The ACC/Big Ten challenge has been one of the best early season events in college basketball in recent years and offers tons of great basketball over the next three days. The organizers of this event do a great job of pitting together evenly matched teams to create a lot of close contests and intriguing story lines, and they delivered again this season. Here’s a primer and brief preview for the 12 games minus the Miami/Illinois and Clemson/Minnesota games on Monday.
Iowa (5-2) at Syracuse (4-3), 7 PM ESPN2
Syracuse is coming off an 0-2 showing at the Preseason NIT tip-off while Iowa picked up an impressive win over Texas Tech in the Las Vegas Invitational semifinal before falling to San Diego St. in the finals. Syracuse desperately needs a win here, but the Hawkeyes present a very tough match-up for the Orange with an unselfish squad filled with shooters. Look for Iowa to be able to have their way with the Syracuse zone and pull out the road win. It looks like its going to be a long season in Central New York.
Prediction: Iowa 77-65
Northwestern (3-3) at Boston College (4-4), 7 PM ESPNU
Both of these college basketball teams are off to roller coaster starts and would really like a win here to dig themselves out of the basement of the conference standings. As bad as they looked in a 20 point road loss to Richmond on Saturday, I like Derryck Thornton and the Eagles to get the offense going at home and get back on track with a win over the Wildcats.
Prediction: Boston College 70-64
#4 Michigan (7-0) at #1 Louisville (7-0), 7:30 PM ESPN
Thanks to Michigan winning the championship in a loaded Battle 4 Atlantis last week, this has become the most anticipated match-up of the entire challenge. Zavier Simpson has been brilliant running the Wolverines offense thus far, averaging 12 points and nearly 10 assists a game. Louisville’s Jordan Nwora has shown why he was on everyone’s preseason Wooden Award watch list, as he’s averaging 22 points per game and shooting 50% from three point range. Louisville will need big games out of Darius Perry and Lamarr Kimble to get their teammates involved and try to keep up with Simpson, while Michigan hopes Isaiah Livers can keep up his fast start to go punch for punch with Nwora. Both teams are off to scorching hot starts form three point range, and I think this game could come down to whoever keeps that up. I’m leaning towards the Cardinals and their more proven wings to get it done at home.
Prediction: Louisville 81-76
#17 Florida State (7-1) at Indiana (7-0), 9 PM ESPN2
Another match-up that has more intrigue than anticipated in the pre-season, as the Seminoles are fresh off an impressive Emerald Coast Classic tournament championship while the Hoosiers head into this game unbeaten at 7-0, but have yet to face a quality opponent in this college basketball season. Freshman forward Trayce Jackson-Davis is off to a great start averaging a near double-double, but he will have his hands full against the long and athletic Florida State defense.
While the Seminoles are much more battle tested, they’re in a tough spot here with a quick turnaround coming off two very tough games in Florida. I think Florida State’s struggles from three will continue here, and Indiana will be able to score just enough to get the win.
Prediction: Indiana 61-56
Rutgers (6-1) at Pittsburgh (6-2), 9 PM ESPNU
This is a huge college basketball game for both teams trying to keep up their solid starts that offers an excellent match-up of back-courts. Geo Baker and Ron Harper have been great for the Scarlett Knights early, but haven’t seen guards as talented as Xavier Johnson and Trey McGowens yet. I think the Panthers have a more balanced team overall and Johnson will have a big game scoring and distributing the ball in this one.
Prediction: Pittsburgh 73-66
#10 Duke (7-1) at #11 Michigan State (5-2), 9:30 ESPN
This was billed as the best game when match-ups for this challenge were announced, but both of these pre-season top five teams have had some disappointing losses to start the season. However, that just makes this game even more important for both squads who desperately want a signature win that could help turn things around before conference play and go a long way towards seeding come March. While Duke bounced back from their loss to SF Austin with a victory over Winthrop, I believe that loss exposed some clear flaws of this Duke team. The Blue Devils are not where they need to be defensively, and don’t have great shooting or the star power and offensive talent that they had last season. Plus, Cassius Stanley will be out for the next month with a knee injury, and I think Cassius Winston and the Spartans back-court has a clear advantage in this game.
