College Basketball is Alive and Well Out West

Posted by Bennet Hayes on January 7th, 2014

We have heard plenty about the perceived “East Coast bias” with respect to media coverage of American sport, but when it comes to recent college basketball history, let’s face facts: The Western half of the United States hasn’t done a whole lot for us. No team situated west of Kansas has reached the Final Four since UCLA did it in 2008, and Arizona and Oregon are the only Western programs to even reach a Sweet Sixteen in the last two seasons (both did so last March). The Pac-12, undoubtedly the West’s signature conference, has suffered through a historically depressed string of seasons, with the nadir coming in 2012, when the national polls were “Pac-free” from February on and the league quite nearly went without an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. But the Pac-12 – and much of the rest of the West – is back. Arizona’s steady, month-long reign atop the polls may be the most glaring example of the western resurgence, but a pair of Sunday victories — authored by San Diego State and Colorado – serves notice that the Wildcats may not be the only elite team along the left coast.

San Diego State Seized One Of The Signature Victories Of The Season, And Steve Fisher's Tenure, Sunday At Allen Fieldhouse

San Diego State Seized One Of The Signature Victories Of The Season, And Steve Fisher’s Tenure, Sunday at Allen Fieldhouse

The loudest clamor for respect undoubtedly came from Lawrence, where Steve Fisher’s Aztecs shocked Kansas (and just about everybody else across the country) in ending the Jayhawks’ 68-game home winning streak over non-conference opponents. The final result alone inspires awe, but even more impressive was how San Diego State achieved that end. The Aztecs were unfazed by the bright lights and raucous energy of Allen Fieldhouse; they led for every second of the final 32 minutes of the game. The trademarks of the program that Steve Fisher has built – toughness and physicality on both ends of the floor – were on full display, as the Aztecs snatched 51 rebounds (12 more than the Jayhawks) and harassed Kansas into a 17-of-57 effort from the field.

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New Year’s Resolution For Power Conference Teams? No More Cupcakes – Conference Play Is Here

Posted by Bennet Hayes on January 4th, 2014

With conference play arriving almost everywhere this weekend (it’s about time!), let’s take a peek at some of the major Saturday (and a few Sunday) games and storylines in college basketball’s seven major conferences.

Say What You Want About The AAC, But The New League Will Pose A New Challenge For Memphis: Real Tests In January And February. The First Of Those Examinations Comes Today Against Cincinnati.

Say What You Want About The AAC, But The Recently-Birthed League Will Pose A New Challenge For Memphis: Real Tests In January And February. The First Of Those Examinations Comes Today Against Cincinnati.

AAC. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the first-ever weekend of American Athletic Conference basketball! OK, so maybe it isn’t that exciting, but an old Conference USA matchup does offer the league a headlining game on 2014’s first Saturday. Cincinnati visits Memphis (12:00 ET, ESPN2) in an early match-up of presumed upper-echelon AAC teams, but look elsewhere if you seek a battle of stylistic comrades; the deliberate, defensively stout Bearcats (286th nationally in tempo, eighth in defensive efficiency) will look to put the clamps on an explosive Memphis squad that rarely presses the pause button (39th nationally in tempo, 19th in offensive efficiency). UConn and SMU, both 0-1 in league play, offer an alternate viewing option (2:00 ET, ESPNU), and with a visit to Louisville coming next, Larry Brown’s SMU team would be well served to get a win Saturday to avoid staring down the barrel of an 0-3 league start.

ACC. Will there be life after Jerian Grant for Notre Dame? If yes, then a visit from Duke (4:00 ET, CBS) will offer the Irish the chance to provide a more convincing affirmation than they offered in their first game without Grant – a gut-check overtime victory over Canisius. Garrick Sherman should have a chance to exploit the smallish Duke interior, no matter what Doug Gottlieb thinks about his beard. Elsewhere, Pitt and Syracuse join Notre Dame in making their ACC debuts. The Panthers visit NC State (12:00 ET, ESPN3), while the Orange play host to Miami (2:00 ET, ESPN3). And if you like defense, two of the nation’s 10 most efficient defensive units are set to meet in Tallahassee; Virginia and Florida State (5:00 ET, ESPN2) will tussle in a race to 50 between ACC sleepers.

