The 2019 Big Ten/ACC Challenge went to the Big Ten, 8–6, after the league ended on a high note Wednesday, winning four of the night’s six games. There were multiple revealing scorelines across the three-day event, including big victories for ACC teams Louisville and Duke and Big Ten teams Ohio State and Purdue. What can we take away from this year's challenge?
The Big Ten’s Best May Not Be Who We Expected
Who had Michigan State already with three losses one month into the season? The Spartans’ schedule has been brutal, but for a team that was widely agreed to be the preseason No. 1 all summer, a 5–3 start has to be considered a disappointment. At home against a short-handed Duke team on Tuesday was supposed to be a chance to get right and build their résumé. Instead it was the Blue Devils who made the statement, leading by as many as 22 in an 87–75 win. Michigan State has been foiled by inconsistency on both ends and clearly misses Joshua Langford, but its defense has been surprisingly vulnerable of late, giving up more than 1.0 PPP in four straight games (Duke had 1.15).
Meanwhile, No. 6 Ohio State is playing like a top contender not just in the Big Ten but nationally, fresh off a 74–49 dismantling of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. While the Heels lost center Armando Bacot early on in the contest, it was another impressive win for the players in scarlet, who also have a rout of Villanova on their résumé. The Buckeyes are playing well on both ends of the floor and have established offensive weapons beyond standout big man Kaleb Wesson, opening up a new dimension to their offense.
Meanwhile, Michigan has surprised to open the season—loss to Louisville notwithstanding—and 9–0 Maryland is off to its best start since 1998–99 after avoiding a letdown from its 21-point rout of Marquette on Sunday by taking care of Notre Dame, 72–51. Add in the potential that Purdue showed in its destruction of Virginia and the Big Ten is suddenly looking a lot more open than it appeared in the preseason.
Louisville Has Earned Its Spot as the Nation’s No. 1 Team
Any skepticism that existed around the Cardinals’ status as the AP No. 1 right now—which was less a result of their performances and more something that was foisted on them thanks to losses elsewhere—was likely extinguished by Louisville’s win over a surging Michigan team. The Cards put together a swarming defensive effort, limiting a Wolverines offense that had been on fire in the Bahamas to just 43 points—0.65 per possession, which was the program’s lowest PPP output since 2008. It wasn’t Louisville’s best offensive outing, but Jordan Nwora and Steven Enoch stepped up to secure a big ‘W’ and improve to 8–0.
The Cardinals just might be the class of the ACC in the long run, especially after shakier starts to the season by their fellow expected conference heavyweights. While Duke has a pair of marquee wins, including over Michigan State on Tuesday, the loss to Stephen F. Austin exposed lingering concerns. UNC looked listless against Ohio State on Wednesday, and even when Bacot returns, the Heels must prove they can alleviate their shooting woes. And then there's Virginia, which brings us to our next takeaway...
Virginia’s Offensive Limitations Are a Problem
The defending national champs’ 7–0 start to this season behind a defense that was shutting down anyone and everyone masked a pretty important issue: a lack of offense. Despite entering Wednesday’s battle with Purdue having not yet faced a defense ranked in the top 45 on KenPom in efficiency (the best was Syracuse at No. 46), UVA’s scoring situation wasn’t pretty. The Cavaliers have scored 1.0 PPP just once, against Vermont, including recently managing just 0.84 against lowly Maine. For perspective, under last season’s offensive juggernaut, Virginia failed to score 1.0 PPP just five times in 38 games—and never lower than 0.91.
The departures of Ty Jerome, De’Andre Hunter and Kyle Guy meant losing the soul of that offense, though, as well as the bulk of its shooting and shot creation. Talented senior big man Mamadi Diakite is now leading the way, but he can’t do everything. On the whole, Virginia has been one of the nation’s very worst three-point shooting teams, making just 23.5%. It's turning the ball over on 20.4% of its possessions and is O.K. but not great from two, making only 1.7% more than the national average. Even worse, second-leading scorer Braxton Key was recently ruled out indefinitely with a wrist injury.
It all came to a head in West Lafayette on Wednesday night courtesy of a 69–40 blowout win by the Boilermakers. Put simply, Purdue hit its shots (including going 52% from three) and Virginia didn’t, and Purdue took care of the ball while UVA didn’t. But while the Boilermakers had an above-average shooting night, a 29-point win speaks for itself. At the end of the day, Tony Bennett’s team, facing its first elite defense of the season, scored just 40 points (0.69 per possession), settling for 24 threes vs. just 19 two-point attempts.
The eventual return of Key will help, as would either freshman Casey Morsell (4 for 36) or JUCO transfer Tomas Woldetensae (3 for 21) finding their stroke from the outside. But right now, things are pretty brutal on the offensive end for the Hoos, and their stellar defense won’t always be enough to avoid nights like Wednesday. It’s a long season, with plenty of time to improve, but it’s fair to wonder what the offensive ceiling is in Charlottesville this year.
The Big Ten’s Depth Showed Through
The ACC is often thought to be the best conference in the country, but last season, that honor probably belonged to the Big Ten, which sent eight teams dancing. Already in 2019–20, it’s looking like the Big Ten’s top-to-bottom depth is stronger than its challenge counterpart again. That was on display as the league won the challenge 8–6 for the second straight year, a big turnaround from the 11–3 win the ACC had back in 2017.
While Duke and Louisville both made statements as ACC heavyweights this week, the conference’s remaining wins (Pitt over Rutgers, NC State over Wisconsin, Georgia Tech over Nebraska and Miami over Illinois) won’t overly move the needle. The most impressive two were the Wolfpack winning by 15 at home over the Badgers and the Hurricanes withstanding a major Illini comeback on the road.
Over in the Big Ten, Purdue (29-point rout of Virginia) and Ohio State (25-point win over UNC) both picked up top-10 wins that left no doubt, similar to the Blue Devils and Cardinals. But Indiana knocked off No. 17 Florida State by 16, Maryland handled Notre Dame by 21, Iowa beat Syracuse by 14, Penn State routed Wake Forest by 22, Northwestern won at Boston College by 18 and Minnesota took care of Clemson by 18. Those results, by those margins, are what help establish depth and benefit the entire conference, as it leaves more room for quality wins in league play. While not every game in the challenge was evenly matched up, the fact that all eight of the Big Ten’s wins came by at least 14 points is notable. On average, Big Ten teams won by 20.6 points, while ACC teams won by 12. Final victory margins aren’t a perfect measurement, but there’s no doubting which conference came out on top this year.