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THE BIGGER, BETTER (?) ACC-BIG TEN CHALLENGE ARRIVES

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That most wonderful time of the non-conference hoops calendar is here.

I suppose Iowa and Syracuse kind of got the ACC-Big Ten Challenge started already...
I suppose Iowa and Syracuse kind of got the ACC-Big Ten Challenge started already...
Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY Sports

Growth and change have been staples of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge over the years.  The event began with nine games between the Big Ten and ACC, with a rotating contingent of Big Ten teams sitting out the competition each year.  The event ballooned to eleven inter-conference clashes in 2005, after the ACC added Miami, Virginia Tech, and Boston College to its ranks.  After years of Big Ten teams sitting out the competition, ACC teams were now the ones that were the odd men out on occasion.  The event held steady at eleven games until 2011, when Nebraska's addition to the Big Ten bumped things up to twelve games.  For the first time in the history of the event, the ACC and Big Ten had the same number of teams (12).  Alas, that did not last; by 2013, the ACC had grown to 15 teams after adding Pitt, Syracuse, and Notre Dame.  Three ACC teams were required to sit out to level the playing field.  Maryland and Rutgers joined the Big Ten this year, of course, bumping the 2014 incarnation of the Challenge to 14 inter-conference showdowns.  (The ACC remains at 15 teams -- Louisville filled the void left by Maryland's departure -- and will thus have to sit out a team this year and for the forseeable future.)

The ACC-Big Ten Challenge has grown so big that it now sprawls over three nights: there are two games tonight, followed by six games apiece on Tuesday night and Wednesday night.  The Challenge, now celebrating its 16th birthday, has endured through all the conference membership drama and retained its position as one of the premiere non-conference events of the season because the ACC and Big Ten remain two of the best college basketball conferences in the land.  (They're also unquestionably the two most popular college basketball conferences in the land, which means this event would likely continue even if the quality of the conferences drops off.)

The last two versions of the Challenge ended in sister-kissing ties, with each league winning six games.  Before that, the Big Ten ended the ACC's 10-year run of dominance in the event and ran off three straight wins of their own. As always, bragging rights are on the line -- although perhaps not the mythical title of "the best conference in the country."  Per KenPom, that title belongs to the Big XII right now -- mostly because the league is so consistent (7/10 members rank in his top-32) and because its bottom is comparatively strong (only one team, Texas Tech at #127, ranks below #100 in his rankings; the Big Ten has two sub-100 teams and the ACC has four sub-100 teams).  The Big Ten and ACC aren't far behind, though, so this year's event should be a good barometer of the conferences at the moment.

Let's take a quick look at the games in this year's Challenge (all rankings via KenPom):

MONDAY

Rutgers (3-3, #181) at Clemson (4-2, #101) -- 6 PM CT, ESPNU

Rutgers is dreadful (per KenPom, only two major conference teams are worse -- Oregon State, #183, and Washington State, #200) and just played what is sure to be one of the worst games of the season (a 45-26 loss to Virginia in which the Scarlet Knights scored eight points in the entire second half), but Clemson isn't particularly good, either -- they lost to Winthrop and Gardner Webb (both ranked lower than Rutgers via KenPom) and struggled to beat Nevada, LSU, and High Point in recent weeks.  Still, they are at home...

THE PICK: Clemson (ACC 1-0)

Nebraska (4-1, #47) at Florida State (3-3, #92) -- 6 PM CT, ESPN2

The Nebraska bandwagon hit a pretty big pothole and lost a lot of supporters when they dropped a road game at Rhode Island, the only semi-decent team they've played so far this year (their four wins all came against cupcakes, with in-state "rival" Nebraska Omaha providing the most resistance).  Florida State lost three in a row against credible mid-major opposition (Northeastern, Providence, and UMass) but has rebounded with a pair of ugly home wins against The Citadel and Charleston Southern.  KenPom likes them over the Cornhuskers narrowly (66-65), but I'm going to swallow my bile and pick a Nebraska win.