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Assessing Louisville’s Frontcourt Issues Looking Forward

Posted by Chris Johnson on December 30th, 2013

(Ed. note: this post was largely written prior to Monday afternoon’s news that forward Chane Behanan had been dismissed from the team, making a dire frontcourt situation even worse. Inconsistent as he was through the early part of the season, Behanan has proven that, when engaged, he can be an effective scorer and rebounder. The Cardinals will need to adjust to recreate his lost production.)

On Sunday, one day after Louisville fell, 73-66, to in-state rival Kentucky at Rupp Arena, Cardinals coach Rick Pitino took to his website to address some issues he feels his team needs to address as it prepares for American Athletic Conference play (which begins New Year’s Eve, when the Cardinals play at Central Florida). Chief among them was what Pitino perceives as a weak frontcourt. The analogy he uses to make this point is probably the funniest thing you’ve heard a college basketball coach say since Barry Hinson went rogue in a now-famous postgame press conference earlier this month. “Let me give you an analogy of our frontcourt knowing who they are. It’s like having Christina Aguilera to sing at a concert, she comes out, ignores her great voice and dances for two hours. That’s our front court,” Pitino writes. Later in his post, the Hall-of-Famer points out specific players… and name-checks another pop star. “In other words, Montrezl and Chane – Need to dominate the paint. Rebound like Kenneth Faried , defend like Dennis Rodman, block shots and dunk.  Score off rip moves and leave the dancing to Justin Timberlake.”

Did Saturday's loss to Kentucky reveal major problems in Louisville's frontcourt? (Getty Images).

Behond Behanan’s dismissal, did Saturday’s loss to Kentucky reveal major problems in Louisville’s frontcourt? (Getty Images).

If you watched Saturday night’s game, wherein Kentucky’s forwards outplayed Louisville’s, Pitino’s assessment might sound accurate. The Cardinals looked overmatched on the low block. Most fans and media came to the same conclusion. The question is, what does Louisville’s underwhelming frontcourt play on Saturday night augur for the rest of the season? Is the Cardinals’ frontcourt so flawed, especially with the Monday loss of Chane Behanan, to the point it can’t be fixed in time for them to compete for a national championship? Is there nothing Pitino can do between now and March to make his team’s frontcourt better? Do I need to go back and listen to all of Christina Aguilera’s albums to find out?

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Weekend Storylines: Exams Over, But Tests on the Court Just Beginning

Posted by Bennet Hayes on December 28th, 2013

Here’s to hoping that this week brought you plenty of holiday cheer, because it surely did not supply you (or anyone else!) with much quality college basketball. Entertaining Diamond Head Classic final aside, this week was as slow as the college basketball season gets. Don’t despair, however, because Santa has delivered a Saturday chalk-full of college hoops. Two big-time rivalry games occupy the prime real estate on this weekend’s marquee, but there’s plenty of substance, albeit understated, sprinkled throughout Saturday’s docket of action. Here’s a quick primer on the big games in Syracuse and Lexington, plus a few other worthwhile narratives to monitor on this busy Saturday.

For The First Time In Over Three Decades, Syracuse And Villanova Will Meet As Non-Conference Opponents

For The First Time In Over Three Decades, Syracuse And Villanova Will Meet As Non-Conference Opponents

A Couple Of Old Big East Friends

In the world of college basketball, eleven months is far from an eternity, but my, oh my; how things have changed since the last time Villanova and Syracuse locked horns! What was a Big East conference game last January will be an ACC versus (new) Big East affair today (2PM EST, CBS), and with both teams set to embark on their maiden voyages in the new leagues next week, the Carrier Dome will serve as the clinic for anyone needing one final dose of Big East nostalgia. Subplots abound in this game, but I’ll be especially interested to see how Villanova attacks the Syracuse zone. The Wildcats haven’t been a bad offensive team to this point in the season, but the Cats’ statistical breakdown on the offensive end puzzles. Villanova is 18th best in the country in two-point field goal percentage (55.1%), also shoots the ball pretty well from the stripe (72.2%), but struggles from beyond the arc (204th nationally in 3P% at 32.7%). With those splits, you’d expect Jay Wright’s team to focus their efforts inside the three-point line. So far, however, they’ve done the exact opposite – the Wildcats are 7th in the country when it comes to percentage of field goal attempts from three-point range (45.7%). Will the chucking continue against an Orange zone that begs opponents to settle for deep shots (43.1% of Syracuse opponent’s field goal attempts are threes), or can the Wildcats throw aside this bit of statistical dissonance and find a way to get quality interior looks against the zone? Remains to be seen, but expect 30,000+ to get a first-hand view of the answer.

