 57 percent (16-28) from 3-point range. The Terrapins on the other hand are a team to watch out of the ACC, as the Terps are extremely young but also extremely talented. Maryland’s top 3 players are sophomores, as Ukrainian import Alex Len (15.6ppg, 8.2rpg), guard Nick Faust (10.6ppg) and Xavier transfer Dez Wells have all made significant strides in their 2nd season of college ball. Len has been the most important of the 3, as the former heralded recruit is one of the most improved players in all of college basketball and continues to develop with each and every game. In what will be a game of contrasting styles and tempo, I like the Terps even on the road, as their frontcourt of Len, rugged senior James Padgett and freshmen Shaquille Cleare and Charles Mitchell will be too much for Wildcats to handle inside. Northwestern will look to try and dictate pace and run deliberate offensive sets but against an athletic Terrapin team, look for Mark Turgeon’s group to run Northwestern out of their comfort zone and into a track meet, something that does not suit Northwestern’s personnel favorably. Maryland is a very talented team and despite their youth, I expect the Terrapins to get a nice road win and help the ACC extend their early series lead. Maryland’s frontcourt size and overall athleticism are the 2 keys to this game, as the Terps are just a better all-around team than Northwestern.
9:15PM- Nebraska@ Wake Forest (ESPNU) – In one of the real snoozers of this event, 1st year head coach Tim Miles leads the Huskers into Winston-Salem to take on Wake Forest and their 2 stars C.J. Harris and Travis McKie. Both of these teams are projected to finish near the bottom of their respective leagues but in what looks to be a closely contested slate of games, every game matters in terms of conference supremacy. Nebraska comes in 4-1 on the season, boasting a solid win over Horizon favorite Valparaiso, with their only loss coming their last time out against Kent State. Offensively the Cornhuskers are led by a pair of seniors, as guard Dylan Talley leads the team in scoring at 16.2ppg and assists at 3 per game, while 6-10 forward Brandon Ubel comes in averaging 15.6 points and a team high 8 rebounds per game. Wake Forest on the other hand, have been led by their 2 stars, as senior guard C.J. Harris leads the team in scoring at 15.8 points, while Travis McKie comes in averaging 15.6 points and 9 rebounds. Wake goes as this duo goes, as the Demon Deacons gave UConn all it could handle earlier in the season led by Harris and McKie (combined 33 points) but the next day were blown out by 26 against Iona, with Harris and McKie combining for only 23 points. In this matchup I like the Demon Deacons at home, as Travis McKie will be the difference on both the glass and the offensive end of the floor. Look for heralded Wake freshman Codi Miller-McIntyre to be the x-factor, as the young guard when he is on give’s Jeff Bzdelik a 3rd reliable scorer and a lethal penetrator of the basketball. This won’t be a pretty one but Wake Forest will hold serve at home and continue to pad the ACC’s early lead in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
Pick: Wake Forest
9:30PM- #14 North Carolina @ #1 Indiana (ESPN) – The nightcap of day 1 and the game most people are looking forward to on Tuesday, #14 North Carolina heads to Bloomington to take aim at the top ranked Indiana Hoosiers. While there will be no shortage of talent on the floor for either side on Tuesday night, the advantage has to go to the Hoosiers because of their tremendous balance. IU has 5 players who average double figures led by their tremendous frontcourt duo of Cody Zeller (15.2ppg, 7.7rpg) and Christian Watford (13.2ppg, 8rpg). Zeller, a preseason player of the year candidate, is off to a strong start and against a big time team like Carolina look for Zeller to have a huge game on the big stage. Zeller will be matched up against another All-America candidate, as North Carolina’s James Michael McAdoo comes in averaging 16.8 points and 8.8 rebounds and is on any shortlist for national player of the year. This will be the top matchup on the floor, as the 2 highly regarded sophomores and future lottery picks should be matched up against one another at key times during tomorrow night’s game. The most interesting key to me in this game is the backcourts, as Indiana’s backcourt of Jordan Hulls, Yogi Ferrell, and Victor Oladipo goes against Carolina’s guards Reggie Bullock, Marcus Paige, P.J. Hairston and Dexter Strickland. I give IU’s backcourt the edge, as Hulls (13ppg, 3.8apg) is a clutch performer who just understands the game and what he needs to do to help his team win. Oladipo meanwhile is an explosive athlete, who can impact the game on both ends of the floor and has the athleticism/big play ability that can turn momentum and flip an entire game on its head. North Carolina has a lot of good outside shooters led by Bullock and Hairston but on the road against a veteran Hoosier team, the Tar Heels will need to hit a lot of 3’s to keep pace with IU. Indiana has so much talent, so much balance and so much depth and that is why I like the Hoosiers at home in Assembly Hall to take care of business and survive a strong punch from UNC. UNC is better than they showed last week against Butler but against the #1 team in the country, I see UNC coming up short because of their youth and lack of established star power. UNC and players like Marcus Paige and Reggie Bullock will continue to get better as the season goes on but at this stage of the season, I am going with the experienced and deeper Hoosiers, who also have the luxury of playing at home.
PROJECTED SCORE AFTER DAY 1: 4-2 ACC