It is indeed my favorite time of the early hoops season: the ACC-Big Ten challenge. These games, even during the years of the Big Ten's slumbering down-cycle, always gave the start of the college season a March-like feel. There's little that's more fun for me than switching from game-to-game, watching nervously as quality teams give and take their best shots at each other. So here's my off-the-cuff picks for the 2012 ACC-Big Ten Challenge, game-by-game. And as much as I think the Big Ten is a clearly superior conference to the ACC, going up and down the match-ups, the ACC has a really decent shot of winning this thing.
What I think is the key on this challenge... well, the early returns on the first four games should signal which conference succeeds. Sure, there are possibly pivotal games on Wednesday: Michigan State-Miami, notably, but the real toss-ups are all coming early tonight: Minnesota-Florida State, Iowa-Virginia Tech, and Northwestern-Maryland are three games that I've talked myself into picking either way. Here's my picks, with winners underlined and all times listed in EST.
Minnesota (6-1) at Florida State (4-1) 7:15 pm
The Gophers have looked good so far. A tough game at the Seminoles should test how far this team has come from last year. FSU has been uneven, but they've got a really good win over St. Joe's in the bag. I think FSU snags a bit of an upset here, as they can match the size and depth of the Gophers, and seem to be better shooters overall. I just don't trust the outside shooting or, frankly, the defense of this Minnesota squad so far.
Score: ACC 1-0
Iowa (5-1) at Virginia Tech (5-0) 7:15 pm
I think Iowa has the better growth potential this season, but starting freshmen at the point (Mike Gesell) and center (Adam Woodbury) positions on the road will probably be trouble. Still, with good rebounders on hand and Roy Devyn Marble, I'm guessing the Hawkeyes nip the Hokies in a close game that's still in doubt when the final buzzer goes off. Erick Green and Jarell Eddie are putting up impressive numbers, but I just think VT will find a way to let a solid home win get away from them.
Score: Tie 1-1
NC State (4-1) at Michigan (5-0) 7:30 pm
NCSU has elite talent. But they don't know how to use it yet. I've been disappointed by Michigan in past challenges, but the Wolverines should have enough experience and talent to come out and execute their offense for a quick lead, and stave off a late Wolfpack rally to hold on, if necessary.
Score: Big Ten 2-1
Maryland (4-1) at Northwestern (6-0) 9:15 pm
Maryland is probably the more talented team, as Alex Len has been better than advertised, late windfall transfer Dezmine Wells is producing and PeShon Howard is still shaking the rust off of a medical redshirt year but has averaged 7 assists/game so far. But the Terrapins have been playing to the level of their opponents, and this is exactly the sort of game that Carmody's been good at winning in the past. Hmm, this is a real toss-up, but let's go with the Terrapins. The way they took it to the Kentucky Wildcats to start the season was impressive, and the Wildcats' don't have the bodies to match up with Len, and have been reliant on some hot 3-point shooting to stay undefeated.
My guess is that ends tonight.
Score: Tie 2-2
Nebraska (4-1) at Wake Forest (3-2) 9:15 pm
Nebraska will not be a good team this season. But Wake Forest could well be worse. It looks like Nebraska has superior size, and Wake Forest has some serious turnover problems (16/game, for a 23.1 TO%!), so the Huskers might be able to grab a rare road win. However, I'll pick the Demon Deacons, as Nebraska has just about zero depth if they encounter foul trouble, which I wouldn't be surprised to see. Wake Forest has a bunch of athletes like Travis McKie and Devin Thomas and if they are able to get to the offensive glass, they could cause some serious foul problems for Nebraska bigs Andre Almedia and Brandon Ubel.
