What’s often lost in the ACC–Big Ten Challenge is that it’s a challenge between the ACC and the Big Ten.
That might be the dumbest opening sentence in Grantland history, but I swear it’s true. College basketball fans know that the cross-conference event, which will be held for the 14th straight year over the next two days, tends to match up some very good teams, but they willfully ignore the fact that this is more than just a set of individual games. Sure, they love that no. 4 Ohio State is visiting Cameron Indoor Stadium to take on the resurgent Duke Blue Devils, and they look forward to a young North Carolina team testing itself on the road at no. 1 Indiana, but they couldn’t care less which conference comes out on top when the 12 games are over. In fact, the list of people who actually follow the overall result is fairly short:
2. Whoever wrote the Wikipedia page*
(*This may have been me on a late, lonely night.)
But I’m hear to tell you that I care. As a denizen of ACC country, I’d like our conference to regain its former glory. Between 1999 and 2008, the ACC won every single Challenge. It was a period of dominance unparalleled in the history of college basketball’s conference challenges. (As far as I know, this is the only other one.) It wasn’t always easy; in fact, five of those wins came by a single game, which now feels like a crazy streak of good luck. But it all changed in ’09, when Wisconsin upset no. 5 Duke and Ohio State beat Florida State in the Wednesday late games to turn a 5-4 ACC advantage into a stunning 6-5 Big Ten victory. That was their “Red Sox–in-’04” moment, when the balance of the universe shifted. In a flash, the stoic Midwesterners were on the board. The next year, they ran out to a 6-3 start, making the final two games irrelevant, and by last season they were in full swagger, stomping the ACC by an 8-4 margin.
The ACC still owns a huge 10-3 historical edge, but momentum and pride is all with the other side. This needs to change. Unfortunately, things are looking pretty good for the Big Ten in 2012. The matchups are heavily weighted in their favor, and it’s hard to imagine anything but another ACC loss. I’m left feeling like a tsarist Russian who got kicked out by the Bolsheviks in 1918 and is waiting patiently for them to lose power so I can return to the motherland, except Stalin just took over and it seems like he’ll be there for a while. That’s the current landscape.
Even if the ACC manages a 6-6 draw, it won’t be good enough — by rule, the Commissioner’s Cup goes to the previous year’s winner in case of a tie, Ryder Cup style. But if I know anything, I know the ACC is deadly when its back is to the wall (note: I actually don’t know this), and I’m ready for a miracle. Let’s take a look at the top 12 games of the challenge, from worst to best, and examine the ACC’s chances of victory in each. All games are on the ESPN networks, and all times are EST.
12. Nebraska at Wake Forest, Tuesday, 9:15 p.m.
The hilarious part of the Challenge is that it essentially functions like two captains picking sides on the playground. The elite teams go first to create the best possible matchups, but it leaves an awkward situation at the end when only the lowliest scrubs remain. Nebraska at Wake Forest? Good god. Anyway, all I know about this game is that Wake Forest got smoked by Iona, I have a friend who loved Tim Miles at Colorado State and thinks he’s going to turn around Nebraska, and Las Vegas favors Wake by about 4.5. So that’s embarrassment, conjecture, and science. I’ll let science be my guide.
Projection: Wake Forest wins a close game, ACC leads 1-0.
11. Boston College at Penn State, Wednesday, 9:15 p.m.
The really unfortunate news here is that due to its late position, this game might decide the Challenge. Boston College just hopped aboard the embarrassing loss train by falling to Bryant, and I can report that coach Steve Donahue has officially entered the part of his tenure — Year 3 — when Eagles fans begin to lose patience with the idea of rebuilding. Penn State lost star point guard Tim Frazier for the year when he ruptured his Achilles, but it shouldn’t matter against the Eagles.
Projection: Penn State wins a blowout, Challenged tied 1-1.
10. Virginia at Wisconsin, Wednesday, 7 p.m.
This matchup proves that whoever runs the Challenge has a sick, twisted sense of humor. Last season, Wisconsin finished with the slowest adjusted tempo in Division I, among 345 teams. Virginia was 338th. Tony Bennett, UVa’s coach, is the son of Dick Bennett, who stall-balled for years at Wisconsin. So if you enjoy stodgy, slow, boring basketball, and you hate athleticism, this is the game for you. But if you’re an avowed pacist like myself, SKIP IT. Oh, hell, who am I kidding? This is going to be too fascinating to ignore. I was going to call it a train wreck, but it’s more like two tractors driving toward each other at 3 mph. And they start 10 miles apart. In deep sand.
