Wednesday December 2nd, 2009

Five things we learned from No. 10 North Carolina's 89-82 win over No. 9 Michigan State, and other ACC-Big Ten Challenge action on Tuesday ...

1. Michigan State needs to be concerned about its defensive drop-off from '08-09 to '09-10. I ranked the Spartans second in the preseason -- despite coach Tom Izzo's objections -- because I felt they had fewer flaws than any team not named Kansas. While I still think they have an elite offense, I underestimated the impact of losing defensive stopper Travis Walton from the backcourt, and 6-foot-10 Goran Suton and 6-11 Idong Ibok from the frontcourt. State no longer has a lockdown artist or the ability to alter many shots in the paint.

The Spartans didn't defend well on the perimeter on Tuesday, as Carolina shot 50 percent from long distance, and its previously shaky floor generals, sophomore Larry Drew II and freshman Dexter Strickland (a converted shooting guard), combined for 27 points and nine assists against just three turnovers. State's junior starters, Kalin Lucas and Chris Allen, shouldn't have let that happen. Meanwhile, they're so size-deficient on the inside -- the two guys playing the most minutes, Delvon Roe and Draymond Green, are 6-8 and 6-6, respectively -- that Ed Davis, Carolina's 6-10 future lottery pick, ate them up, scoring 22 points on 8-of-10 shooting.

The Spartans did flash some defensive ability against Gonzaga on Nov. 17, and Izzo's teams have a tendency to improve deeper into the season. So all is not lost. But these three things worry me at present:

• When State lost to Florida, 77-74 on Nov. 27 in the Legends Classic, the Gators' offense was allowed to be more efficient (at 1.073 points per possession) that it was against Stetson (1.033) or Georgia Southern (1.040). Stetson and Georgia Southern!

• The Spartans allowed 1.14 points per possession to the Tar Heels on Tuesday -- the exact same amount the '08-09 State team allowed to a far superior UNC club in the national title game in Detroit. The ultra- efficient foursome of Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Danny Green and Wayne Ellington are all gone, but the Heels were still equally as effective.

• State came into Tuesday's game ranked 90th in's adjusted defensive efficiency ratings. It's still very early in the season, but the last two times Izzo had teams ranked that low -- in '05-06 (103rd) and '03-04 (97th) -- they both lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament. That fact should be enough to scare them into defending.

2. To find a Big Ten squad locking down on Tuesday ... turn to Purdue, which managed to beat Wake Forest, 69-58, despite shooting 1-of-15 from beyond the arc. The Boilers did it by forcing 25 turnovers -- including six each by Demon Deacons stars Al-Farouq Aminu and Ish Smith -- and holding Wake to 0.73 points per possession.

Matt Painter's team isn't without issues; it hasn't figured out its point guard situation following Lewis Jackson's season-ending foot injury, and is using a committee of secondary options (seniors Chris Kramer and Keaton Grant, and freshman Kelsey Barlow) to run its offense. The Boilers have been the class of the Big Ten thus far, though, beating Tennessee on a neutral court in St. Thomas while shorthanded, and ranking 15th in the country in points allowed per possession (0.82) through six games.

3. Even though Drew was Carolina's star guard on Tuesday, if I were a Heels fan, I'd be even more excited about the play of his backup at the point, Strickland. Playing away from his natural position, the four-star shooting guard recruit looked out of sorts in much of UNC's first seven games, hitting just 35 percent of his shots and zero percent of his six long-range attempts. He had more turnovers (13) than assists (11), and usually caused the Heels' offense to sputter when he was called on to spell Drew.

Against Michigan State, Strickland looked confident and energized, scoring nine points and dishing out three assists -- against zero turnovers -- in 14 productive minutes. The three-pointer he hit at the first-half buzzer gave Carolina a 16-point lead going into the break, and dampened any realistic hopes of a Spartans comeback. If Strickland can merely take care of the ball and shoot a high-30s percentage on 3s, he'll make UNC's offense even more dangerous.

4. The wildest stat from the Tar Heels' November trip through New York for the 2K Sports College Hoops Classic: They had just four fast break points in their semifinal win over Ohio State, and two fast break points in their title-game loss to Syracuse. The nation's most renowned running team had gone troublingly methodical, at least for one week.

On Tuesday it was nice to see the Heels running again, getting into a near-90-point affair with the Spartans, who are usually more than willing to accelerate when playing outside the plodding Big Ten. listed the game at a 78-possession pace, and while neither school's official box score listed fast break point totals as of Tuesday night, an open-court layup by Marcus Ginyard in the second half did elicit this rant from ESPN's Dick Vitale:

"That's a little fast break drill, transition basketball, up and down, I love it! Indianapolis Raceway! Run, baby, run! Ohhhh! Let the thoroughbreds out, baby! Run up and down! We must be up at Churchill Downs!"

The excitement of that play, apparently, allowed the game to transcend normal spatial constraints and exist in Chapel Hill, Indy and Louisville at the same time.

5. It's up to Minnesota and Ohio State to end their league's 10-year futility streak in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

Over the past few years, this has degenerated from a "challenge" into three-day opportunity for fans on either coast to pick on the Big Ten. But wins by Penn State, Northwestern and Purdue have put the event at a 3-3 draw heading into its final day, which features Duke at Wisconsin, Illinois at Clemson, Florida State at Ohio State, Boston College at Michigan, and Minnesota at Miami.

We're likely to see two more ACC wins, from Duke and Clemson, and one more Big Ten win, from Michigan, but Seminoles-Buckeyes and Gophers-'Canes are toss-ups. Can size-challenged OSU handle Solomon Alabi and Chris Singleton -- and can tired-out Minnesota, which just played three games in four days in Anaheim, Calif., go all the way across the country and beat an athletic, underrated Miami squad? The Big Ten needs both wins to pull out a 6-5 victory. The ACC is in perhaps its weakest state this decade; if the Big Ten doesn't capitalize this season, will it ever end the streak?

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.