Battle For The Bluegrass 

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“Fire Rick Barnes?” Not So Fast…

Posted by Chris Johnson on December 19th, 2013

One of the things college basketball observers thought they knew to be true heading into the 2013-14 season was that Texas coach Rick Barnes’ tenure was nearing its end. He was doomed to be fired at (or possibly before) the end of the season, was the thinking. It wasn’t a matter of if, but when. Last season, the Longhorns missed the NCAA Tournament and lost more games than they had won for the first time under Barnes. It was the second consecutive year his team didn’t post a winning record in Big 12 play – after finishing above .500 against league competition the previous 13 years. Texas hasn’t advanced past the round of 32 in the Tournament since 2008, and Barnes’ recruiting prowess had seemingly eroded to unthinkable depths; of Scout. com’s 21 top-40 recruits from Texas in the past seven recruiting classes, only one (2012 center Cameron Ridley) had signed to play with the Longhorns, according to Gary Parrish. There was plenty of talk that Barnes – who in the past had brought in such top prospects as Avery Bradley, Daniel Gibson, Damion James, Cory Joseph, Kevin Durant, LaMarcus Aldridge, D.J. Augustin, Myck Kabongo and Tristan Thompson — had lost the drive and energy to recruit top prospects as persistently as he once did. Sources who spoke to Parrish said, “Barnes became disenchanted with the off-court grind it takes to maintain a certain level of success.”

One of the biggest positive surprises early this season is 10-1 Texas (Getty Images).

One of the biggest positive surprises early this season has been 10-1 Texas (Getty Images).

Top-ranked 2014 point guard Emmanuel Mudiay’s commitment to SMU in August was seen less as a promising development for Mustangs hoops than an indictment of Barnes’ inability to recruit in-state talent. Not only did Mudiay, who is projected as the fifth overall pick in DraftExpress’ 2015 mock draft, spurn Texas – he didn’t even consider the Longhorns one of his final choices. Things looked even bleaker when former Texas Director of Athletics DeLoss Dodds, long an ardent supporter of Barnes, announced on October 1 he was stepping down. A week later, Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel released a comprehensive report on the state of Texas’ athletic department that included quotes from Dodds and an anonymous high-ranking athletic department official that seemed to add credence to the widespread speculation that Barnes’ job was in danger. “I worry more about basketball,” Dodds told Thamel. “If I were going to pick one [program] to worry more about, I worry more about basketball.” Said the official, “I can’t imagine [Barnes] turning it around.” Another reason why Barnes’ job security appeared so tenuous heading into the season? His top four-scorers from 2012-13 (Kabongo, Sheldon McClellan, Julien Lewis, and Ioannis Papapetrou) had, either by way of transfer or signing professional contracts, left the program. The writing was on the wall for Barnes. His long and mostly successful stint as Texas’ coach had run its course, it seemed. He had virtually no hope of turning things around.

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Three Questions Previewing Duke and UCLA Tonight

Posted by Brian Otskey on December 19th, 2013

When Duke and UCLA lock horns for the first time in 11 years tonight at Madison Square Garden in New York City (7:30 PM EST, ESPN), plenty of offensive fireworks figure to be on display. These teams are elite offensively with UCLA ranking third nationally in points per game at 89.1 and Duke not too far behind at 86.0. For as potent as these teams are offensively, their defenses leave a lot to be desired. What we have is a recipe for an up-tempo game, lots of points, and a fun viewing experience. There are also plenty of intriguing match-ups in this game when you look at each squad’s style of play. While their statistics are similar, the teams are constructed very differently. Let’s take a look at three key questions that will decide the result of this contest.