Projection: The home team, Wisconsin, 41-39. Big Ten leads 2-1.
9. Iowa at Virginia Tech, Tuesday, 7:15 p.m.
This is the ignored middle child of this year’s Challenge. It’s not completely awful like the games above, but it’s certainly not good. The most I can say for Iowa is that their leading scorer is a swingman named Roy Devyn Marble, and they kept it sort of close against a really good Wichita State team. Tech is in its first post–Seth Greenberg year, and the Hokies are actually undefeated after five games. They haven’t played anybody, but senior guard Erick Green has been excellent and has a great chance to lead the conference in scoring. After Greenberg’s well-documented failure to reach the 2011 NCAA tournament, wouldn’t it be a karmic kick to the groin if they actually made the tourney this season? For comedy’s sake, I hope it happens. Anyway, this is a game the ACC must win if it hopes to retake the Cup.
Projection: Should be a very close game; I’ll side with the home team. Challenge tied 2-2.
8. Purdue at Clemson, Wednesday, 7:15 p.m.
Clemson is 4-1 to start the season, but the Tigers’ lone loss may have been the most impressive. By hanging around with no. 17 Gonzaga and forcing a low-scoring game (something no other Zags opponent has been able to do), the Tigers showed they’ll be able to hammer out wins in the ACC with defense. Scoring is another matter, and it looks like they won’t get much offense from their guards. But Robbie Hummel finally finished his 15-year career at Purdue, and the Boilermakers’ three early-season losses paint them as a team in transition. If this game were in West Lafayette at the thunderous, tin-roofed Mackey Arena, I’d be all about Purdue. In South Carolina, I think Clemson is poised for a big win.
Projection: Clemson. ACC leads 3-2.
7. Maryland at Northwestern, Tuesday, 9:15 p.m.
Any team that can hang tough against Kentucky on a neutral court is OK by me, and Maryland owns a distinct edge in this one because of 7-foot-1 Ukrainian giant Alex Len. He’s looked like a different player from the gawky freshman we watched last season, and the Terps have been getting great guard play from Pe’Shon Howard (seven assists per game!). After last year’s failure, Northwestern remains the only BCS school never to have reached the tournament, and the loss of leading scorer John Shurna won’t help in the 2012-13 campaign. Also, Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston is my pick for the least intimidating D-I venue in the country.
Projection: Maryland wins, ACC leads 4-2.
6. No. 13 Michigan State at Miami, Wednesday, 7:30 p.m.
It’s easy to mock Miami for losing to Florida Gulf Coast earlier this year, and it’s also fun. But the Hurricanes have the potential to be really, really decent in the ACC. They were actually a trendy pick to finish near the top three of the conference because of their two excellent big men, Kenny Kadji and Reggie Johnson, a lightning-fast point guard in Shane Larkin (son of Barry), and veteran scorer Durand Scott. Mockery is the name of the game right now, but if Jim Larranaga is any kind of coach, he’ll have them playing well by January. For now, though, Michigan State is a little too seasoned, and Keith Appling is a little too dynamic, to lose in Coral Gables. On a side note, I’m really thrilled that this game is in the early session Wednesday, away from the “marquee” games, because I think it’s going to be a lot of fun. I implore you to watch; you can thank me for Larkin later.
Projection: Spartans win, ACC leads 4-3.
5. No. 21 Minnesota at Florida State, Tuesday, 7:15 p.m.
Again, we have a game the ACC absolutely can’t lose. Like Miami, FSU had an embarrassing early loss that took the steam out of the Seminole supporters. But they rediscovered some of their defensive swagger in a solid win against Saint Joseph’s, and standout guard Michael Snaer is starting to find his form. Yes, Minnesota looked pretty OK in wins over Memphis and Stanford in the Bahamas, led by Rodney Williams Jr., but without any great shooters or slashing guards, they could be in for a long game in Tallahassee. I’m actually strangely confident that FSU will win this game. And don’t forget, the Tucker Center is not an easy place to play. Just ask Roy Williams.
