December 10, 2020

10 Things We Learned from the ACC-Big Ten Challenge

The non-conference portion of the college basketball season might be a little abbreviated this year, but luckily, we haven't been deprived of events like the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

As always, this event delivered some incredible games over the past two nights. Despite a few games that were canceled because of COVID-related concerns, we ended up seeing 11 games, most of which were competitive.

In the end, the Big Ten won the competition 6-5, as the conference dominated on Tuesday while the ACC fought to make things respectable on Wednesday.

After 11 games, let’s take a look at what we learned — or at least what we think we learned — from the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

The Cancelations Will Continue

Unfortunately, the rash of COVID-related cancelations had an impact on the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. We were deprived of three scheduled games, including two of the more anticipated matchups: Louisville-Wisconsin and Virginia-Michigan State.

Even more unfortunate is that the cancelations aren’t likely to end anytime soon. Even with protocols in place, players testing positive and derailing their team’s schedule seems inevitable.

On the bright side, teams have been good about rescheduling games at the last minute. But watching Wisconsin play Rhode Island didn’t tell us nearly as much as seeing Wisconsin play Louisville.

The Big Ten is Crazy Deep

This much was apparent Tuesday when the Big Ten won six of seven games against the ACC.

Penn State, who was picked to finish 12th in the Big Ten in the preseason coaches poll, beat a ranked Virginia Tech team by 20 points. Minnesota, who was picked 11th, also won, albeit against one of the lower-level teams in the ACC. Even the Big Ten teams that lost like Purdue and Maryland showed that they have enough pieces to be competitive in the conference this season.

While some may argue that the league is top-heavy with three teams in the top six in the polls right now. But the ACC-Big Ten Challenge showed us that the Big Ten could have a dozen teams with a legitimate chance of making the NCAA Tournament.

Miami Has a Lot of Fight

If you missed the first game of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, then you missed a comeback for the ages. Miami scored just 14 points against Purdue in the first half and looked dead in the water with star point guard Chris Lykes missing the game due to injury. But the Hurricanes outscored the Boilermakers 44-22 during the second half to win 58-54.

Miami was able to pull that off despite making only one of 17 three-point attempts. It was a gritty effort by the Hurricanes, who were also out-rebounded in the game.

Nevertheless, Miami showed a ton of fight and a promising supporting cast, making them a team to watch closely when Lykes returns.

Iowa is a National Championship Contender

The Hawkeyes were tested by North Carolina on Tuesday and proved that they’re a serious championship contender.

At times, the Iowa offense was nothing short of magnificent. The way the Hawkeyes pass and shoot the ball is something special to watch. They also have Luka Garza, who is arguably the best post player in the country.

Of course, the Tar Heels made a run at them, challenging the Hawkeyes with their athleticism and size inside. But after UNC took the lead midway through the second half, Iowa had a response and was able to weather the storm and ultimately pull away for a 93-80 win.

To reach the Final Four, this was the kind of game that Iowa is going to need to win, and finding a way is proof that the Hawkeyes are a title contender.

Illinois is also a National Championship Contender

If Iowa was the most impressive team in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, Illinois was a close second.

While they got a little bit of a break by visiting Cameron Indoor Stadium without fans in the seats, the Fighting Illini dominated Duke from start to finish. Obviously, they can’t rely on shooting 58% from the field and 64% from the perimeter every night, but six players in double figures against a top-10 team shows that Illinois has the depth can win in March.

Ayo Dosunmu might be the most well-rounded player in the Big Ten because he’s good at everything. With the likes of Adam Miller and big man Kofi Cockburn alongside him, the Fighting Illini are going places after that blowout of Duke.

North Carolina is Back… Almost

Getting back to the Tar Heels, they may have been the best ACC team we saw in the Challenge despite losing to Iowa.

After one of the worst seasons in recent memory last year, North Carolina looks much-improved this season despite suffering back-to-back losses to Texas and Iowa. However, the Tar Heels don’t look all the way back just yet.

They have a nice collection of talent, but UNC is lacking that one bonafide star like Cole Anthony who can carry them in big games. Freshman R.J. Davis has played well early in the season, but he’s not yet the difference-maker that the Tar Heels need him to be.

North Carolina should be an NCAA Tournament team, but they might not have the horses to compete for an ACC title or make a deep run in March.

Clemson is an Interesting Sleeper

Despite being picked 10th in the ACC preseason, Clemson might be more interesting than people realize after the Tigers dismantled Maryland on Wednesday.

Keep in mind that Brad Brownell’s team has also beat Mississippi State and Purdue this season, giving the Tigers three wins over power-conference opponents. Without a lot of established stars, Brownell appears to be adopting Leonard Hamilton’s formula for recent success at Florida State by using a deep bench to increase the team’s defensive intensity and make players compete for playing time.

We’ll see how things pan out during the conference season, but Clemson could be a team to watch with great curiosity inside the ACC.

Rutgers Might Actually Make March Madness

The Scarlet Knights were more devastated than most teams last March when the NCAA Tournament was canceled. Rutgers likely would have been reached the Big Dance, although this year’s team will also have a legitimate chance to snap the program’s 30-year NCAA Tournament drought.

Ron Harper Jr. has emerged as a bonafide star while Montez Mathis and Jacob Young are also off to great starts. A year ago, the Scarlet Knights relied a lot on defense and balanced scoring. However, Rutgers now has standout players who they should be able to rely on game after game.

To be fair, the Syracuse team they beat Tuesday is currently without two starts. The Orange also led late in the game before going cold over the final five minutes. But the Scarlet Knights pass the eye test and look like a team that should make the NCAA Tournament.

March Could be Disappointing for the ACC

While it’s a little unfair to draw too many conclusions from one game, the ACC didn’t exactly flex their muscles during the past two days.

Heavyweights like Duke and North Carolina both lost while Florida State struggled a little more than they should have. While Miami and Clemson helped salvage the Challenge for the ACC, losses by Syracuse, Notre Dame and Virginia Tech don’t paint a bright picture for the ACC.

Right now, it’s hard to pick out an ACC team that looks like a serious Final Four threat. It’s even hard to be confident in more than a couple of teams surviving the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament based on what we saw.

While we missed the chance to see Virginia and Louisville play quality competition, there isn’t a lot of evidence that the ACC is going to feature prominently in the Big Dance.

The Big Ten is the Best Conference in the Country

Granted, this was obvious before the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, but the past two days have reinforced the fact that the Big Ten is the best conference in college basketball right now.

Iowa and Illinois both looked like championship contenders, and the same may be true for Michigan State as well. Top-25 teams like Rutgers and Ohio State also scored wins while Minnesota, Penn State, Indiana and Purdue all showed that there is plenty of talent in the middle of the pack, even if a couple of those teams lost.

Not only is there incredible strength at the top, but the Big Ten has at least a dozen teams that are worth watching closely this season, and no other conference in the country can say the same.

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