12:51 AM ET
John GasawayESPN Insider
- ESPN Insider college basketball contributor
- First began covering college hoops in 2004
- Has written for Basketball Prospectus and the Wall Street Journal
The ACC/Big Ten Challenge is tied at four games apiece. If the ACC can boast of masterful performances by Louisville and Duke, the Big Ten has been buoyed by road wins recorded by Iowa (at Syracuse) and Northwestern (at Boston College), as well as by Indiana’s surprisingly decisive 80-64 victory over No. 17 Florida State in Bloomington.
Meaning it all comes down to Wednesday night. Here’s a look back at how we got here and a look forward to Wednesday night.
Three things from Tuesday
The Cardinals are living up to their ranking so far
Chris Mack’s group entered the ACC/Big Ten Challenge as both the No. 1-ranked team in the nation and as an enigma. Louisville had reeled off seven wins to begin the season, and included in that total was a true road victory at Miami. Still, the Cardinals earned their No. 1 ranking because they were highly ranked in the preseason, they won their games and, not least, the teams above them in the polls all lost.
Now look. After suffocating No. 4-ranked Michigan so convincingly in a 58-43 win at home, Louisville is making a case that it just might be the best team in the nation. To be sure, more challenges await the Cards this month, including a neutral-floor game against Texas Tech and a road date at Kentucky. Just the same, having a national player of the year candidate like Jordan Nwora and a defense capable of being this dominant will likely keep the Cards in this “best team in the country” conversation all the way to April.
Nwora actually had what for him is a bad (or at least inefficient) game on offense against the Wolverines, needing 23 shots to score 22 points. It didn’t matter in the slightest, of course, because Mack’s junior was additionally pulling down 12 rebounds to go with just one turnover. It also helped the home team’s chances that UM’s shooting made Nwora’s look amazingly accurate.
A version of Louisville that features Nwora while also playing the kind of relentless and connected defense we saw Tuesday night appears to be a good bet to stay near or even at the top of the polls from this point forward. The enigma is no more: Put the Cardinals in the national title discussion.
Vernon Carey Jr. drops 26 points while Tre Jones adds 20 of his own to go with 12 assists in Duke’s 87-75 win vs. Michigan State.
The Spartans are not living up to their preseason ranking so far
Michigan State was no ordinary preseason No. 1 team. The Spartans were in fact the most popular choice for the top spot since North Carolina prior to the 2011-12 season. Tom Izzo’s men received no fewer than 60 of 65 first-place votes in the preseason AP poll.
Well, it looks like the pollsters were incorrect, at least so far. MSU is 5-3 after an 87-75 loss at home to Duke that wasn’t as close as the final score would suggest. Vernon Carey Jr. and Tre Jones carved up the Michigan State defense to the tune of a combined 46 points.
The problem for Izzo after eight games is that it’s still unclear how the Spartans should be dominating with this group of personnel. For the past two seasons, that answer involved heavy helpings of Cassius Winston‘s mastery plus excellent interior defense.
Winston still is doing Winston things, of course, but the interior D against quality opponents (not counting blowout wins against Binghamton and Charleston Southern) has been just average. Against the Blue Devils, that defense was even worse than average: Duke connected on 60% of its 2s Tuesday night. Izzo is famous for putting the pieces together by March, but in December, he definitely has his work cut out for him.
No relief in sight for the longest NCAA tournament droughts
Among all members of both the ACC and the Big Ten, Rutgers has been away from the NCAA tournament the longest. The last time the Scarlet Knights heard their name called on Selection Sunday was in 1991. On Tuesday night, Steve Pikiell’s team lost at Pittsburgh 71-60.
The next-longest such streak in the two conferences belongs to Boston College. The Eagles haven’t appeared in an NCAA tournament since 2009, and they too fell on Wednesday, 82-64 to Northwestern at home.
If this lack of recent NCAA tournament participation is truly a predictive rule for success or failure in the Challenge (hint: it’s not), bet against Georgia Tech (vs. Nebraska) and Wake Forest (at Penn State) on Wednesday night. The Yellow Jackets and the Demon Deacons both received their most recent tournament bids in 2010.
