Through the first three weeks of this college basketball season, the general consensus was that the Big Ten is a much-improved league. Coming off a dreadful 2017–18 season in which it sent only four teams to the NCAA tournament, the conference roared to a strong start, exhibiting both strength at the top and surprising depth. Michigan crushed Villanova on the road, Iowa won the 2K Classic, Michigan State won the Las Vegas Invitational—when Cyber Monday rolled around, there were seven Big Ten teams in the AP top 25 and three more receiving votes.
It couldn’t hold on to the victory (blame Purdue for that), but the league’s collective performance in tying the ACC-Big Ten Challenge 7–7 this week did nothing to dispel the notion that it has returned to its place as one of the two or three best conferences in the country. After the ACC dominated the last two challenges to the tune of a 20–8 record, the 2018 edition couldn’t have been much better from an entertainment and competitiveness standpoint; eight of the 14 games were decided by fewer than four points. Below are the results (home team in italics), followed by eight takeaways from the action.
Rutgers 57, Miami 54
Syracuse 72, No. 16 Ohio State 62
No. 4 Virginia 76, No. 24 Maryland 71
Northwestern 67, Georgia Tech 61
No. 7 Michigan 84, No. 11 North Carolina 67
No. 15 Florida State 73, No. 19 Purdue 72
1. No win meant more to a fanbase than Louisville beating Michigan State
The Chris Mack era gained its first signature win on Tuesday. Louisville came into its game against Michigan State on a two-game losing streak, having suffered tough losses against a pair of good teams (Tennessee and Marquette) in Brooklyn. In an emotional, March-like game, the Cardinals held on for an 82–78 overtime victory over the Spartans that meant a great deal to a Louisville fanbase that has observed substantial off-court turmoil in recent years. There was the strip clubs and prostitution scandal that resulted in four years of wins being vacated, including the 2013 national title. Then there was the FBI investigation into Adidas payments to Brian Bowen that caused Rick Pitino and AD Tom Jurich to be fired, a scandal that could still result in further NCAA sanctions. On the court, Louisville had a talented 2017–18 team under interim coach David Padgett but went 3–6 in games decided by five points or fewer—including an incomprehensible collapse against No. 1 Virginia—and missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006. All that is context for the fact that the Cardinals’ win over MSU brought a great deal of relief and joy to the Louisville program.
The win was also big for Louisville’s confidence going forward. Mack has a solid 10-man rotation led by sophomore forward Jordan Nwora, and it’s not crazy to think that this team could find its way onto the bubble, especially if it can beat at least one of Seton Hall or Indiana on the road before ACC play begins. Even in defeat, there was nothing that indicated Michigan State won’t be one of the Big Ten’s best teams this year. If not for a cold first half from Josh Langford and Cassius Winston carelessly fouling out late, the game likely would have gone the Spartans’ way.
2. In embarrassing blowout, North Carolina raised questions about its ceiling
ESPN’s nonstop Duke-Indiana promotion aside, the main event of the 2018 challenge was No. 7 Michigan and its top-ranked defense against No. 11 North Carolina and its elite offense. An expected thriller never manifested. Michigan dominated the game, proving its defense can stop anyone and making it even clearer that the Wolverines are not just the favorite in the Big Ten, but a strong national title contender. Michigan looks like a better team than it did last year thanks to freshman Ignas Brazdeikis and the strides made by Charles Matthews, Zavier Simpson, Jordan Poole and Jon Teske.
Some of North Carolina’s struggles can be brushed off by playing an impenetrable defense on the road. At the same time, it’s unclear if this team has the personnel to be a Final Four contender in 2019. In a loss to Texas in Las Vegas, the Tar Heels’ defense was atrocious. On Wednesday night, its offense failed to get going. Senior Luke Maye—a preseason NPOY candidate and ostensibly Carolina’s go-to guy—scored just 11 points in each of those losses. He’s not someone who can create his own shot when his team needs a bucket. Top-five recruit Nassir Little was a non-factor with four points against Michigan and senior Cameron Johnson had just five. Freshman point guard Coby White looks like the Tar Heels’ best player right now, which wasn’t supposed to be the case. At present, this team doesn’t look capable of beating teams like Gonzaga (which it plays on Dec. 15), Duke or Virginia.