Steve Alford, UCLA

Steve Alford Brings His Bruins to MSG to Face Duke Tonight (Damian Dovarganes/AP)

1. Can UCLA guard the three-point line?

Much has been made of Duke’s defensive issues but defense has also been a problem for Steve Alford’s Bruins, especially when it comes to guarding the all-important three-point line. The Bruins’ 2-3 zone was torched by Missouri in their only loss of the season back on December 7. Missouri made 10 threes which proved to be the primary difference in the game. As a whole, Duke shoots 42 percent from beyond the arc and 45 percent of all Blue Devils’ field goal attempts are triples. Mike Krzyzewski’s team features four lethal perimeter threats and that may be too much for the Bruins to handle. While UCLA’s zone may help contain Duke’s versatile forwards from cutting to the basket, it opens the door for a Blue Devil three-point bombardment. Alford may be forced to extend the zone but his team’s performance will come down to the effort of guards like Norman Powell and a pair of freshmen (Zach LaVine and Bryce Alford) getting out to cover Duke’s shooters.

2. Will Duke be able to prevent UCLA from getting into the paint?

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UConn’s Statistical Profile Suggests a Correction is Coming, But How Far?

Posted by Bennet Hayes on December 19th, 2013

Entering Wednesday night’s game against Stanford, it may have been easy for UConn fans to forget about “what could have been.” Because while snake-bitten teams like to dream about where they would be with a made shot here or a missed one there, the blessed teams inevitably fail to remember just how thin that line between winning and losing actually was. After all, a win is a win, right? Or in UConn’s case, nine wins was nine wins; hence the top 10 ranking and quickly escalating expectations. But if any Huskies – players, coaches or fans – forgot that their four best victories of the young season came by a total of five points, Wednesday night’s last-second loss surely reminded them that winning and losing can often look — if not feel — very similar. But should there be cause for concern in Storrs? Or would pressing the panic button make me us just as hyper-reactionary as those who anointed Shabazz Napier and company Final Four contenders after the win over Florida? Both are fair questions, but after a clunker of a second half turned in by the Huskies, I’m wondering just how much better this UConn team is than the last.

Thursday's Loss To Stanford Notwithstanding, Shabazz Napier And Ryan Boatright Have Had A Lot To Laugh About So Far This Season. Do Tougher Times Lie Ahead For The Huskies?

Thursday’s Loss To Stanford Notwithstanding, Shabazz Napier And Ryan Boatright Have Had A Lot To Laugh About So Far This Season. Do Tougher Times Lie Ahead For The Huskies?

Last season’s Huskies were far from bad. They went 20-10 (10-8 in the Big East), and finished 47th in KenPom’s final rankings. But much like the current UConn iteration, they didn’t enjoy taking care of business until the final seconds of the game – and often in the five minutes that followed. Kevin Ollie’s first team went 5-2 in overtime contests, and played a total of nine extra periods over the course of the season. Needless to say, their smoke and mirrors stuff didn’t just get started last month.

Last year’s encouraging season elicited hope that better days were ahead. Unfortunately, little besides the raw record has hinted that this team is prepared to reward that optimism. Production is actually down for a number of key regulars — most notably Ryan Boatright and Omar Calhoun. Boatright actually has a lower offensive rating this season than last, despite shooting an unsustainable 42 percent from three-point range so far (he nailed 33 percent last season). Calhoun’s drop-off has been far more precipitous; his points, rebounds, and assists per game are all down — as are his percentages from the field and three.

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How Shocking Would a Perfect Wichita State Regular Season Be?

Posted by Bennet Hayes on December 18th, 2013

Last March, they were college basketball’s flavor of the month. This season, the Wichita State Shockers may be spending more than just a few weeks as the taste of the town. With Tuesday night’s 72-67 victory over Alabama now in the books, there’s nothing but clear skies and smooth sailing ahead for Gregg Marshall’s team. Old MVC foil Creighton is now competing in the Big East, and with a concluding schedule that features just one current top-100 team, the prospects of a WSU perfect regular season may have just bounded over that line separating dreams from reality. The Shockers should be favorites, and usually heavy ones, in every one of its contests from here on out. But all that isn’t to say that Wichita State is likely to complete this monumental task. No historian is needed to examine the case of 2012 Murray State; those Racers could tell you how owning a loss-column “0” makes February wins that much more of a chore. Opposing teams play harder, their fans cheer louder, and all the while, the national spotlight grows ever brighter. So, no the job won’t be easy. But pair a tough, talented Shockers team with that manageable remaining schedule, and you at least give the laser-focused Marshall a shot at steering them through unblemished.

