You may recall that the ACC won the first ten of these, while the Big Ten has emerged victorious the last two years. (Of course now that there are 12 games there could be a tie.) One-sided dominance that lasted an entire decade rightly focused our attention on which league actually wins the Challenge, but in the past couple years we’ve seen that, in a competition between rough equals, winning a league-wide series like this requires equal measures of strength and chance. To put it bluntly, determining which conference can piece together seven victories depends heavily on things like whether Boston College can win at home against Penn State. I understand why that question is vital to the second- and first-year head coaches involved. It is perhaps less vital to many others.
Which is why I’m interested in more than merely which conference wins. I’m interested in how Indiana looks in their first road game outside their home state against an NC State team that is, by far, the most talented opponent they’ve seen this season. I’m interested in whether Tony Bennett can show Michigan that he’s at last molded Virginia into something akin to the remorselessly effective Washington State teams that propelled him into his gig in Charlottesville. Most of all I’m interested in two games in particular. These brackets were set back in May and the two marquee contests still look very good.
Duke at Ohio State
Tuesday: ESPN, 9:30 ET
Forget Austin Rivers, if only for a moment. He’ll be drafted before any of these other guys he’s playing with, but right now he’s more solid than stellar. Rivers is shooting 37 percent on his threes, 46 percent on his twos, and 65 percent at the line. For a freshman to do that at Duke while attempting 28 percent of his team’s shots is certainly noteworthy, but at the same time it confirms what Mike Krzyzewskitold Luke Winn in October. Seen in context Rivers has been great, but he suffers from invidious comparisons to a certain predecessor. He hasn’t been instant-sensation Kyrie Irving-great. With the likes of Irving, Wall, Rose, and Durant, context is never invoked.
Poor Coach K, burdened with a star freshman who hasn’t been quite as good in his first 376 possessions as we think a healthy Irving would have been across his whole freshman year. The Blue Devils are 7-0 anyway because they’ve combined two things that do not usually go together: accuracy on frequent threes (they’re shooting 46 percent, and threes have comprised 37 percent of their attempts — Seth Curry’s hitting 57 percent of his treys), and regular trips to the foul line. I don’t write off either characteristic as a mere November oddity, because in fact the Blue Devils have played a very impressive schedule already. (And where did this new improved Ryan Kelly come from? I see you, young man, and your scary-good accuracy from both sides of the arc.) I just think that in particular the tremendous free throw imbalance that Duke’s enjoyed vis a vis their opponents will shrink if not vanish completely in Columbus. That’s Ohio State’s shtick too, and they’ll be playing at home.
The Buckeyes have scored 1.17 points per trip to this point despite the fact that they’re yet to find the range from the perimeter because their twos always go in, they don’t turn the ball over, and they, like Duke, go to the line all the time. Jared Sullinger has been roughly as monstrous as expected, as in 67 percent shooting on twos, and rebounding 32 percent of opponents’ misses while on the floor. But the new element in the mix is his 85 percent shooting at the line. If that, or anything near it, continues, Sullinger will have to be sent to the NBA in three weeks or so at the start of their season. He’ll just be too good. After Sullinger is forced to shake David Stern’s hand, Thad Matta’s team will still be pretty good. Though William Buford’s teammates can’t yet make threes, Buford sure can (he’s shooting 50 percent thus far), and he’s doing it while accounting for 30 percent of his team’s shots during his minutes. Deshaun Thomas is the most efficient scorer in the history of Division I who shoots just 28 percent from beyond the arc — he’s been that good inside and at the line. And Aaron Craft has already recorded 21 steals in 303 personal defensive possessions. Watch to see where Craft is sent defensively. Given the Blue Devils’ sassy new no-point-guard configuration, Matta will have a decision to make there.
Wisconsin at North Carolina
Wednesday: ESPN, 9:30 ET
Watching Wisconsin’s season to date I can’t help but wonder if this whole thing was dreamed up by my colleague Ken Pomeroy to tease out the relative importance of strength of schedule. The Badgers have played the likes of Kennesaw State, Colgate, and UMKC, among others, and, as you may have heard, beaten them all silly. The question confronting Ken’s laptop, unavoidably, is whether it matters if a team beats Kennesaw State by 54 points (actual margin) as opposed to 25 (normal lopsided win). You and I, happily, are not Ken’s laptop, so we get to hedge our bets and invoke that hoary old piece of superstition known as the past. One hiccup versus North Dakota State in the Kohl Center in 2006 notwithstanding, Bo Ryan’s teams have very often beaten the teams they should beat, and done so rather soundly. That ability has netted Ryan four Sweet 16 appearances, and one trip to the Elite Eight.
Then again the other night the Badgers administered a sound thrashing to BYU on a neutral floor, and the Cougars are not Colgate. Wisconsin is now very much a perimeter-oriented team, so, sure, if they can make threes against the Tar Heels — and Ryan’s team is shooting 47 percent from outside this year — there’s little doubt that the game will be on. The preseason buzz was focused on Jordan Taylor (in the Badgers’ phenomenal start, Taylor has been very un-phenomenal inside the arc), but thus far it’s been Ben Brust and Jared Berggren taking the lion’s share of the shots. And if you’re snickering at “Ben Brust and Jared Berggren,” well, I’m not. Wisconsin’s opponents this season have made 33 percent of their twos.
I’ll go out on a limb and say Carolina will beat that number, with or without the gimpy Harrison Barnes. Kendall Marshall will see to it. Marshall’s early-season numbers point to a point guard unlike any I’ve ever seen. I don’t mean unparalleled, I mean incomparable in the literal sense of the word. He’s different. You’ve heard of pass-first point guards, but if Marshall keeps this up I am coining the term shoots-never. To date the sophomore has accounted for just nine percent of UNC’s attempts while he’s on the floor. But he stockpiles assists like someone who obsessively tracks them to the exclusion of all else. His teammates are fine with that obsession, of course — they get the rock in position to score. If John Henson could just stay away from the free throw line he’d be as efficient as Ben Brust (high praise!). Good thing, too, because UNC has needed that efficiency: is it too early to worry about Tyler Zeller? I confess to being mildly surprised by both the 48 percent shooting inside the arc and the 66 percent accuracy at the line. Does he just need contacts?
Last thought. In Carolina’s last two games (a win against South Carolina and a loss against UNLV) opponents are shooting 40 percent on their threes. Wisconsin shoots those often, and so far they’ve done quite well. Watch the Badgers’ threes.