3. Indiana will be fine despite a blowout loss to Duke
Five of the six games on Tuesday night came down to the wire. The sixth was Duke-Indiana, the marquee matchup between two of the biggest names in the sport. Unfortunately for Indiana, the circumstances were set up perfectly for a Duke romp. Coming off of a tough loss to Gonzaga in Maui, the Blue Devils returned to their massive home court advantage at Cameron Indoor Stadium fired up to remind the country of their dominance. Duke roared out of the gates, taking a 9–2 lead that became 24–10 and 53–29 at half.
For the Blue Devils, this was a flexing of their collective muscles. Going from Maui to Durham and facing an opponent that isn’t on the same level as Auburn or Gonzaga, Duke got to show off. They forced 20 Indiana turnovers and blocked 11 shots, and Zion Williamson had seven dunks—six in the first half—on his way to 25 points. The phenomenon known simply as “Zion” has now made 42 of 49 two-point attempts in four non-Maui games this year. RJ Barrett (22 pts) and Tre Jones (15 pts, 8 assists, 0 TO) were also outstanding as the Blue Devils sent the message that they’re still a truly elite team. Meanwhile, there’s no reason for Indiana fans to panic; it’s hard to imagine a tougher task than slowing angry Duke at home. Romeo Langford seemed to be pressing a bit due to the situation, and it resulted in a tough 3-for-15 shooting night. The Hoosiers actually won the second half, got encouraging performances from Evan Fitzner and De’Ron Davis, and are a much better team at Assembly Hall. We’ll learn a lot from Indiana’s next four: vs. Northwestern, at Penn State, vs. Louisville and against Butler on a neutral floor.
4. Moral victories aren’t fun, but three teams—NC State, Pitt, Maryland—impressed in losses
Let’s start with Pitt. In case you had forgotten or never noticed, the Panthers did not win a single ACC game last season. They were 0–19 against conference opponents (8–24 overall). Kevin Stallings was unsurprisingly fired, and in came longtime Duke assistant Jeff Capel, who immediately went out and signed the fifth-best recruiting class in the ACC. Pitt got off to a 6–0 start this season, including an impressive win over Saint Louis, and nearly stunned Iowa on Tuesday. Starting three freshmen, the Panthers took a 46–40 halftime lead over the No. 14 Hawkeyes. They couldn’t quite hold on, missing two potential game-winners on their final possession, but that’s not the point. The point is that one of the worst power conference teams in the country a season ago is on the right track. Freshman guard Xavier Johnson (18 points) looks like the real deal.
Elsewhere on Tuesday, North Carolina State blew a road halftime lead of its own. The Wolfpack came into their game against Wisconsin a complete unknown; they were 6–0 but had played no one in the Kenpom top 150. Kevin Keatts’s team impressed greatly against a very talented Badgers squad. Markell Johnson scored 21, UNC Wilmington transfer C.J. Bryce had 18 and Torin Dorn added 14 as the Wolfpack nearly pulled the upset. They held Ethan Happ to arguably his worst game of the year and probably would’ve won if Brad Davison hadn’t drawn five charges, at least two of which were borderline calls. NC State won’t win a ton of games in a loaded ACC, but Keatts has the program headed in the right direction.
Lastly, Maryland has plenty to hang its hat on despite remaining winless in the challenge as a member of the Big Ten. The Terps hosted Virginia, one of the best teams in the nation, on Wednesday night. Virginia gained some separation late in the first half and held on the rest of the way, but Maryland didn’t go down without a fight. When the Terps trailed 48–31 early in the second half, it looked like the game would be a blowout. Yet they kept battling, cutting the deficit to four multiple times and making UVA sweat out the finish. The Terps cracked 70 points against Tony Bennett’s vaunted defense, something that has only happened one other time since the start of last season. You might be able to guess who did it.
