For the second straight year, the Big Ten won the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. This year, it claimed a 6–5 victory in the two-day event that featured a pair of matchups between ranked teams and a trio of COVID-19–related postponements. Who moved the needle during one of college basketball’s biggest nonconference showcases? Sports Illustrated dives deep into the biggest takeaways from a loaded two days of action.
A tale of two nights
The Big Ten clinched this year’s crown by the end of the night Tuesday after a dominant 6–1 start to the challenge, but the ACC bounced back by sweeping the second night of action. Lauded all offseason for its depth as a league, the Big Ten’s middle tier flexed its muscle on Night 1. Rutgers fought past a feisty Syracuse team while playing without starting PG Geo Baker to get its first résumé-building win of the season, while Penn State torched the nets with 12 triples to get a ranked win on the road against Virginia Tech.
Those are the types of wins that matter come Selection Sunday, particularly in a year with shortened nonconference schedules that limit opportunities to prove yourself before league play. But Wednesday saw the ACC get some much-needed wins, namely a huge overtime victory for Florida State over Indiana in what was the Seminoles’ first real test of the season. With every other team picked in the top five of the conference in the preseason either losing or unable to play due to COVID-19 issues, FSU finding a way to win a tightly-contested game that saw neither team lead by two possessions in the final 23:24 of game action was a big deal for the ACC as a whole.
Iowa is more than just Luka Garza
After three blowout victories against weak competition, Iowa finally received its first big test of the season with a home showdown against North Carolina. The Tar Heels were the exact type of team everyone needed to see Iowa against: a team full of elite recruits, NBA-level athleticism and a deep stable of bigs to throw at defending Big Ten Player of the Year Luka Garza. The Hawkeyes passed the test with flying colors. Iowa blitzed the Tar Heels early from beyond the arc and withstood a strong push early in the second half from Roy Williams’s club to earn a résumé-building win in early December.
Even with Garza shooting just 6 for 20 from the field and struggling to finish down low, Iowa torched the Carolina defense with 93 points thanks to an event-record 17 made threes. The sharpshooting trio of Jordan Bohannon (seven made threes), Joe Wieskamp (five) and CJ Fredrick (five) consistently made the UNC defense pay for collapsing on Garza, and the Hawkeyes did a great job sharing the ball and turning down good shots for great ones.
And while it won’t show up in the box score, key rotation cogs like Joe Toussaint, Keegan Murray and Connor McCaffery gave Fran McCaffery’s club key minutes to give starters a breather. Murray in particular had a key sequence in the second half during which he scored on a putback before blocking a shot at the other end to help the Hawkeyes pull away. The Hawkeyes were a polarizing team in preseason prognostications given their defensive struggles a season ago, but they looked the part of a Final Four contender on Tuesday night.
Duke struggles without Cameron Crazies
With its 83–68 loss to Illinois on Tuesday, Duke has lost multiple nonconference games at Cameron Indoor Stadium for the first time in 37 years. And while both Illinois and Michigan State (which beat the Blue Devils last week) are ranked in the top 10 nationally, it’s clear that Mike Krzyzewski’s team has a lot of work to do to live up to the program’s always-lofty expectations. The lack of home court advantage Duke had at an empty Cameron Indoor was palpable, and the Blue Devils clearly missed the energy from their screaming fans when it could never quite make a push to get back into the game. The Fighting Illini punched Duke in the mouth with a game-opening 14–2 spurt and never looked back, maintaining a double-figure lead for the entirety of the second half.
Duke struggled to contain Illinois’s dribble penetration by Ayo Dosunmu and Andre Curbelo, leading to plenty of easy looks at the basket for both them and big men Kofi Cockburn and Giorgi Bezhanishvili. With slender floor-spacing big man Matthew Hurt playing much of the game at center, the Blue Devils don’t have a true shot-blocker to protect the rim. That makes it even more critical for their guards to lock down on the perimeter. Meanwhile, top-rated 2020 signee Jalen Johnson has struggled since posting 19 points and 17 rebounds in the season opener against Coppin State, tallying just 7 points on 3-for-10 shooting in 23 minutes on Tuesday. Duke needs all-conference-caliber play from Johnson to reach its ceiling.
Clemson’s stifling defense keys 4–0 start
While the ACC lost the event, Clemson continued its strong start to the season with a dominant 67–51 victory over Maryland. The Tigers led by as many as 25 in the game, riding yet another elite defensive performance to move to 4–0 on the young season. Brad Brownell’s club limited the Terrapins to just 15 points in the first half, forcing 10 turnovers in the opening period and making life incredibly difficult for the Terps with its ball pressure and crisp rotations. Overall, the Tigers held Maryland to just 0.82 points per possession, per KenPom, marking the fourth straight game during which Clemson has kept its opponent under 1 point per possession.
With wins over Mississippi State, Purdue and now Maryland, the Tigers have quietly built a solid résumé for March before conference play and will get another opportunity Saturday against Alabama. Fordham transfer Nick Honor has given this team another capable scorer, and he was one of four Tigers in double figures on the night with 10 points and a pair of made threes. This team may not wow you with NBA talent or a high-flying offense, but its stingy defense could be enough to get Clemson back to the Big Dance.
COVID-19 remains undefeated
While Tuesday’s slate of games were unscathed, three high-profile Wednesday matchups (including two between ranked teams) were called off due to COVID-19 concerns. That included the day’s headliner matchup between Michigan State and Virginia, which was canceled late Tuesday night due to issues inside the Cavalier program. Also wiped from the slate due to virus woes was a showdown between Louisville and Wisconsin and a battle between Michigan and NC State in Ann Arbor. However, both Wisconsin and Michigan found opponents for Wednesday on short notice, as the Badgers hosted a talented Rhode Island team while the Wolverines brought Toledo to town.
This type of last-second scheduling has become commonplace since the sport restarted in late November as teams look to play as many games as possible to reach the minimum of 13 games required to qualify for the NCAA tournament in March. Still, missing out on what would have been a marquee game between two conference title contenders in MSU and UVA certainly stings, just as the postponement of the neutral court game between Gonzaga and Baylor last Saturday did.