Gregg Marshall's Team Improved To 11-0 With A Win In Tuscaloosa Tuesday Night. Don't Hold Your Breath -- It Might Be Awhile Before The Shockers Perfect Beginning Ends.

Gregg Marshall’s Team Improved To 11-0 With A Win In Tuscaloosa Tuesday Night. Don’t Hold Your Breath — It Might Be Awhile Before Anyone Messes With The Shockers’ Perfect Start.

If Wichita State ends up being the last team chasing perfection, and Jameer Nelson and his 2004 St. Joe’s team also happens to take their cues from the 1972 Miami Dolphins, then here are the three dates that appear most primed for a Hawks’ champagne party.

January 11 at Missouri State

The Bears failed to show off on Tuesday night, losing 90-60 at Louisville, but they won’t be the last team this season to depart the Yum! Center humbled. Paul Lusk’s team is still 8-2 on the year, and with five eminently winnable games of their own before January 11, they could easily enter this Saturday night date with the Shockers laced with momentum. The Bears were picked to finish fourth in the MVC preseason poll and have done little wrong to this point, but this would stand as a significantly bigger upset than the two games listed below.

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After a Quiet Week On College Hardwood, Weekend Action Set to Heat Things Up

Posted by Bennet Hayes on December 14th, 2013

The end of the winter exam period could not come soon enough for college basketball fans. Yes, we know that it’s important for the kids to take care of their academics, but even the most fervent of followers would have to admit they could only take so many more nights of Bryant being featured in the headline contest of the evening. Nothing against the Bulldogs and their tidy 6-5 start, but this weekend’s spate of entertaining match-ups should help us all regain a little sanity Last night’s Hawkeye State battle served as a worthy appetizer for Saturday’s feast of action, but before you grab the remote and plop down in the front row seat in your living room, check out these four storylines to monitor on Saturday.

Arizona Takes Its #1 Ranking to Ann Arbor Today

Arizona Takes Its #1 Ranking to Ann Arbor Today

Chances For Validation, Redemption In Ann Arbor

It may be hard to believe now, but public perception of Arizona and Michigan was pretty comparable at the start of the year. Needless to say, that is no longer the case. The Wildcats, now also known as the #1 team in the land, get a shot at validating that ranking when they visit Ann Arbor today (12:00 EST, CBS), while the floundering Wolverines will seek to redirect the trajectory of their season. Wins over the #1 team in the country have a way of curing a lot of ills, but it will take a yet-to-be-seen vigor for Michigan to earn that antidote, even on their home floor. Mitch McGary and Jordan Morgan will clash with Aaron Gordon and the rest of that vaunted Arizona front line down low, but keep an eye on the battle of the Ni(c)ks. We saw against Duke how crippling a subpar night from Nik Stauskas can be for the Wolverines; if Nick Johnson’s rep as one of the best stoppers out West carries weight in Ann Arbor, Michigan may again find themselves searching for other scoring outlets. For Michigan, Saturday is an opportunity to prove that the Wolverines still might be who we thought they were; for the Cats, it’s another chance to show us that they are exactly who we think they are.

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What Pomeroy Knows About The Current Top 25 That You Might Not

Posted by Bennet Hayes on December 13th, 2013

It’s happened to many a college basketball fan (hopefully not just me). You pull up kenpom.com, just needing to check Doug McDermott’s offensive rating, or Syracuse’s adjusted tempo. You quickly accomplish your goal, but 45 minutes later, Doug McDermott’s offensive rating has morphed, several times over, into a glance at individual seasons similar to Joe Trapani’s 2007 campaign at Vermont. Fortunately, I am not here to discuss John Shurna’s freshman year (one such similar season), and instead, I’ll spare you a bit of KenPom wandering. Via college basketball’s statistical maestro, here are four takeaways in comparing his metrics with the current AP Top 25.