By definition, scoring 70 on Virginia is a promising outcome for any offense, especially when freshmen Aaron Wiggins and Eric Ayala score 13 points apiece to help out Anthony Cowan Jr. and Bruno Fernando. Maryland has to get better defensively—Jack Salt got too many easy dunks and the Cavs’ Kyle Guy-Ty Jerome backcourt too many open threes—but this looks like a team that will make noise in the Big Ten.
5. Carsen Edwards doesn’t have enough help to make Purdue a contender
The list of the most fun major-conference players to watch starts with two names: Zion Williamson and Carsen Edwards. It’s an absolute delight to watch the 6’1” Edwards play basketball. His explosiveness, handle and shooting ability make him probably the best guard in the nation.
He also isn’t going to be able to carry Purdue to much more than fourth or fifth in the Big Ten and maybe a Sweet 16 berth, given the supporting cast around him. Edwards’s 24 points against Florida State weren’t enough for the Boilermakers to pull out a win. Three-point specialist Ryan Cline made seven shots from deep and grad transfer Evan Boudreaux scored 12 points. Other than those three, no one in a Purdue jersey scored more than six points. It was the same story as Purdue’s loss to Virginia Tech in Charleston—key players like Nojel Eastern and Matt Haarms just don’t provide much offensively. Defenses are going to keep realizing that if you focus all your attention on slowing Edwards and contesting Cline’s three-pointers, Purdue is very beatable. Florida State was the polar opposite from a scoring depth perspective, as eight players scored between seven and 13 points. The Seminoles are legit.
6. Penn State is a different team with Mike Watkins back
It hasn’t been the prettiest start to the season for Penn State, which lost close games to DePaul (currently 90th on kenpom.com) and Bradley (114) in the opening weeks. However, at least some of that slow start can and should be attributed to the fact that the Nittany Lions were playing without one of their best players, junior center Mike Watkins. Watkins, who has finished top-two in the conference in field goal percentage and blocks the last two years, missed the first five games of this season as he dealt with mental health issues. He was cleared to play for Penn State’s game against No. 13 Virginia Tech and made a major difference despite only scoring two points. Watkins had two blocks and three steals in 21 minutes, helping hold a Hokies team that came in averaging 82.4 points per game to just 62.
The other positive for Penn State was the play of freshman Myreon Jones. Jones had scored 14 points combined during the Nittany Lions’ 3–2 start but broke out with a team-high 18 points in the win. Unfortunately, it’s still tough to imagine Penn State making the tournament without Tony Carr, its star point guard who declared for the NBA draft as a sophomore last season, was taken late in the second round and is now playing overseas. With Carr, this could be a top-25 team. Without him, though, Penn State showed that it will still be a tough out. Lamar Stevens is one of the best wings in the conference and Watkins’s defensive presence is huge.
7. Syracuse finally looked as advertised
Syracuse traveled to New York City the favorites to win the 2K Classic and left with a pair of losses and in need of some soul-searching. Or maybe it just needed Frank Howard? With its senior floor general back in the lineup, the Orange picked up a big-time road win over No. 16 Ohio State. Tyus Battle, Elijah Hughes and Oshae Brissett looked relieved to have Howard on the floor, getting much better looks than they did at MSG and taking advantage. That trio combined for 52 points on 16-of-31 shooting (7 for 15 from three). On the other end of the floor, the zone defense that was shredded by UConn and Oregon held Ohio State to 33% shooting.
8. Rutgers, yes Rutgers, pulled the biggest surprise of the challenge
Let’s not neglect the Scarlet Knights. Rutgers, which has deservedly been a laughingstock in both football and basketball since joining the Big Ten, went to Coral Gables and shut down a Miami offense that had scored at least 78 points in all six of its games to that point. Rutgers blocked eight shots and held Miami to 54 points. It turned the game into a slugfest, giving itself a chance to win. Stud sophomore Geo Baker did just enough offensively (16 points, six assists) to lead the Scarlet Knights to a shocking road win. If anyone is going to turn things around in Piscataway, it’s going to be Steve Pikiell.