Three things for Wednesday
Terrapins tip off a crucial stretch
On paper, Maryland has what might appear to be a relatively friendly ACC/Big Ten Challenge pairing for a team ranked No. 3 in the nation. The Terrapins will host unranked Notre Dame (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), and if the Fighting Irish are a bit of a mystery (Mike Brey’s men have won six straight since dropping an opening-night game at North Carolina), they’re also a less formidable statistical opponent at this point in the season than Louisville or Virginia would have been.
Nevertheless, the contest against Notre Dame effectively marks the beginning of a pivotal three-game stretch for Mark Turgeon’s group. Following their Challenge matchup with the Irish, the Terps will swing into Big Ten action with a home game against Illinois and a road test at Penn State.
The Illini looked dreadful for the first two-thirds of their 81-79 loss at home to Miami, but an alternate spin would be that Brad Underwood’s team rather listlessly allowed the Hurricanes to post their best shooting game in more than two years — and Illinois still very nearly won. (Note additionally that if Kofi Cockburn keeps reliably swishing free throws, he will necessitate a revision of expectations for this offense.) As for the Nittany Lions, they looked superb against both Georgetown and Syracuse, and Pat Chambers’ squad is but a single 3-pointer against Ole Miss away from still being undefeated.
Notre Dame, the Illini and PSU all have the potential to shed more light on Maryland’s true early-season strength, and a 3-0 run here by the Terps would be no mean feat. Anthony Cowan Jr. and Jalen Smith have been about as outstanding as expected in the early going, and — most ominously for the rest of the Big Ten — it’s possible Maryland really has kicked the turnover habit that was so crippling for an otherwise excellent team last season. Do the Terps truly merit that No. 3 ranking? We’ll know much more after the next seven days.
Will the shots fall eventually for Anthony and the Tar Heels?
North Carolina hosts Ohio State on Wednesday (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) in a rematch of the classic shootout between the Tar Heels and the Buckeyes in Chapel Hill in the 2006 ACC/Big Ten Challenge. This time around, the collision between UNC and OSU promises to be momentous in its own right. At 7-0, Ohio State has ascended to No. 6 in the AP poll, while Roy Williams’ team suffered its lone loss at the hands of Michigan at the Battle 4 Atlantis.
One remarkable feature of the Tar Heels’ offense thus far, however, has been how many shots they’ve missed from the field. When Duke was really bad at shooting 3s last season, it commanded national attention; but this year’s UNC offense is, to this point, faring far worse than the Blue Devils did in terms of effective field goal percentage. North Carolina is making just 47% of its 2s and 30% of its 3s.
Cole Anthony memorably began the season with a 34-point explosion on 12-of-24 shooting against Notre Dame. Then things cooled down for the freshman: Anthony has hit 41% of his 2s and 30% of his 3s since that spectacular debut against the Irish. When and if Anthony and the Heels begin to hit their shots, this will be an extremely difficult team to beat.
The Mountain West dreams big for the 2020s
Conference play tips off in the Mountain West on Wednesday night with a full slate of games, including No. 25 Utah State at San Jose State (11:15 p.m. ET, ESPN2). The league is seeking a fresh start after a somewhat disappointing decade in terms of NCAA tournament performance. For example, MWC representatives collectively posted a record of 14-27 over the past 10 NCAA tournaments when those same teams would be expected to have won 26 games based on seeds alone.
A closer look at those 27 tournament runs reveals that just four Mountain West teams reached the Sweet 16: BYU (which was then a member) and Kawhi Leonard-era San Diego State, both in 2011; the Aztecs again in 2014; and Nevada in 2018. No MWC team besides the Wolf Pack has won a tournament game since 2015. And in the 21 years since the league was formed prior to the 1999-2000 season, no Mountain West team has ever reached the Elite Eight.
Then again, the conference is showing glimpses of better times. The Aggies are ranked, SDSU is undefeated with neutral-floor wins over Creighton and Iowa (and a true road victory at BYU) and the league as a whole appears statistically stronger than it was last season. Sam Merrill is the epitome of high-volume scoring efficiency from the line for USU, and Washington State transfer Malachi Flynn has looked invaluable early for Brian Dutcher’s Aztecs. Perhaps the 2020s will be the Mountain West’s time to roar in March at last.