This week is the Big Ten-ACC Challenge in basketball, which pits the 14 Big Ten teams against the 14 ACC teams to see which conference wins more games. It's a major barometer of which teams are good and which teams are not and also provides March contenders with an opportunity to beef up their tournament resume early in the season. Without any ado, let's dive right in, dividing the games into tiers based on intrigue.
Tier 1: The Big One
North Carolina at Michigan, 9:30 pm Wednesday
This is the only game that features two top 10 KenPom teams, let alone two top 7 KenPom teams. By nature of the site that I’m writing this for, most of the readers are probably well-aware of Michigan. The Wolverines are off to a tremendous- and uncharacteristically good- start for a John Beilein team, opening the year 6-0, beating every team by at least 19 points, including a systematic dismantling of Providence (#60 KenPom) and a blowout of #15 Villanova on the road. They have the nation’s #1 defense, which will set up a fascinating matchup when North Carolina, the nation’s #3 offense, comes to town. The Tar Heels are 6-1 and have scored at least 90 points in all but one of their games. They are led by returning seniors Cameron Johnson and Luke Maye, as well as top tier freshmen recruits Nassir Little and Coby White. This is the marquee matchup of the Big Ten-ACC challenge and will be a huge W for the March resume of whoever emerges victorious.
Tier 2: Other good matchups
Nebraska at Clemson, 7 pm Monday
A matchup of two similar teams brings plenty of intrigue as 5-1 Nebraska visits 5-1 Clemson. Nebraska is a team looking to make it back to the NCAA Tournament after having previously made it in 2014 and most of all, are looking to win their first NCAA Tournament game in program history. Nebrasketball is led by three seniors, all of whom are Jrs., ironically: James Palmer Jr., Glynn Watson Jr., and Isaac Copeland Jr.. The very talented Isaiah Roby is also a factor for the 5-1 Huskers, who beat Seton Hall at home and dropped a game against a very good Texas Tech squad at a neutral site. Clemson on the other hand was a Sweet 16 team a year ago and they currently check in at KenPom #24, with no real quality wins and a close loss to Creighton. This would be a prime opportunity for the Big Ten to steal a game and for Nebraska to prove they have what it takes to be a Big Ten player.
North Carolina St. at Wisconsin, 9 pm Tuesday
Wisconsin missed the NCAA Tournament last year for the first time in ages but they appear to be back on the right track in 2018-19. The Badgers beat Oklahoma and Stanford as part of their non-conference tournament before losing narrowly to Virginia. They are led by 17th year senior Ethan Happ, who is the best post player in the conference, and have also seen considerable growth from D’Mtrik Trice, as well as the return of Brad Davison. Their stellar start to the year have slingshot the Badgers into the KenPom #12 position and they host KenPom #35 at the Kohl Center on Tuesday. The Wolfpack are 6-0 on the year and have played literally no one, with their best win being over KenPom #175 Mercer (!!!!). Half of their opponents so far are in the bottom 20 of KenPom teams nationally. Basically, we have no idea how good this NC St. team is, which is why this game is worth watching.
Indiana at Duke, 9:30 pm Tuesday
This is a game that features four of the nation’s top seven recruits from the most recent class. Duke has three of them: RJ Barrett, Cam Reddish, and Zion Williamson, while Indiana has Romeo Langford. Duke has quickly established themselves as one of the nation’s best teams, beating up Kentucky but also losing to a very good Gonzaga team in Maui. They are #2 in KP offense and #8 in KP defense for an overall ranking of #1. Indiana is KenPom 22, having destroyed a solid Marquette team at home and dropped a close one on the road to a mediocre Arkansas team. The Hoosiers are led by Langford, who is shooting over 50% from the field despite not being much of a three point threat and 6’8” senior Juwan Morgan has been blazing hot, averaging over 17 points per game on 9 of 15 from three and 72% from the field. Because this game is in Durham, I would expect Duke to win pretty easily, but if Indiana can just play it close for a half, that’s a good sign for both them and the Big Ten overall.
