This year’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge should have been re-named the National Championship Game Rematch Challenge. On Tuesday night, Duke beat Michigan, mirroring the outcome of the 1992 title game, and Syracuse toppled Indiana, reversing the result of the 1987 final.
The marquee matchup on Tuesday night pits No. 1 Michigan State against North Carolina. These two schools have become familiar foes both in this event and in the one that really matters at the end of the year. This will be the fifth showdown between the Spartans and Tar Heels in the 15-year-old ACC/Big Ten Challenge, and the two teams have also faced off four times in the NCAA tournament since 1998. They’ve split their four previous games against one another in this event, while UNC has eliminated MSU from the Big Dance in each of those four tournament games, which included a Sweet 16 win in 1998, a Final Four triumph in 2005, a Round of 32 victory in ’07 and, of course, an 89-72 drubbing in the 2009 title game.
If there is to be a lopsided outcome on Wednesday night at the Breslin Center, it will almost certainly be in favor of the Spartans. Not only are they the No. 1 ranked team in the nation, they have the kind of experience and balance that North Carolina is sorely lacking. Michigan State plays only seven players at least 10 minutes per game, and six play at least 20 minutes per game. Of those six, five are upperclassmen; and only Gary Harris, the team’s leading scorer, is a sophomore.
Harris leads an offense capable of going off at any moment. Four Spartans average double-figures in scoring and three of them – Appling, Harris and center Adreian Payne – are threats from the 3-point line.
As is their custom, the Spartans also rebound exceptionally well, another problem area for Carolina, which was out-boarded by 15 in Sunday’s loss to UAB. Branden Dawson (9.7, despite being just 6-foot-6) and Payne (7.7) both average more boards per game than any Tar Heel.
Michigan State also takes care of the ball extremely well, ranking second in the nation in assist/turnover ratio and leading the country in assists per game. With North Carolina’s backcourt thinned considerably due to the absences of P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald – the two are being held out due to an ongoing NCAA investigation – the Tar Heels may have trouble preventing Harris and Appling from running them into the ground.
Without Hairston and McDonald, UNC has an unbalanced roster that includes seven natural big men, only one true wing player and three point guards. One of those point guards, Marcus Paige, has become the team’s shooting guard by necessity, and another, Luke Davis, came to Chapel Hill as a walk-on.
Paige is the only perimeter shooter capable of doing any kind of damage and when he’s at his best – as he was in scoring 32 points to lead the Heels’ 93-84 upset win over then-No. 3 Louisville on Nov. 24 – he can carry his team to victory. When he’s not – as was the case on Sunday, when he shot 0-for-6 from beyond the arc in that 63-59 upset loss to UAB – Carolina struggles mightily to produce points
Part of that is to be expected with a team that plays three freshmen and three sophomores in its regular rotation and has zero scholarship seniors, at least until McDonald returns.
Paige could use some help from junior forward James Michael McAdoo. Once considered a likely NBA lottery pick, McAdoo’s scoring (13.8 from 14.4), rebounding (6.0 from 7.3) and shooting (.414 from .445) are all down markedly from last season. Without significant improvements from him on both ends of the floor, North Carolina will have a long season, to say nothing of a long night in East Lansing.
A loss would certainly be no surprise for UNC. The real question the Tar Heels must answer is: Which team are they? The one that lost at home to Belmont and at UAB? Or the one that ran the defending national champions off the court in the Hall of Fame Tip-off Tournament? They have certainly been the most head-scratching team in the country this season, and if we get an answer as to which team they really are on Wednesday night, it probably won’t be one that head coach Roy Williams is going to like.