I always feel like this is really when the college basketball season kicks off. Two of the best, if not the very best, conferences test each other over two nights. The constant action, top talent, and made-for-tv nature of the Challenge all just serve to whet my appetite for March. The long domination of the ACC finally came to an end in 2009, and after a couple more Big Ten victories, the ACC got something of a moral victory in the challenge by tying up the Big Ten 6-6 last season. Will this be the year that the ACC wrest the Commissioner's Cup back?
Well, the match-ups aren't fantastic for the Big Ten. Unlike last year, where I was quite certain that the ACC was the lesser league but was still going to tie up the challenge, I don't have a good idea of what's going to happen. If the Big Ten is able to salvage a 3-3 split the first day, odds look very good for keeping the Challenge trophy. For handy comparison's sake, I've listed the records and KenPom standings (as of Sunday, 12/1) after the team names.
Illinois (7-0, #47) at Georgia Tech (5-3, #113)
This is perhaps the bellwether game for the entire contest. Pomeroy's laptop says Illinois is a much better team than the Yellowjackets, but that game against IPFW makes me a bit nervous. But GT just lost to Ole Miss and St. John's by double digits, teams that played very much at the level of Penn State. I was thinking of this game as a coin flip, and was going to pick the home team, but... looking over the advanced stats, Georgia Tech doesn't shoot very well, and has a hard time making other teams miss. Gotta go with the Illini.
Indiana (6-1, #29) at Syracuse (7-0, #14)
The Hoosiers have a puncher's chance, and I'd feel a lot better about their chances if the game was in Bloomington. I don't like going against a tricky defense on the road with largely underclassmen in the rotation, and the outside shooting has been woeful this season. However, IU has been dominant on the offensive glass, and that was one area of weakness teams could use beat the Orange last season. Syracuse, as might be expected with a freshman point phenom Tyler Ennis, has been a little sloppy with the ball. However, that's mostly on leading scorer CJ Fair, who is averaging an almost-shocking 3.7 turnovers per game. But make no mistake, Jim Boeheim's team just might have as good of a shot to go as far as last year's final four squad. Fair gets a lot of pub, but I've been quite impressed with Trevor Cooney (shooting 45.7% behind the arc and averaging 2.4 steals/game).
Prediction: I would bet on Syracuse, but will root like heck for IU
Penn State (6-2, #72) at Pittsburgh (7-0, #4)
I think KenPom is overrating PSU a little bit. PSU has a chance to be a NIT-worthy team, maybe, but it will require a lot of things going right for the rest of the season. On the other hand, Pitt looks quite good, right now. I've been raving about DJ Newbill and Tim Frazier for the Nittany Lions, but Lamar Patterson is having a great senior year for Pitt. He's upped both his output and efficiency in every statistical category - even decreasing his turnovers. He keeps averaging 17ppg/5rpg/5apg, he's going to get serious national attention.
Prediction: This could get ugly, folks. Pitt by quite a bit.
Michigan (5-2, #21) at Duke (6-2, #27)
Duke's coming off a tough loss in NYC to Arizona. Look for them to punish Michigan in front of the home crowd. If McGary were operating at 100%, the Wolverines might be able to cause problems in Cameron, but I suspect he steps off the bus with 3 fouls. I don't like the Dukies giant gaping hole at center, but Michigan hasn't sorted out its identity yet.
Notre Dame (4-1, #66) at Iowa (7-1, #9)
Wildly contrasting styles should make this an interesting contest, but Iowa likely prevails at home. The only thing that could throw a curveball here is Iowa's tired legs, coming fresh off an OT loss that was their third game in 3 days. What I think mitigates this is 1) Iowa's impressive depth, which should be hard for Notre Dame to handle, and 2) that this is a veteran Hawkeye squad, who is used to playing the ...uh, "deliberate" style that Mike Brey teams are known for, and 3) a couple of days of rest before hosting the Irish.
Florida State (5-2, #34) at Minnesota (6-2, #45)
FSU is likely the better team, but Minny's got enough to spring an upset. Looking at the records and the talent on hand, it seems to me that Minnesota is overrated by KenPom right now, and FSU is, if anything, underrated. Also, FSU felt pretty embarassed about their lack of effort in last year's loss to the Gophers. Maybe that carries over to this year? Given that the Seminoles tend to succeed by going to the offensive glass and drawing fouls, this game could expose Richard Pitino's short bench. This is a bit of a coinflip game, and then again Florida State often seems not to do that well in the challenge. When it's 50-50, I think it best to go with the home team.
Maryland (5-2, #42) at Ohio State (6-0, #2)
This one seems pretty simple. The Terrapins have point guard issues, and the Buckeyes are stocked with two point guard destroyers (Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott). It's hard to imagine Maryland having much success running their offense in Columbus.
Wisconsin (8-0, #16) at Virginia (7-1, #12)
Despite KenPom's ratings actually underrating the Badgers, I think the Badgers *should* win, but they usually disappoint in the Challenge. I mean, there's a revenge factor maybe, as the Cavs beat UW in Madison last season, but I don't think Wisconsin is that much better this season that they can pay the Cavs back in their house.
Northwestern (4-4, #117) at North Carolina State (4-2, #83)
Wait, the Wildcats have 4 losses already? That was quick. I'm not optimistic on the Wolfpack this season, but Chris Collins will have a tough return trip to North Carolina. Maybe Collins can find someone to slow down TJ Warren, but I kind of think Warren's going to have a career day. And y'know... NU just isn't that good.
North Carolina (4-1, #11) at Michigan State (7-0, #5)
North Carolina is looking like the best ACC team after all. Well, after Syracuse & Pitt... so, the best team that was playing in the ACC last year. That also won't help them against the Spartans. UNC has a nice win over Louisville, but MSU's win over Kentucky is maybe more impressive. UNC's win felt like an upset, MSU beating Kentucky... not so much. And I'm betting Gary Harris, et al, should be rested and ready for the Tarheels.
Prediction: Michigan State
Boston College (3-4, #85) at Purdue (6-2, #112)
Purdue's had some disappointing outings, to be sure, but BC has 4 losses and needed OT to escape a home match with Sacred Heart. The Boilermakers didn't play awesome against Siena today, but they've tended to bounce back after a crappy performance. Kenpom ratings or no, I can't see the Eagles showing up Purdue in Mackey. Purdue also is tied with Illinois for most consecutive wins in the challenge (with 4).
Miami (FL) (4-3, #128) at Nebraska (5-2, #116)
Miami is not very good this year. Nebraska's not great, but they can defend their home court. Miami has losses to George Washington, Central Florida, and St. Francis (NY) already. The Hurricanes' leading scorers, Garry Adams and Rion Brown can do a bit of everything, except shoot well. The Cornhuskers should be able to answer with Shavoin Shields and Terran Petteway, and Deverell Biggs appears to be stepping up as a clutch scorer.
I was picking the ACC in a close one, but after looking at some advanced stats (especially effective shooting percentage), the Big Ten looks better. Some of the games I picked will certainly fall out differently than I am guessing at here, but I think the odds lean towards a 7-5 Big Ten victory right now. It could go either way, but right now I like the Big Ten's chances. I just wish the Hoosiers were hosting Syracuse.