ACC/B1G Challenge Primer
The Big Ten needs a pick me up.
Maybe the ACC can provide the league with a quick fix.
We’ll find out over the next 3 days, when the country’s premier basketball leagues square off in the 23rd annual Challenge, with 2 games on Monday, 6 on Tuesday and 6 more on Wednesday. The B1G is looking for its 3rd straight victory — it was a 7 games to 5 final in 2020 — and 8th since 2009, following a stretch in which the ACC took the title in the first 10 years.
The B1G could use a win. Outside of Purdue, which is likely to be either No. 1 or No. 2 in the country when the AP Poll is release on Monday, the conference hasn’t lived up to its lofty expectations. Preseason favorite Michigan has floundered with a couple losses, as has Illinois, Ohio State and Maryland. Rutgers lost to Lafayette. At home. Nebraska fell to Western Illinois. At home.
The Big Ten needs to reclaim its mojo.
Let’s take a look at some of the biggest storylines as the B1G and ACC battle over the next 3 days:
Purdue or Duke?
The Big Ten and the ACC (and ESPN) stole a marquee game from all of us. When deciding matchups earlier this year, they could have decided to match up Duke and Purdue, which would have set up a likely No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown on Tuesday night. Any debate of which of the 2 teams deserves to be the country’s top-ranked team — and there’s plenty of debate, after Purdue beat UNC and Villanova on back-to-back days before Thanksgiving and Duke knocked off No. 1 Gonzaga on Friday — could have been settled on the court.
But alas, it’s not happening.
Purdue hosts Florida State on Tuesday, while Ohio State hosts Duke 2 hours later. Nice games, but not the game.
Set the schedule
If you can devote only 2 or so hours per night to basketball this week — and wouldn’t that be a shame — what games should be tuned in? Let’s take a look:
Monday: Iowa at Virginia, 7 p.m. ET
The Hawkeyes might be one of the (positive) surprises of the Big Ten through the first few weeks of the season, with an unblemished 6-0 record that’s come as sophomore forward Keegan Murray has blossomed into one of the conference’s biggest stars.
But the wins are against Longwood, Kansas City, North Carolina Central, Alabama State, Western Michigan and Portland, so not exactly a murderer’s row. But now comes Virginia, which might not be the same Cavaliers national championship team of a couple seasons ago, but is a solid, well-coached, talented team. It’ll be a contrast in styles, too, with Iowa averaging 97.2 points per game and Virginia giving up only 58.4.
Tuesday: Duke at Ohio State, 9:30 p.m. ET
Is Duke primed for a letdown after its hard-fought victory over Gonzaga on Friday night? Ohio State hopes so.
The Buckeyes certainly won’t back down from the challenge, as the game will be their 4th straight against a ranked opponent: OSU lost to then-No. 25 Xavier, beat then-21 Seton Hall, and lost to then-23 Florida, all in the last 11 days. All 3 games were close, with the total margin being only 12 points.
To knock off Duke, Ohio State will have to try to match the Blue Devils’ interior strength and keep them off the glass. That point has been a huge problem for the Buckeyes, who have given up 79 offensive rebounds in only 6 games this season. If Duke controls the glass, then OSU will have no chance.
Wednesday: Michigan at North Carolina, 9:15 p.m. ET
The Wolverines and the Tar Heels, a couple of 4-2 teams, have been 2 of the biggest disappointments so far in the Big Ten and ACC, respectively, making this one of critical importance to both squads.
Michigan recovered from its 2nd loss of the season (when it was whipped by Arizona) by completing a ho-hum victory over Tarleton State on Wednesday. Meanwhile, North Carolina stomped UNC Ashville Tuesday after back-to-back loses to ranked Purdue and Tennessee the weekend before.
The loser of the game Wednesday night will be 4-3, and likely unranked, with conference play right around the corner.
Something to prove
Wisconsin: The Badgers marched to a Maui Invitational title by picking up 3 quality victories in 3 days in Las Vegas, beating Texas A&M, then-No. 12 Houston and Saint Mary’s for the championship. And they did it in typical Wisconsin fashion, grinding the game down to a standstill and frustrating the opponent. Only the Cougars managed to cross the 60-point threshold.
Can the Badgers keep it up?
Wisconsin was seen as nothing more than a middle-of-the-road Big Ten team in the preseason, largely because it had only Brad Davison, Tyler Wahl and Johnny Davis as significant returning contributors. But few expected Davis to make such a big jump into his sophomore season; the guard might be the Big Ten’s most improved player, as he’s averaging 20.2 points and 5.6 rebounds per game, with only 8 total turnovers.
Boilermaker bigs vs. Seminole bigs: Watch the Boilermakers’ bigs vs. the counterparts for the Seminoles. Purdue will have the size advantage, as it will against most teams this season, but will the length and athleticism of FSU give the Boilermakers fits?
It could. At times, the Boilermakers have struggled with opponents who could force Purdue’s bigs out of their comfort zones.
Spartans vs. their shooting stroke: Michigan State has to be happy with taking 2 of 3 at the Battle 4 Atlantis, but it did so by playing defense and getting just barely enough offense. MSU scored only 63 and 64 points in beating Loyola Chicago and UConn. And then the Spartans’ offense generated only 58 points in a blowout loss to defending national champion Baylor.
MSU is struggling to shoot, hitting only 45 percent of its overall shots and just 32 percent of its 3-pointers. In 7 games, the Spartans have only 39 triples, just 5.5 makes per game. Louisville, MSU’s opponent on Wednesday in the Breslin Center, also doesn’t shoot very well, but it also is stingy on defense, allowing opponents to hit only 29 percent of their 3-pointers.
Players to watch
Andre Curbelo: The start to the season hasn’t gone the way the sophomore point guard envisioned. Curbelo has struggled with his shooting (only 30 percent from the field, including 2-of-12 from 3-point range) and turnovers, with 16 in 4 games. The Fighting Illini need Curbelo to be at his best to hit their ceiling, but he’s not there. And now, he’s dealing with an injury, too, as he sat out Illinois’ last game. Will he be back for the Illini Monday night as they host Notre Dame? We’ll find out soon enough.
Trayce Jackson-Davis: The Indiana forward scored an Assembly Hall record 43 points in the Hoosiers’ last outing, a 90-79 victory against Marshall on Saturday. The Herd had no answer for the junior, who was 18-of-24 from the floor and 7-9 from the free throw line.
But Syracuse is likely to sink in its zone on Jackson-Davis and make the Hoosiers chuck the ball from the outside. How will IU adjust in its first game away from Assembly Hall this season?
Eric Ayala: Maryland needs it veteran guard to be clicking on all cylinders if it wants to be able to consistently compete. Because when he’s off, like in the most recent loss to Louisville, the Terrapins struggle to locate other scoring options. Maryland needs him to hit his average of 15 points if it wants to beat Virginia Tech at home on Wednesday.