Prediction: Michigan State 83-71
Notre Dame (6-1) at #3 Maryland (8-0), 7:15 PM ESPN
This is a solid match-up to kickoff Wednesday’s college basketball games, as the Fighting Irish head to College Park with a 6-1 record and are well rested to try to knock off a top ten Maryland squad. Maryland forward Jalen Smith is a match-up nightmare for most teams, but the Irish may have an answer for him in Juwan Durham, a 6’11” center that’s averaging 2.4 blocks per game and is one of the ACC’s top post defenders. The Irish have a forward who causes match-up issues as well in John Mooney, an inside/outside scorer averaging an impressive 14 points and 13 rebounds a game. This has the feel of a game where Notre Dame comes in with a great game plan and takes a lead into halftime, but Anthony Cowan and the more athletic Maryland guards take over in the second en route to a come from behind Terps victory.
Prediction: Maryland 71-67
#5 Virginia (7-0) at Purdue (4-3), 7:15 PM ESPN2
The story-line here is will the winner reach 50 points? Virginia has been as stifling as ever on defense this year, surrendering a ridiculous 40.2 points per game through their first seven contests. While the defense has been magnificent once again for the Cavaliers, the offense is struggling to replace their top three scorers from the national title squad and is scoring just 55 points per game. Purdue is off to a similar start, playing strong defense but struggling on offense as they’ve been unable to replace the production of Carsen Edwards and Ryan Kline. This rematch of last year’s elite 8 classic may be tough to watch for most of the game, but should offer a good ending as Purdue looks to pull off the upset at home.
Prediction: Virginia 53-50
Nebraska (4-3) at Georgia Tech (3-2), 7:15 PM ESPNU
Neither team is off to a great start, and this game offers a chance at a quality win over a power five opponent. Nebraska is in a rebuilding year in coach Fred Hoiberg’s first season, and has suffered a couple of disappointing losses early. Georgia Tech has its best team to date under Josh Pastner, but has a couple of heartbreaking losses to quality competition and is hungry for a win. I like the more talented Yellow Jackets to right the ship here and roll in this one.
Prediction: Georgia Tech 77-59
Wisconsin (4-3) at NC State (5-2), 9:15 PM ESPN2
This season is not off to the start that either team wanted, and both are hungry for a win to turn things around and get a quality non-conference win on their tournament resume. NC State has a wealth of options in the back-court led by Markell Johnson and CJ Bryce, but they’ll be challenged by a stout Wisconsin defense. The Badgers have had trouble scoring and need big games out of Brad Davison and D’Mitrik Trice if they want to keep up with the Wolfpack. I like NC State and their plethora of scoring options to prevail.
Prediction: NC State 72-64
Wake Forest (5-3) at Penn State (6-1), 9:15 PM ESPNU
This is an intriguing game where both teams are looking for more respect in college basketball nationally. The Nittany Lions bounced back from a brutal loss versus Ole Miss in the NIT tip off with a statement win over Syracuse in the consolation game and look the part of an NCAA tournament team. Wake Forest gave Arizona all it could handle in the Wooden Legacy tournament title game before falling to the Wildcats by seven. Brandon Childress and Myreon Jones provide an interesting guard match-up, but Lamar Stevens and Mike Watkins give Penn State a clear advantage on the inside and should propel the Nittany Lions for victory.
Prediction: Penn State 78-71
#6 Ohio State (7-0) at #7 North Carolina (6-1), 9:30 PM ESPN
Far and away the top game on Wednesday’s slate, Chapel Hill will be on fire for this battle of top ten teams. All eyes will be on UNC star freshman guard Cole Anthony, but the match-up I’m looking forward to watching that could decide the game is between Tar Heels freshman big Armando Bacot and Ohio State junior Kaleb Wesson. The Buckeyes come into this game well rested and playing great basketball on both ends of the floor, but I think this young UNC team learned a lot about themselves at the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament and will be able to knock down some shots and take this game at home.
Prediction: UNC 82-73