With Midnight Madness a few months away, fans around the country have begun peering at non-conference schedules of their favorite teams in anticipation of some colossal matchups.
Here at March to March, we’re fans of the game, so our non-conference schedule cuts a wide swath. To help narrow our focus, let’s discuss the annual battle between conference giants by analyzing the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, which is shaping up to be an epic one.
Going into this season, the Big Ten has to be considered the toughest conference top to bottom for the following reasons.
First, it’s headlined by three teams with the potential to make a Final Four in Purdue, Michigan State, and Ohio State.
After those three, even Illinois has a solid chance to be a top-10-caliber club at points over the course of the season, while Bo Ryan’s Wisconsin club, a picture of consistency, continues to be a fixture a in the top 25.
If that’s not deep enough for you, consider that Minnesota has a better than average shot at making the tournament, while Northwestern is a potential bubble team after returning some key contributors from a feisty 2009-2010 club.
Indiana is just finding its sea legs under Tom Crean and will certainly sneak up on some clubs this season.
Iowa and Penn State? Spring football can’t get here soon enough.
As for the ACC, Duke is everybody’s choice to run the table in back-to-back fashion. UNC has the requisite talent to finally compete with their Tobacco Road rival after getting transcendent talent Harrison Barnes.
But don’t count out a talented, experienced, and hopping mad Virginia Tech squad that should have made the tournament last year after going 25-9 overall and 10-6 in a heck of a conference.
After these three big dogs, who should fight it out for the conference title, there’s not much else in the way of quality clubs.
Florida State and Miami make up the next tier of squads that may or may not finish in the top 25. Florida State has to replace Solomon Alabi, and Miami loses its top two scorers. The good news for the Canes is that Frank Haith played enough players and developed enough depth to field a good basketball team even though they lose a ton of production.
Virginia, Maryland, NC State, Georgia Tech, Wake Forest, and Clemson are all rebuilding, with each coach having to really reach into his bag of tricks after losing boatloads of talent. If any of these teams makes the tournament, it’ll be an incredible coaching job.
Make no mistake—despite having a powerful Duke and North Carolina at the top, the ACC is certainly not one of the deeper conferences in the nation, especially by ACC standards. Don’t be surprised when the Big Ten hands the Atlantic Coast its collective head again this year.
Let’s start by looking at the most anticipated game in the challenge to see how lopsided the outcome will be if at all.
Michigan State at Duke
Not only is this game the headliner of the Conference Challenge, but it’s also likely the most intriguing non-conference game in all the land as far as nonconference tilts go. Two top-five teams coming off Final Four runs with virtually everybody back. Two great coaches. One historic arena. It just doesn’t get any better unless it involves Magic Johnson backing down Mike Gminski.
What to Watch for
I’ll be interested to see Kalin Lucas and how the Achilles tendon injury affects his game. If he’s close to 100 percent, the Spartans will be a force not only in this game but in the chase for the national title as well.
Chris Allen and Korie Lucious join a healthy Lucas to give the Spartans one of the best backcourts in America, one that will give the Dukies—and every team, for that matter—all they want on the perimeter.
Keep an eye on Draymond Green as a playmaker from the point forward position. Just as he was in last season’s tournament, the hybrid 4 will be a matchup nightmare for whomever Duke rolls out at the 4 spot.
As for Duke, I’ll sum it up like this: They’ll be better than last year’s squad on both ends. With Kyrie Irving and Seth Curry joining up with Nolan Smith in the backcourt, the Devils can take on all comers on the perimeter. Irving gives the Devils their first blow-by guy in a while, and Curry has range that extends to the locker room.
Oh yeah, the Blue Devils also have the odds-on favorite to win National Player of the Year honors—one Kyle Singler.
Tom Izzo’s clubs always come to play, and they always guard whether they’re at home or away. But the Spartans will have some chemistry issues to work out early on in the 2010-2011 season. Cameron Indoor is the last place you want to be if you’re hammering out kinks. Hell, it’s the last place you want to be if you’re hitting on all cylinders.
Can Lucious go back to playing off the ball and defer to Lucas? Is Lucas healthy to begin with? Who’s going to replace Raymar Morgan as a glass eater inside?
Duke has questions as well. But they’ve got a bag of answers that would make a politician envious. The Plumlees may or may not be the dominant players inside that the departed Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas were, but Duke only needs the brothers Plumlee to be adequate. Signs of a happy marriage.
One of the perks of sporting the premier perimeter game in all of college basketball.
The Devils have an unquestioned go-to guy in Singler, a steady, experienced lead guard in Smith, and a dynamic, explosive offensive player in Irving who doesn’t really need to be a superstar right away. Curry gives the Blue Devils the ability to threaten the arc to replace Jon Scheyer's key contribution. Andre Dawkins gives the Blue Devils an explosive guard/wing off the bench.
Oh yes, they have the best college coach in the game today, even if Coach Izzo is a close second.
Mark it down—the Devils win comfortably 84-74 in an exciting open-floor game, giving the ACC round one.
Up next: the second most interesting game in the Challenge—Purdue at Virginia Tech.
From the blog: March To March
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