Winners and Losers from the 15th Annual ACC/Big Ten ChallengePosted by Lathan Wells on December 5th, 2013
The 2013-14 ACC/Big Ten Challenge had a different look this year thanks to realignment, but for the second consecutive year, the event ended in a 6-6 tie. In the end, the Challenge produced one shocking upset, showcased two Duke players heading in opposite directions, and delivered one game that set basketball back a few decades. Here are several glaring winners and losers from this year’s version:
1) North Carolina. The most confusing team in the country went into East Lansing and knocked off the top-ranked Spartans, despite only an average night scoring the basketball by Marcus Paige. Sure, there were injury issues on the Spartans’ side, but the ability of this UNC team to bounce back from puzzling losses to knock off powerhouses (Louisville after a home loss to Belmont; Michigan State after a road loss to UAB) speaks volumes about Roy Williams’ ability to motivate a roster he didn’t envision leaning on when the season began.
2) Quinn Cook. Everyone knew about Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood. Most of the questions about the Blue Devils were about the supporting cast. With Rasheed Sulaimon a no-show (more on that later), the inconsistent Cook of a year ago seemed like a different player as he exploited the Michigan backcourt in a solid win Tuesday night. If Cook can consistently hit his outside shot and remain largely turnover-free, a team that appeared to lean heavily on two players suddenly has more versatility at its disposal. Cook’s 24 points and nine turnovers helped keep Duke’s 13-year non-conference home winning streak alive.
3) Iowa. Fighting off a tougher-than-expected challenge from Notre Dame with 57 percent shooting was impressive, but even more impressive was that this was the Hawkeyes’ fourth game in six days. Fran McCaffery’s bunch was coming off a solid showing in the Battle 4 Atlantis, losing only an overtime title game to a very good Villanova squad. Iowa has a solid nucleus in Aaron White, Devyn Marble and Jared Uthoff and has already shown its natural ability to score in bunches. Their resolve in fighting off fatigue and a charging Notre Dame team spoke to their toughness. This is definitely a team worth watching in the Big Ten this season.
4) Ohio State’s offense. A team that struggled shooting the ball early in the year, the Buckeyes lit up Maryland en route to an easy 76-60 Wednesday night win. As it always does, the team’s defense ignited the offense, forcing 14 turnovers that led to 25 points. LaQuinton Ross showed his ability to catch fire, with 17 of his 20 points (including four threes) coming in the first half, while Sam Thompson, Lenzelle Smith, Jr. and Aaron Craft all cracked double-figures for the game. At one point in the second half the Buckeyes led by 25 points before calling off the dogs. With a team that has consistently shown it can lock down opposing offenses, Thad Matta had to be pleased with its well-rounded effort against future Big Ten foe Maryland.
1) Virginia. The fact that the Cavaliers turned in a total of 38 points is the immediate headline, but the ramifications run deeper than that. Joe Harris was rendered completely ineffective (1-of-10 from the field with two points) and no other player scored more than eight points. Again, this is one match-up against a very tough Wisconsin team that has proven over the years to cause offenses to struggle. The problem is that the non-conference schedule for Virginia, along with an uninspiring record against it, doomed Tony Bennett’s team to the NIT last year. The Cavaliers have now hosted VCU and Wisconsin in their building and dropped both games, missing out on two nice chances to pad its resume with a marquee win prior to ACC play. If Virginia is on the bubble again after a tough go in the conference slate, these two losses will loom large.
2) Rasheed Sulaimon. A player who was considered a fringe first-round NBA Draft pick after his freshman season, Sulaimon is now squarely in Coach K’s doghouse. Whether it is a lack of effort or the inability for Coach K to find him a spot on the floor, Sulaimon failing to log a single minute at home against Michigan was startling, to say the least. Jabari Parker scores most of Duke’s points and commands most of their ball-handling from possession to possession; Sulaimon may be a casualty to a superstar. Still, it’s shocking to see one-dimensional defensive specialists like Tyler Thornton or situational shooters like Andre Dawkins steal this athletic wing’s minutes. Something else is going on here.
3) Michigan. The Wolverines’ third loss of the season was hardly a bad one, coming at the hands of Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium. But the team clearly exhibited that it’s a work in progress, starting at the point guard position. Freshman Derrick Walton Jr. was outplayed by Quinn Cook and managed only seven points while turning the ball over three times. Leading scorer Nik Stauskas took only two shots and four points, struggling mightily just to get his hands on the basketball. Glenn Robinson III continued to be a tantalizing talent who can disappear for long stretches. Mitch McGary and Caris Levert did their best to carry the Wolverines, but without consistent contributions from the entire roster this team will continue to struggle. Walton can’t replace reigning NPOY Trey Burke, but he’ll need to play better in marquee games than he did in this one, and Michigan cannot afford for Stauskas to have such a minimal impact on the offensive end. Right now, John Beilein’s team still has significant upside, but that learning curve looks quite a bit longer than many thought prior to the season.
4) Michigan State’s toughness. This isn’t a reference to the myriad injuries that either flared up or befell individual Spartans against North Carolina last night, but the team’s lack of a visceral response to the Tar Heels’ effort. Michigan State fell behind big early, continually getting outhustled and outworked for rebounds and loose balls. And even when they mounted the comeback their home fans expected, it was surprising to see UNC take the Spartans’ best punch and still pull away for a victory. Obviously the nagging injuries to Adreian Payne, Gary Harris and Keith Appling played a role, but Tom Izzo can’t be happy with his team’s overall lack of effort in prime time.