Syracuse at Ohio State, 7:15 pm Wednesday
This is an interesting matchup of a pair of teams that are solid but not great. Ohio State has had a better than expected start to the year, beating a pretty solid Creighton team on the road in the Gavitt Games and besting Cincinnati at home. Syracuse on the other hand has had a bit of a disappointing start to the year, being ranked in the top 15 before losing to both Connecticut and Oregon. The Orange were a sweet sixteen team a year ago (albeit a bad one at that), led by star guard Tyus Battle and the trademark Jim Boeheim 2-3 zone, while Ohio State has had to weather the losses of Keita Bates-Diop and Jae'Sean Tate by getting improvement from Kaleb Wesson and solid play from a few freshmen early on. This game is another test to see if Syracuse was simply overrated or if we need to temper expectations on the Buckeyes.
Purdue at FSU, 9:15 pm Wednesday
Purdue lost a lot of talent off of last year’s squad, including four of five starters. However, they did bring back the league’s best player: Carsen Edwards. The Boilermaker point guard is having a sensational start to the year, averaging over 25 points per game, including 41% from three and 92% from the free throw line. His supporting cast isn’t as strong as last year, with Matt Haarms attempting to be the new Very Tall Foreign Blonde Dude, the role Isaac Haas held last year, though he isn’t the same offensive threat in the post that Haas was. Ryan Cline has emerged as the number two scoring option for Purdue on the perimeter, but it’s really the Edwards show. Purdue is 5-1 to start the year, with no good wins but one close loss to a pretty good Virginia Tech team and they check in at #13 in KenPom. Florida State returns after making the Elite Eight a year ago and are pretty much the same team: a bunch of hyper athletic dudes who are not that well coached. However, they’ve started the year 5-1, and are #14 in KenPom. This should be a good measuring stick for both teams.
Tier 3: Upset potential
Virginia Tech at Penn St, 7:00 pm Tuesday
Buzz Williams has helped to rebuild Virginia Tech and has the Hokies in KenPom top 16 at a sterling 5-0 record. VT has three players averaging over 15 points per game and they have the nation’s #7 offense, led by sophomore guard Nickeil Walker-Alexander. The Hokies already have one win over a Big Ten team (Purdue) and are looking to procure another when they travel to State College on Tuesday. Penn St. has had to stomach the loss of star guard Tony Carr but have made up for it thanks to a monster start to the year by Lamar Stevens, averaging over 24 points per game and running the Nittany Lions as a one-man show. Despite checking in at KenPom #38, Penn St. does not appear to be a good team, having lost to DePaul and Bradley, but the Bryce Jordan Center is never an easy place to play.
Michigan St. at Louisville, 7:30 pm Tuesday
Michigan St. is off to a strong start to the year, ranking in the top 10 and having just won their non-conference tournament in Las Vegas. The Spartans have one loss, to Kansas, but seem to be about what we expected. Point guard Cassius Winston is still the playmaker, Nick Ward is still a good post player, but a point of surprise has been Joshua Langford, who has discovered how to shoot from three. The Spartans head to Louisville Tuesday to take on the KenPom #59 Cardinals, who are 3-2. This is a game MSU should win, perhaps easily, but it’s never easy to go on the road in a hostile environment.
Virginia at Maryland, 7:30 pm Wednesday
UVA is the same team they’ve always been under coach Tony Bennett: a defensive powerhouse that’s ready to dominate the regular season and tank in the NCAA Tournament (sorry UVA fans). The Cavaliers are #3 in KP nationally with the nation’s #2 defense, sporting a sterling 6-0 record. With a win over Wisconsin, Virginia seems to be for real and they return DeAndre Hunter and Ty Jerome off of last year’s ACC Championship team. Maryland is trying to return to the NCAA Tournament off the backs of returners Bruno Fernando and Anthony Cowan, as well as five-star freshman PF Jalen Smith. The Terps are 6-0 but haven’t really played anyone, so an upset over Virginia in this border state “rivalry” could be an opportunity to show the Big Ten that they are a contender.
Tier 4: Do Not Watch These Games
Georgia Tech at Northwestern
Illinois at Notre Dame
Rutgers at Miami
Minnesota at Boston College
Pittsburgh at Iowa
This is mostly the bottom tier Big Ten against the bottom tier ACC, with the exception of Pitt-Iowa, which is a very bad ACC team against a solid Big Ten team. Watching these games is a waste of your time, so don’t do it.
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