The Folks In The Oakland Zoo Are Probably In Agreement With Ken Pom's Take On Their Panthers; After A 9-0 Start, Pitt Is #4 With Pomeroy, But Still Unranked In The AP Poll

The Folks In The Oakland Zoo Are Probably In Agreement With KenPom’s Take On Their Panthers; After A 9-0 Start, Pitt Is #4 With Pomeroy, But Still Unranked In The AP Poll

Most Overrated/Underrated

KenPom’s ratings are never a perfect match with the polls. Expect the two evaluative systems to converge a bit as the year progresses, but let’s note the teams with the most decisive split of opinion at the moment. On the plus side of things, Pittsburgh sits at #4 in KenPom’s ratings, despite having not yet entered the AP poll. The potentially underrated (at least by AP voters) Panthers were third in “receiving votes” last week after a 9-0 start to the year. One of the teams that beat the Panthers into the poll was the Missouri Tigers, yet they rest some 37 slots below Pitt at #41 in KenPom’s rankings. Mizzou hasn’t done anything wrong yet – the Tigers are also 9-0 and coming off consecutive victories over West Virginia and UCLA – but Pomeroy’s model doesn’t yet view them as an elite squad. Other teams that pollsters are a bit keener on include Colorado (#37), San Diego State (#40), and UConn (#21).

Extremes Of The Youth Movement

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Misperceptions and Missed Perceptions: Reviewing Some Preseason Predictions

Posted by Bennet Hayes on December 5th, 2013

With four weeks of basketball now in the books, it’s time to take a quick glance back at some of the things we thought we knew in the preseason. Some notions have proved accurate, but early results have tested a slew of preseason hypotheses that we once felt confident in. Here are a few examples, on both sides of the ledger:

We Thought We Knew…

Andy Enfield Was the New Coach Bringing Exciting Offensive Basketball to LA

There Has Been Nothing Slow About Steve Alford's And UCLA's First Four Weeks

There Has Been Nothing Slow About Steve Alford’s And UCLA’s First Four Weeks

We weren’t the only ones who thought it was USC, with Andy Enfield now at the helm – and not UCLA, with new head man Steve Alford — which was going to be lighting up Pac-12 scoreboards in the City of Angels this winter. Back in October, Enfield told his players, “if you want to play slow, go to UCLA.” Well, USC isn’t playing slow – they are 33rd nationally in possessions per game –but they are playing slower than the Bruins, which are six spots ahead of them in that category. And if this first month means anything, perhaps Enfield should have also advised any of his players who enjoy scoring, winning, or both, to plan that transfer across town. USC is 5-3, with just one win against a team in KenPom’s top 230 (!!!) and an offensive efficiency that ranks them 170th nationally. UCLA, on the other hand, is 8-0 and averaging more than 90 PPG behind the 7th-most efficient offense in the country. Now, there is a necessary asterisk here: Alford inherited significantly more talent at his disposal than Enfield did. Even so, it was Enfield – not Alford — who invited the cross-town comparisons. The Dunk City architect better have something besides his mouth working by the time USC visits Pauley Pavilion on January 5; otherwise, his Trojans are firmly at risk of getting run out of Westwood, and contrary to popular belief, there would be nothing slow about it.  

The Complection of the Top of the Big 12

At this point, expecting Kansas to win the Big 12 generally equates to peeping out a Southern California window and looking for the sun in the morning. The Jayhawks may not have played their way out of the preseason expectation to win the Big 12 again this year, but they should have company at the top this time around. Marcus Smart and Oklahoma State, post play deficiencies aside, have looked every bit the part of Big 12 title contenders themselves, and many would now peg the Cowboys as Big 12 favorites (including yours truly). Kansas State and Baylor were next in line after the Pokes and Jayhawks a month ago, but the Wildcats have suffered through a miserable opening month, while Baylor has looked as shaky as a 7-1 team with two top-40 victories can look, with two of those wins coming against non-D-I competition and three of the other five earned with a final margin of victory of five points or fewer. Iowa State now looks like the team ready to take a step up in class. The Cyclones, 7-0 with a pair of top-40 victories of their own, could easily enter the Big 12 season undefeated and prepared to further shake up a suddenly unpredictable conference race.

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Winners and Losers from the 15th Annual ACC/Big Ten Challenge

Posted 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:

Winners

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.

UNC celebrates huge win over No. 1 Michigan State (credit: goheels.com)

UNC celebrates huge win over No. 1 Michigan State (credit: goheels.com)

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.

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