Sunday, November 25, 2001

The CourtMaster Previews the ACC-Big 10 Challenge

Originally posted on DukeBasketballReport.com

Hear ye, hear ye! Court is back in session, and it's time to rule on the annual clash of the titans, the ACC-Big 10 Challenge. I'll preview each match-up in the order the games will be played so you can easily follow along for your amusement as events unfold.

Tuesday 7 PM (all times Eastern), Illinois at Maryland, ESPN
The marquee match-up of the Challenge, with the #3 and #6 teams in the nation squaring off, occurs in the opening game. This will be the third consecutive year these teams have played in an early-season tournament. The Terps pulled out a win two years ago in the BB&T Classic in Washington, DC, and the Illini won in Maui last year. Illinois is the highest ranked non-conference team to visit Cole Field House since #1 Notre Dame lost to Maryland in January 1979.

This year's contest should resemble the game in Maui. Illinois controlled the boards in that game and are likely to do that again Tuesday night. Bill Self's team starts a front line of Robert Archibald (6'11", 250 lbs.), Brian Cook (6'10", 240), and Lucas Johnson (6'8", 23).

On paper, Maryland has the size to match up with them, but neither Chris Wilcox nor Tahj Holden has established themselves as a consistent force underneath to go along with All-American candidate Lonny Baxter. Until that happens, the Terps will have to rely on their perimeter game to beat a team like Illinois.

Maryland's backcourt of Juan Dixon and Steve Blake do not have a significant advantage, if any at all, over the Illini's Cory Bradford and Frank Williams. Bradford suffered through an off-season last year coming off of knee surgery, but coach Self says, "He is more explosive this year; his health and confidence have improved." I assume Williams will awaken from his early season slumber and that his team was sufficiently scared by their close win over Southern Illinois to be ready to play Tuesday night.

This promises to be an outstanding game, fiercely contested and down to the wire. In the end, I think Illinois' advantage inside will enable them to break Maryland's 79 game non-conference home winning streak, which dates back to 1989.

PICK: Illinois--Big Ten leads 1-0

Tuesday 7:30 PM, NC State at Ohio State, ESPN2
The Wolfpack will face an Ohio State team in transition. The Buckeyes must replace center Ken Johnson, the Big Ten's all-time leader in blocked shots. Without the imposing presence on both ends of the court, Ohio State coach Jim O'Brien says, "We have a chance to be better defensively. We can do some things we couldn't do last year. We weren't able to extend the defense in al five spots like we can this year. On offense, we're trying to push it a bit more."

This change in the Buckeye's style will somewhat mirror the way NC State plays. Both teams are perimeter oriented and have big question marks in their frontcourt.

Where the similarity ends is behind the 3-point stripe. Ohio State guards Brian Brown, Boban Savovic, Brent Darby, and Sean Connolly are all deadly from behind the arc, and Coach O'Brien could often put three of them on the floor together. I don't see where the Wolfpack has an answer for this, particularly with such a young team traveling to a hostile environment.

PICK: Ohio State--Big Ten leads 2-0

Tuesday 9:00 PM, Duke vs. Iowa in Chicago, ESPN
Iowa Coach Steve Alford has put together his best team so far, one that is well built for the rough and tumble inside play of the Big Ten. However, it was NOT built to take on a team with the quickness and explosiveness of Duke.

The best individual match in the game should be Iowa's Reggie Evans vs. Duke's Carlos boozer. Evans is one of the toughest low post players around and was the second leading rebounder in the nation last season. He should control the boards unless Boozer gets him in foul trouble.
The Hawkeye's other star, Luke Recker, is finally healthy and should knock down his usual 15-18 points in this game, but who will he guard? Whoever it is will have a huge advantage in quickness and should run Recker ragged.

As if Duke was not deep enough, freshman guard Daniel Ewing saw some extra playing time in Maui while Chris Duhon was dealing with severe leg cramps. Ewing took advantage of the opportunity and showed Coach K that he could give the Devils some quality minutes off the bench.

I wonder if the Blue Devils shouldn't take on the Chicago Bulls while they are in town. The Bulls might be able to give them a good workout.

PICK: Duke--Big Ten leads 2-1

Tuesday 9:30 PM, Minnesota at Wake Forest, ESPN2
There's not a lot of nationwide interest in this contest, but it could be one of the best games of the Challenge. The Gophers are one of the up and coming teams in the Big Ten. Coach Don Monson, who built up Gonzaga's program a few years ago, has quickly moved past the academic scandals under former Coach Clem Haskins to rebuild the Minnesota basketball program.

The Gophers have a potentially outstanding frontcourt led by Dusty Rychart and McDonald's All American freshman Rich Richert. Along with shot blocking center Jerry Holman, Minnesota is talented and tall (but not wide) up front.

Point guard is an entirely different kettle of fish for Coach Monson. Of the three players likely to see actions there, one has recovered from blowing out an ACL, one is a natural shooting guard, and the other is only 5'8" (finally, someone Archie Miller might be able to post up). Monson is not concerned about the talent he has at the point, but says, "last year they shot a lot; we're asking them to change that role this year."

The Deacons blew double digit leads in each of their four Preseason NIT contests, totally falling apart in the second half of the championship game against Syracuse. Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser still has some work to do to get his team to handle defensive pressure and close games.
Despite that, I like Wake in this game. I don't think the Gophers are strong enough to slow down Darius Songaila or athletic enough to stay with Josh Howard, Craig Dawson, or Antwan Scott.