THE PICK: Nebraska (tied 1-1)

TUESDAY

Pittsburgh (4-2, #37) at Indiana (5-1, #63) -- 6 PM CT, ESPN2

Both teams have surprising losses on their resumes -- Pitt got stunned on the road by Hawaii, while Indiana got shocked at home by Eastern Washington last week -- and each has a decent win on their resume as well -- Pitt knocked off Kansas State at the Maui Invitational, while Indiana beat SMU earlier in the year.  Pitt rates out as the stronger team, per KenPom, so Indiana may need to draw on some Hoosier magic to grab a win.

THE PICK: Pitt (ACC 2-1)

Minnesota (4-2, #38) at Wake Forest (4-3, #113) -- 6 PM CT, ESPNU

Minnesota's two losses are to Louisville (very good) and St. John's (solid).  Wake Forest hasn't beaten a team ranked higher than #221 (UNC Asheville) this year.  The fact that it's a road game might make it a little bit trickier, but Minnesota has absolutely no business losing this game.

THE PICK: Minnesota (tied 2-2)

Syracuse (5-1, #16) at Michigan (5-1, #19) -- 6:30 PM CT, ESPN

And now we're starting to hit the good stuff.  This is the first of three match-ups between KenPom Top 25 teams in Tuesday's portion of the Challenge.  Syracuse was stunned by Cal and eked out a win over Iowa at the 2K Classic, but has otherwise cruised to wins over cupcakes.  Michigan dropped a close game to Villanova, but has otherwise looked very good.  Unless the 'Cuse zone absolutely flummoxes the Wolverines, I think Michigan takes this one.

THE PICK: Michigan (B1G 3-2)

Illinois (6-0, #23) at Miami (7-0, #21) -- 8 PM CT, ESPN2

Oh look, another match-up of KenPom Top 25 teams.  Illinois and Miami have gotten off to semi-surprisingly hot starts and each enters this game unbeaten. I say "semi-surprisingly" because 5 of Illinois' 6 wins were against cupcakes (the lone exception was a 62-54 win over Baylor last week -- and because Miami's early schedule has also been pretty soft (and the one big win they can claim -- a 69-67 win over Florida -- is looking less impressive with each Florida loss).  This should be a very good measuring stick game for both teams.  Edge to Miami since they've played slightly better competition and are at home.

THE PICK: Miami (tied 3-3)

NC State (6-0, #53) at Purdue (5-1, #36) -- 8 PM CT, ESPNU

Purdue began the year with three blowout wins over cupcakes, then went 2-1 at Maui last week (losing to Kansas State but knocking off Missouri and BYU).  The Wolfpack has gone 6-for-6 in non-conference action, including solid wins over Richmond and Boise State.  They also haven't played away from home all season, though, and lord knows how they might respond to all the train noises in West Lafayette.

THE PICK: Purdue (B1G 4-3)

Ohio State (5-0, #14) at Louisville (5-0, #3) -- 8:30 PM CT, ESPN

Outside of Louisville's season-opening win over Minnesota on a neutral site, neither team has been tested at all this season -- Louisville's next-toughest opponent was Cleveland State (#99), while Ohio State's toughest opponent all year has been a down Marquette team (#105).  Still, this is the first road trip of the season for an OSU team full of newcomers and having that road trip be @Louisville is pretty daunting.  I think the Buckeyes' odds of winning are better than the 17% KenPom gives them, but I don't like them enough to actually pick them here.

THE PICK: Louisville (tied 4-4)

WEDNESDAY

Michigan State (5-2, #13) at Notre Dame (6-1, #42) -- 6:15 PM CT, ESPN2

It's a strange year for the Challenge when Iowa has a more high-profile game than Michigan State, but here we are.  Notre Dame seems to be rebounding well from last year's mini-collapse (their only loss is a 75-74 setback to Providence on a neutral site), but they've also played five games against teams with KenPom rankings in the 300s. Cupcakemania has been runnin' wild in South Bend.  Michigan State's two losses are to Duke and Kansas, a pair of top-ten foes.  Outside of a season-opening struggle with Navy, they've looked solid in their other games.

