After a couple of warmup games last night in which Rutgers beat Clemson and Nebraska topped Florida State, the 16th ACC/Big Ten challenge begins its full slate of marquee matchups Tuesday and Wednesday. Below is a breakdown and prediction for the three best games of each night.
This matchup is a contrast of strengths: Michigan’s backcourt vs. Syracuse’s frontcourt. The Wolverines have a strong trio up top with Spike Albrecht running the point, Derrick Walton at the 2 and Caris LeVert at the 3. Syracuse, meanwhile, hasn’t yet found its next great point guard after the departure of Tyler Ennis to the NBA. But forwards Rakeem Christmas and Chris McCullough are carrying the scoring load, combining to use 49.7 percent of the team’s possessions. Christmas may be the toughest matchup of the game for Michigan. According to Synergy Sports data, Syracuse is posting up on 15 percent of its possessions (the Wolverines, by contrast, have posted up on six possessions all season) and Christmas is averaging 17.5 points and 9.0 rebounds per game.
The Wolverines' offense is the nation's 10th-most efficient, according to kenpom.com, while Syracuse’s defense ranks fifth. In this case, a close matchup leans toward the home team.
Michigan 70, Syracuse 64
No. 24 Illinois at No. 15 Miami, 9 p.m.
Despite being one of the Challenge’s four top-25 matchups, this game isn’t garnering a lot of attention. Both teams enter undefeated, but their most notable wins aren't as impressive as they seem at first glance. Illinois topped Baylor in Las Vegas last week, but the Bears lost their three leading scorers from a year ago and don't look like the team that reached the Sweet 16 last March. And Miami beat a then-top-10 Florida team on Nov. 17 in Gainesville, but the Gators have since needed overtime to beat Louisiana-Monroe at home and finished sixth in the Battle 4 Atlantis.
The Hurricanes are led by two transfer stars, junior guards Sheldon McClellan and Angel Rodriguez, but they are less balanced than Illinois. The Illini have three players using between 24 and 28 percent of their possessions, and two of them -- guards Malcolm Hill and Rayvonte Rice -- have offensive ratings over 129, which is excellent. Against Miami’s defense, which struggles to force turnovers, Hill and Rice could make the difference.
Illinois 81, Miami 78
Get a good look at Ohio State, because this is the only meaningful road game and by far the toughest test it will have in the nonconference season. The Buckeyes are fresh off hosting traditional powerhouses Sacred Heart, Campbell and James Madison and have Colgate, High Point, Morehead State and North Carolina A&T up next. There is only one top 25 team left on their non-conference schedule: North Carolina, on a neutral court in Chicago, on Dec. 20. Louisville, meanwhile, has a tougher slate before ACC play starts: the Cardinals already played Minnesota and still have games with Indiana and Kentucky later this month.
Shannon Scott’s improvement has been the most surprising element of the season for Ohio State: The senior guard is fourth on the team in scoring (9.2 points per game), but first in efficiency at a whopping 133.6. He’s also averaging -- and this is not a misprint -- 10.4 assists per game. As for Louisville, junior forward Montrezl Harrell has not been a disappointment after making the surprising decision to return to school last spring. He’s averaging 17.4 points and 8.8 rebounds a game and creating matchup problems for opposing defenses. The Buckeyes don't have a solution for Harrell, and that’ll be the difference in the game.
Louisville 75, Ohio State 68
If you haven't watched the Spartans since the Champions Classic on Nov. 18, don't be fooled by their 81-71 loss to Duke. Michigan State is still good, even if it isn’t elite. The Spartans are balanced -- ranking 26th in offensive efficiency and 20th in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com. They’ve found a solid go-to scoring option in guard Travis Trice, and Denzel Valentine and Branden Dawson join him to give head coach Tom Izzo three capable, veteran playmakers. But Michigan State has struggled to find consistency in the post, which is why the Blue Devils -- and a certain freshman to be discussed later -- had their way in Indianapolis.
Notre Dame, meanwhile, boasts an impressive offense that ranked No. 13 in efficiency, but its defense is No. 107. Senior guard Jerian Grant has returned from an academic-related suspension that cost him all but 12 games last season to lead the Fighting Irish in scoring at 18.7 points per game. If second-leading scorer Zach Auguste (15.0 ppg) can establish himself in the post early, then Notre Dame could pull off an upset -- but the Irish’s defense might prove too leaky to capitalize on the interior mismatch.
Michigan State 76, Notre Dame 71
Dez Wells’ wrist fracture puts a damper on this reunion of longtime ACC rivals. The 7-0 Terrapins have been one of the most surprising teams of the early season, and they already have one signature win, over Iowa State in Kansas City. And although Wells, a senior swingman who is averaging 16.4 points per game, rightfully gets much of the attention, Melo Trimble has been Maryland's most impressive player. The 6-foot-3 freshman is averaging 16.6 points on 51.8 percent shooting, with an offensive rating of 125.8. Junior Jake Layman has improved on his breakout sophomore season with 14.6 points and 5.7 rebounds a game this year. With those three, the Terps are dangerous. With just the latter two -- well, we’ll see on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Virginia continues to employ Tony Bennett basketball with precision. The Cavaliers have four players sharing between 24 and 28 percent of the team’s offensive possessions -- Malcolm Brogdon, Justin Anderson, Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey. They also boast the nation’s third-most efficient defense, surrendering just 84.6 points per 100 possessions. Maryland’s homecourt advantage shouldn’t be discounted, but without Wells, they should struggle to beat the Cavs.
Virginia 62, Maryland 52
No. 4 Duke at No. 2 Wisconsin, 9:30 p.m.
It's foolish to wait until March to watch college basketball, and for proof, look no further than this showdown. It certainly figures to be the best matchup of the nonconference season, especially after the Champions Classic games (Duke's aforementioned win over Michigan State and Kentucky's 32-point beatdown of Kansas) turned out to be one-sided affairs.
This game features the top two teams from arguably the top two conferences and, oh yes, the top two players in the nation. Watching Badgers senior Frank Kaminsky battle Blue Devils freshman Jahlil Okafor in the post should be a joy. With his ability to hit three-pointers, Kaminsky has a more dynamic game than Okafor but his post defense can be suspect, and Okafor isn’t short on post moves.
The most exciting secondary matchup features Sam Dekker against Justise Winslow. Dekker, a 6-9 junior forward, can provide another post-up player for Wisconsin and can create difficult matchups in their “Redwoods” lineup, which features just one player shorter than 6-7. Winslow, meanwhile, has been the most surprising freshman in Duke’s class, outshining Grasyon Allen and even Tyus Jones, the point guard who was heralded as the perfect complement to Okafor. Winslow can spot up and shoot, cut to the lane and lead the Blue Devils in transition. But Wisconsin's depth and experience may prove too much to handle for the young Blue Devils. Here's to hoping we'll see these teams play again this season.
Wisconsin 90, Duke 88 (OT)