Score: ACC 3-2
North Carolina (5-1) at Indiana (6-0) 9:30 pm
When I was first considering this game, I thought the loss of Elston, Perea, and Jurkin meant that UNC would pound the Hoosiers inside and wear them down on the way to a narrow win. Now, with UNC's PJ Hairston injured and the Hoosiers proving they could handle size against Georgetown, I think the homecourt advantage might be just enough to overcome the Heels. Matching up the bodies by position, I just don't see an area where the Heels have a decided advantage, except for size off the bench. The Hoosier offense is clicking on all cylinders, and has a definite advantage in the backcourt and on the wings. I would look for Yogi Ferrell to have a good game, which should lead to good games from more Hoosier players, and IU to grind out a win in the second half tonight.
Score: Tie 3-3
Purdue (2-3) at Clemson (4-1) 7:15 pm
The Boilers have a punchers' chance in this one, just because Clemson isn't that great, but they are still shooting terribly and turning the ball over too much. You don't go on the road expecting to fix those problems, and the Tigers have been solid so far. There's no evidence to suggest they'll let this one get away. Milton Jennings and Devin Booker will simply control the paint for Clemson, and Purdue hasn't been able to shoot consistently enough to win games.
Score: ACC 4-3
Virginia (4-2) at Wisconsin (4-2) 7:15 pm
Wisconsin doesn't always come through in the Challenge, but the Badgers are facing a Cavaliers squad that's facing its first NCAA at-large-bid-worthy opponent. And yet, Virginia is at 4-2 already, with losses at George Mason and to Delaware. The state of Wisconsin seems to be on a constant Sam Dekker watch, and I've been fascinated with Ben Brust's excellent all-around play, but I think Jared Berggren's presence is the pivot on which the Badgers separate themselves in this game
Score: Tie 4-4
Michigan State (5-1) at Miami (3-1) 7:30 pm
I would almost always pick the Spartans in the Challenge, but they are without two guards (Gary Harris & Travis Trice) and have been struggling as of late. What should be a solid win for MSU will be a toss-up game due to these injuries. And I've got to go with the Hurricanes, who are at home and hungry for a quality win. Keith Appling simply has to have another monster game for Izzo's team to get out with a win, and Miami has depth in the paint and a solid guard crew this season (Durand Scott and Shane Larkin are going to make some noise in the ACC).
Score: ACC 5-4
Georgia Tech (4-1) at Illinois (7-0) 9 pm
Georgia Tech is coming off a very nice win over St. Mary's, and the Illini have been a bit.... um, no, very lucky indeed to be 7-0. I mean, they've already hit two three-pointers at the buzzer to win games: that luck can't hold. Nonetheless, I think that the
Hornets Yellowjackets simply should not be able to contend with the red-hot Illinois squad. John Groce's team should be amped up for this prime-time performance, and short of a real off-night shooting (like the Gaels suffered), Illinois wins this in a walk.
Score: Tie 5-5
Boston College (2-4) at Penn State (3-2) 9:15 pm
I know, Penn State is not going to be good without Tim Frazier. However, BC is just terrible this season. They lost to Bryant.
Seriously, they lost 56-54 to Bryant last Sunday. At home.
I suspect this will be a close game, but Chambers should have these guys playing hard and take care of business. Of course, it will be interesting to see how DJ Newbill takes over point guard duties, but really I think the player to watch is the sweet-shooting freshman power forward, Brandon Taylor.
Score: Big Ten 6-5
Ohio State (4-0) at Duke (6-0) 9:30 pm
You think Duke might remember the last time they faced off against OSU and DeShaun Thomas? I do. Duke is playing very, very well right now, and this Ohio State's first test. If the Buckeyes don't get blown out, it should be considered a moral victory. I don't whether Thomas goes off again or not, but Coach K. has never been afraid to let a star player get his points and shut down the rest of the team. I'm kinda guessing that's what happens tonight.
Final Score: Tie 6-6
So, yes, I am picking the ACC (to tie) in a bit of an upset here. I think the Big Ten is still the better conference, and without injuries to Gary Harris and Travis Trice, I think the Big Ten wins this one.