Looking Forward to the 2011 Challenge Week Already

Posted by zhayes9 on May 25th, 2011

Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist for Rush the Court.

It’s about time the SEC and Big East followed suit.

Last week, those two esteemed conferences made it official: they plan on following the path set by the ACC and Big Ten, expanding their annual showdown to include (nearly) all members in a nationally televised spectacle creating enticing matchups that most cautious coaches would normally eschew (exception: Tom Izzo). The ACC/Big Ten Challenge, buoyed by ESPN’s services and the strangely captivating quest for the Big Ten to finally upend their ACC counterparts, has been a roaring success since its inception even through peaks and valleys in terms of talent level.

The lone saving grace once the excitement of the Thanksgiving tournaments have died down is remembering that the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and all it offers is right around the corner. Next December, the SEC and Big East have agreed to double our fun, expanding to 12 teams each. Although the dissection of each game won’t fully get underway until well after the leaves change colors, here are some of the matchups, individual and team, that jumped out to me as soon as the games were announced:

Florida backcourt vs. Syracuse backcourt – Two teams with Final Four aspirations next season for one primary reason: the strength of returnees and newcomers in their backcourts. Florida, periodically to their detriment, are overly reliant on their diminutive backcourt duo of point guard Erving Walker and three-point gunner Kenny Boynton, a trend that won’t recede with the departure of both Chandler Parsons and Vernon Macklin from the front line. Two-guard extraordinaire Brad Beal might be the best of the pack the minute he steps on campus as a pinpoint shooter and ace defender and Scottie Wilbekin saw ample time as an underage freshman. Syracuse has Big East title aspirations mostly due to their experienced backcourt returnees and double digit scorers: two-year starter Brandon Triche and fifth-year senior Scoop Jardine. Throw in combo guard Michael Carter-Williams, a McDonalds All-American that can spell Triche at the point and also fill it up, elite shooter Trevor Cooney and scorer Dion Waiters (provided he smoothes things over with his coach) and the Orange are even more stocked than the Gators in their backcourt. As it almost always the case: it’s a guard’s world, we’re just living in it.

Scoop Jardine spearheads a loaded Cuse backcourt

Jeffery Taylor vs. Kyle Kuric – Other than possibly Duke-Ohio State (couldn’t Carolina have paid a visit to Columbus or was Roy Williams not too anxious to embark?), the best matchup set by the powers-that-be are potential #1/#2 seeds Louisville and Vanderbilt butting heads. This winter is shaping up to be the most exciting season in Vandy basketball history provided they tighten up their defense and avoid yet another first round collapse. Those expectations were set when John Jenkins, Festus Ezeli and Jeffery Taylor, the latter a possible lottery pick, elected to skip the draft waters and return to Nashville. Taylor’s offensive repertoire has expanded since arriving on campus, but he’s always been known as a star defender because of his outstanding athleticism, length and ability to guard multiple positions. He may not face a more imposing threat in 2011-12 than Kyle Kuric, the sneaky quick and bouncy sharpshooter from Louisville that connected on 45% of his treys as a junior. Watching Taylor chase around Kuric for 35 minutes should be a sight to behold.

Duke vs. true road non-conference game – It’s no secret that Duke participating in a non-conference true road game is a rarity. Other than an occasional visit to Georgetown, St. John’s or an ACC/Big Ten matchup in the last few years, Coach K has mostly avoided playing on opposing home floors, much to the chagrin of Duke-haters searching for any point of criticism. The schedule makers in Durham may have a point; after all, Duke is 79-33 in ACC true road games since 1997. Instead, Coach K prefers neutral floors that more closely resemble an NCAA Tournament setting or trips to arenas like Madison Square Garden where Duke alumni/fans pack the lower bowl.  Every other year or so, the Challenge forces the Blue Devils to play a true road game in early December. Three years ago, a trip to Purdue ended in a resounding victory while 2009’s venture to the Wisconsin death trap known as the Kohl Center ended in heartbreak and the Big Ten’s first Challenge title. In store this season may be the hardest of the trio: likely #3 Ohio State and returnees Jared Sullinger, William Buford and Aaron Craft, not to mention breakout candidate DeShaun Thomas and a typically loaded Buckeye recruiting class.

Up tempo North Carolina vs. plodding Wisconsin – Ah, yes, the ultimate contrast of styles match wits in Chapel Hill in one of the premier games of the ACC/Big Ten version. Last year painted a normal picture of how these two successful programs operate: Wisconsin’s swing, slow-paced, Gene Hackman at the beginning of Hoosiers, minimal-turnover offensive philosophy ranked #344 in the country in tempo, speedier than only Denver. Carolina, on the other end, ranked #16 in the nation in tempo and likely would have placed higher had Kendall Marshall been their point guard from day one. Amazingly, Roy Williams’ Carolina teams have never finished below #30 in adjusted tempo. This isn’t an indictment or criticism of either style: Bo Ryan’s incredible record of success and Williams’ two national titles show either style can churn out a winning product. It’ll be fascinating to see such a contrast play out at the Dean Dome, though. For the Badgers to have any chance, they’ll need possessions limited. Jordan Taylor springing for 40 wouldn’t hurt, either.