Projection: Florida State wins, ACC leads 5-3.
4. Georgia Tech at no. 22 Illinois, Wednesday, 9 p.m.
Here’s where things start to look gloomy for the ACC. Brian Gregory has Georgia Tech playing decent ball in his second year as coach, but a loss to California in Anaheim showed that there are certain talent restrictions that impose a ceiling on the Yellow Jackets. Not so for Illinois, who looked incredible in winning the Maui Invitational. They had a hiccup against Gardner-Webb last week (a 63-62 escape), but that can be chalked up to travel fatigue. The Illini have a high-scoring offense led by senior shooting guard Brandon Paul (18.7 points per game), and playing at home, you have to expect that they’ll run Georgia Tech off the court.
Projection: Illinois in a blowout, ACC leads 5-4.
3. No. 18 NC State at no. 3 Michigan, Tuesday, 7:30 p.m.
I’m sad to report that after my initial excitement, it’s time to admit that the doubters were right, and that NC State is the premier overrated team of 2012. A lackluster performance against Oklahoma State in Puerto Rico was followed up by a stunning lack of defense in an 82-80 win over UNC-Asheville at home. Mark Gottfried has a pair of excellent freshmen in T.J. Warren and Rodney Purvis, but the upperclassmen starters like Lorenzo Brown and C.J. Leslie sometimes seem like they’d rather be anywhere else. Michigan, with its slow, physical style, is a nightmare matchup for the Wolfpack. Led by point guard Trey Burke and shooting guard Tim Hardaway Jr., the Wolverines have lived up to their high ranking thus far, and they’ve done it without freshman Mitch McGary. That’s because Jordan Morgan and Glenn Robinson III have been solid underneath. But the player I’m most excited to see is surprising freshman guard Nik Stauskas, the sharpshooting 6-foot-6 guard averaging almost 12 points per game.
Projection: It’s a test of heart for NC State, but the odds are against them. Michigan wins easily, Challenge tied at 5-5.
2. No. 14 North Carolina at no. 1 Indiana, Tuesday, 9:30 p.m.
Let’s keep this one really simple — the Hoosiers looked vulnerable on a neutral floor against Georgia and Georgetown, but Cody Zeller was sick, and they still won. UNC, on the other hand, can clearly shoot the lights out when things are going well, but can struggle for long stretches, as they did while falling behind by 27 to Butler in Maui. The Tar Heels are young and streaky, and Assembly Hall in Bloomington is an enormous road test for even transcendent teams, as Kentucky discovered last year. To put a bunch of young kids in that environment and ask them to shoot their way out is tantamount to cruel and unusual punishment, and I can’t see any way around an emphatic Indiana win.
Projection: Hoosiers, Big Ten leads Challenge 6-5.
1. No. 4 Ohio State at no. 2 Duke, Wednesday, 9:30 p.m.
This game presents two huge questions for Duke, a team that got cheated out of a no. 1 ranking despite running the Minnesota-VCU-Louisville gauntlet in the Bahamas while Indiana floundered in Brooklyn. Question no. 1: How will Quinn Cook handle the pressure defense of Aaron Craft? Cook finally became the player Duke fans have been dying to see in his MVP performance at the Battle 4 Atlantis. (God, I hate typing that “4.”) His reward? The best perimeter defender in college basketball. No. 2: Who’s going to guard Deshaun Thomas? OSU’s leading scorer, and a candidate for national player of the year, is already averaging 24 points per game, and he presents a huge matchup problem for Duke. On the other hand, the Buckeyes are going to have to turn in the defensive performance of the year to stop all of Duke’s guards, and they better hope Mason Plumlee gets in foul trouble early, because Evan Ravenel and LaQuinton Ross will have a hell of a time containing him if he stays in the game.
Projection: I couldn’t be more excited. With the home crowd behind them, I think the Blue Devils win the non-conference game of the year.
Final Projection: As the smoke clears, I see that I’ve got the ACC and Big Ten playing to a 6-6 draw, with the Big Ten retaining the Commissioner’s Cup. And if I’m being honest with myself, I gave my preferred conference the benefit of the doubt in more than a few of the toss-up games. Actually reaching seven wins? Feels impossible. And maybe nobody else cares, but I promise to spend a couple bummed-out moments cursing fate if the ACC can’t find its miracle.