THE PICK: Michigan State (B1G 5-4)

Virginia Tech (4-2, #165) at Penn State (6-1, #84) -- 6:15 PM CT, ESPNU

Penn State is at home against the worst team in the ACC (and one of the worst power-conference teams in the country).  If they don't win this game, they should probably kiss off any postseason hopes they might have for this season.  That said, Penn State already has narrow wins over the likes of Cornell, USC, Akron, and Bucknell, teams that are around Virginia Tech's quality (or worse), so this might not be a gimme for the Nittany Lions.

THE PICK: Penn State (B1G 6-4)

Iowa (5-2, #26) at North Carolina (5-1, #12) -- 6:30 PM CT, ESPN

This game looked incredibly daunting for Iowa before the season began; suffice to say, Iowa's struggles against power conference opposition at the 2K Classic in New York City a few weeks ago has not made it look any easier.  Butler did shock the Tar Heels in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament last week, but this match-up does not look favorable for Iowa.

THE PICK: North Carolina (B1G 6-5)

Virginia (7-0, #5) at Maryland (7-0, #31) -- 8:15 PM CT, ESPN2

Old rivals collide!  I suppose it was always likely that Maryland's game in the Challenge would look odd, considering that they'd be playing against the conference that had been their home for the last 50+ years.  That said, it's still really, really weird to think that Virginia-Maryland is now an ACC-B1G Challenge game and not, say, an ACC Tournament quarterfinal.  It's a shame that Maryland is going to be without one of their best players (Dez Wells) for this game because they've been one of the season's most notable early season surprises.  Without him, though, it's hard to see them being able to beat Virginia's lockdown defense.

THE PICK: Virginia (tied 6-6)

Georgia Tech (5-1, #89) at Northwestern (5-1, #121) -- 8:15 PM CT, ESPNU

NERDS!  NERDS!  NERDS!  Northwestern's biggest win of the season thus far was a 13-point win over Brown.  They also have narrow wins over Houston Baptist, North Florida, and Elon and just got blasted by another purple cat team (UNI).  Let's just say I am not particularly sold on Northwestern.  Georgia Tech has decent wins over Georgia and Rhode Island on their resume and let's just say Ryan Fieldhouse isn't exactly the most intimidating road venue in the Big Ten.

THE PICK: Georgia Tech (ACC 7-6)

Duke (7-0, #2) at Wisconsin (7-0, #4) -- 8:30 PM CT, ESPN

And then we have the marquee match-up of the entire event, a game pitting two top-five opponents with legitimate national championship aspirations against one another.  It's a shame the Challenge doesn't an odd number of games as it did in the past; it would be even more fun if there was a chance that it could be tied up leading to this game, with the winner earning a big non-conference win and clinching the Challenge for its conference.  Alas.  Wisconsin shook off some early cobwebs to squeeze past Georgetown at the Battle 4 Atlantis on their way to a championship there, while Duke has simply cruised through all of their early season games thus far.  Duke answered their first big test of the season (against Michigan State), but this one looks even trickier: a road game against a Wisconsin team loaded with veteran talent.  Duke has Jahlil Okafor, the likely #1 pick in next year's NBA Draft, but Wisconsin has Frank Kaminsky, a top contender for National Player of the Year honors.  This one is hard to call, but allow me to be a conference homer...

THE PICK: Wisconsin (tied 7-7)

That would make for a third-straight tie between the ACC and the Big Ten in the Challenge, which seems like a fair result -- top to bottom, these two leagues look pretty evenly-matched.  The KenPom predictions favor the Big Ten, 8 to 6, but his Big Ten wins are far shakier than his ACC wins (4 of his Big Ten picks have win odds at 58% or lower, while only one of his ACC picks has win odds lower than 60%), so it wouldn't take much to swing things toward or a tie or an outright ACC win.  Either way, it should be fun to see how it all shakes out.