C.J. Leslie vs. Christian Watford – Two players that could really make a leap next season will match up when Indiana faces NC State in Raleigh. Leslie was viewed by most as a potential one-and-done, but as was often the case during his high school career, the talent didn’t always match the production. Still, Leslie showed glimpses of future stardom and averaged 11/7 as a true freshman. Watford upped Leslie with 16 per contest as the Hoosiers’ leading scorer, featuring an impressive and still-improving stroke from the outside as a matchup nightmare at the power forward position because of his ability to take his man off the dribble. Watford clearly has more of a scoring feel at this point, while Leslie is superior athletically and on the boards. An underrated one-on-one matchup worth keeping an eye on.

Reggie Johnson vs. JaJuan-less Purdue frontcourt – I’m not at all willing to endorse Purdue’s demise following the graduations of E’Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson. In fact, I still view them as a top 25 team. Matt Painter will insist his troops defend as hard as ever and there’s plenty of hope for the Paint Crew with Robbie Hummel healthy, Lewis Jackson running the point and capable shooters in Ryne Smith and D.J. Byrd lining the perimeter. Similar to the majority of Miami’s competition in 2011-12, 300-pound Hurricanes center Reggie Johnson poses an enormous (pun intended) matchup challenge. The 6’10 behemoth not only has the frame, but his flirtation with the NBA and solid averages as a sophomore in the ACC hints at an ability to match. Unless Travis Carroll or Sandi Marcius have monstrous offseasons in the weight room or JaJuan Johnson is rewarded a fifth year of eligibility, Miami’s Johnson could single-handedly swing this potentially crucial swing matchup to the Canes.

Kentucky fans can intimidate a team full of freshmen like St. John's

St. John’s youth vs. Rupp Arena – Dwayne Polee’s recent decision to transfer closer to his Los Angeles home opened up the door for something quite remarkable, even in today’s one-and-done era: five freshmen starting for a major conference team. The departure of ten seniors and an incoming class ranked #3 in the country by ESPN has created a perfect storm rendering such a notion distinctly possible. Only junior guard Malik Stith, a 12 MPG contributor last season and capable reserve, returns. Depending on how Stith performs during October practice, a starting five of freshmen if Lavin is comfortable enough with D’Angelo Harrison at the point. You can imagine Lav’s reaction when he got word his youthful Red Storm would have to visit — gulp- likely #2 Kentucky and their plethora of first-round draft picks in intimidating Rupp Arena in their SEC/Big East Challenge game. Although practically unwinnable, the experience will be infinitely valuable for Lavin’s group and could pay dividends down the road once these freshmen develop into juniors and seniors.

Arkansas freshmen vs. Connecticut sophomores – If these challenges weren’t competitive enough with conference bragging rights firmly on the line, one could conclude there’s no better tutor for the ultra-talented five-man Razorback recruiting class than the now-sophomores up in Storrs. Moments after officially signing on to his dream job in Fayetteville, Mike Anderson’s first task was to make absolutely sure the impressive class reeled in by former headman John Pelphrey remained intact — outstanding point guard prospect B.J. Young, combo guard playmaker Ky Madden, skilled big Hunter Mickelson and forwards Aaron Ross and Devonte Abron. Although Rotnei Clarke and Marshawn Powell return for the Razorbacks, Arkansas’ version of the Fab Five will be asked to carry a major load early in the process. An NCAA Tournament berth, even in the improved SEC, is a realistic expectation. Who better for Young, Madden, Mickelson and Co. to emulate than Connecticut’s returning sophomores Jeremy Lamb, Shabazz Napier, Roscoe Smith, Niels Giffey and Tyler Olander, key components of the Huskies’ national title team that dealt with heaps of unanticipated pressure with poise, character and aplomb. Arkansas’ young core would be wise to emulate their counterparts next season.

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One response to “Looking Forward to the 2011 Challenge Week Already”

  1. BOtskey says:

    This will be an awesome week. How about some early predictions?

    ACC winners: Georgia Tech, Virginia, Clemson, NC State, North Carolina.
    Big Ten winners: Purdue, Illinois, Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska.

    Big East winners: Seton Hall, Syracuse, Connecticut, Rutgers, Pittsburgh.
    SEC winners: Alabama, South Carolina, Kentucky, Mississippi, Georgia, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State.

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