PICK: Wake Forest--Challenge tied 2-2

Wednesday 7 PM, Wisconsin at Georgia Tech, ESPN
This might have been an interesting game last season. It should not be this year. New Badger Coach Bo Ryan, dominant at Division III Wisconsin-Platteville and successful at Division I Wisconsin-Milwaukee, arrived at Madison to find the cupboard nearly bare. Guard Kyle Penney is the only returning player who averaged more than five points per game last season.

The Badgers' offense won't quite resemble paint drying this year, but they will still be a defensive oriented team. In 1997, Ryan's Platteville team held opponents to an amazingly low 47.5 points per game.

Despite that, the Yellow Jackets should roll over Wisconsin. The Badgers don't match up well with either Tony Akins or Marvin Lewis, Tech's two main offensive threats.

It is critical that Coach Paul Hewitt gets his team to bounce back after they were bludgeoned by Illinois in Las Vegas. Working in their favor is Wisconsin's travel schedule. The Badgers return home from a tournament in Hawaii Tuesday morning only to turn around and head to Atlanta Tuesday night. That will be a tough task for a team very short on quality depth.

PICK: Georgia Tech--ACC leads 3-2

Wednesday 7:30 PM, Michigan State vs. Virginia at Richmond, ESPN2
This games pairs up two teams dealing with role reversals. Virginia Coach Pete Gillen, recently the underdog with a young, undersized team, now has a veteran squad with some size up front. Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo, who has led strong, experienced teams to the last three Final Fours, now has a group of untested youngsters to try and mold into a championship team.

So far in this young season, Izzo's squad has only vaguely resembled those Final Four teams. The Spartans still rebound and play a tenacious defense, but scoring points has been a challenge.
Point guard Marcus Taylor is the Spartans leading returning scorer. He will share the offensive load with Izzo's latest blue-chip recruit from Flint, Michigan, Kevin Torbert.

Big men Aloysius Anagonye (doesn't he just sound like a Spartan) and Adam Ballinger will control the boards for Michigan State. Ball handling is a major problem for Izzo to work with, particularly against a pressure defense.

The quickness of the Cavaliers' Roger Mason, Adam Hall, and Chris Williams should lead to enough easy hoops off turnovers to lead Virginia to victory, possibly be a wide margin.

PICK: Virginia--ACC leads 4-2

Wednesday 8:00 PM, Clemson at Penn State, ESPN Regional
The less said about the 2001-02 Penn State squad the better. ACC fans surely remember the Nittany Lions knocking North Carolina out of the NCAA Tournament last season on their way to the Sweet 16, but that team is a distant memory in (un)Happy Valley. The heart and soul of that squad either graduated or transferred, leaving Coach Jerry Dunn with a five-year contract extension but little short-term hope of success.

Forward Tyler Smith is the only returning player who scored more than two points per game for Penn State last season, and he is only suited to be a role player.

Even with the injury to Tony Stockman, Clemson should have enough to beat the Nittany Lions. Ray Henderson and Chris Hobbs should control the boards and score in the paint, and the potential is there for either guard Jamar McKnight or Ed Scott to have a big game.

PICK: Clemson--ACC leads 5-2

Wednesday 9:00 PM, Indiana at North Carolina, ESPN
This contest is far and away the most interesting of the night. Carolina has lost their first two home games for the first time in school history, while Indiana is off to a 3-1 start without playing a single home game.

Indiana Coach Mike Davis spent much of his time on the Challenge conference call whining about his team's road schedule, but he should be more concerned about his team's erratic offense.
Last year, in Davis' first year at the helm of Indiana, he preached a commitment to defense and actually saw the Hoosiers post better defensive numbers than they did under Coach Bob Knight. That trend needs to continue for them to be successful this season, as they demonstrated with a dismal 50-49 loss to Marquette at the Great Alaska Shootout.

Davis' main offensive weapon is sophomore Jared Jeffries, the most talented player to play at Indiana in several years. Other key players for the Hoosiers are point guard Tom Coverdale (second in the Big Ten in assists last season) and defender par excellence Dane Fife.

It is unlikely Indiana will play much zone defense against the Tar Heels, but it might be tempting since Carolina has been totally baffled by zones in their losses to Hampton and Davidson. Given the Tar Heels' difficulties on the offensive end, a strong man-to-man defense should be enough to get the job done for the Hoosiers.

The Dean Dome crowd could get ugly if the Heels get off to a bad start. Carolina Coach Matt Doherty might wish HE could take his team up to Alaska.

PICK: Indiana--ACC leads 5-3

Wednesday 9:30 PM, Florida State at Northwestern, ESPN2
Talk about ending an event with a thud. This does not figure to be a very entertaining game unless you are a Seminole fan.

Northwestern is coached by former Princeton head man Bill Carmody, so it should be no surprise that the Wildcats will play more like the Mildcats, slow and methodical. They don't have much choice. They are not very tall or athletic, so they have to hope to bore a team to death to steal a win. They are a veteran team and, with Carmody's success coaching this style, can do just that, particularly against undisciplined teams.

Florida State, on the other hand, is tall and athletic, and would love to play an up-tempo game. They are not the most disciplined team around, but their huge advantages in size and talent should overwhelm Northwestern.

Pick: Florida State--ACC Wins the Challenge 6-3

Those are my picks for what should be two evenings of entertaining and interesting basketball. One benefit of this compressed schedule for fans is that Dickie V can only be at one game per night.

Let me know what you think, either before or after the challenge, on the message boards or by e-mail at thecourtmaster@aol.com. Until next time, court is adjourned.

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