A while back I started referring to the ACC-Big Ten Challenge as the Iowa Caucuses of hoops. It comes way too early, and its results are given far too much importance by analysts eager to analyze, but it is still a genuinely compelling competitive spectacle.
Like presidential elections and Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game, the Challenge has proven itself to be remarkably susceptible to long multi-year reigns of domination by one side or the other. The ACC won the first one of these in 1999, and in the 13 Challenges since, “same winner as last year” repeated mindlessly and automatically would have been correct 92 percent of the time.
“Same winner as last year” looks good again this year. With three of its teams ranked in the top five in the country, the Big Ten enters the 2012 Challenge as the favorite. That being said, the Challenge is here not only for conference bragging rights (which, after all, ride just as heavily on Nebraska vs. Wake Forest as they do on Ohio State vs. Duke). It’s also here to bring us interesting games.
Tonight’s interesting game is North Carolina vs. Indiana, and my friend Ken gives the Tar Heels a 16 percent chance of winning on the home floor of the No. 1 team in the nation. That sounds like a small probability, but, to borrow a page from Ezra Klein, one can also see this glass as 16 percent full. If you tell me there’s a 16 percent chance that I’ll receive a check for a million dollars tomorrow, I’m not wrong to be somewhat excited today. With a shock-the-world win in Bloomington by the Tar Heels, this whole “same winner as last year” discussion could become much more interesting.
Still, it’s easy to see why Ken’s laptop is skeptical. With a UNC team that’s shooting 58 percent at the line and has made just 47 percent of its twos against six opponents wherein resurgent but not yet mighty Butler is the clear standout, we’re well within our rights to be on full 2009-10 alert. It could be the case that this group, like their predecessors three years ago, just don’t score much.
Roy Williams‘ offense has fallen by default to James Michael McAdoo, and the consensus of smart people is that he’s going to be one of the best players in the world before long. But we’ve seen cases where such players pass too quickly through the college ranks to help their team’s actual performance in a way that’s commensurate with their clear individual potential. In the here and now McAdoo appears to be on track this season to make 50 to 55 percent of his twos and draw fouls but also to commit a few too many turnovers and miss about one in three free throws. That, quite rightly, won’t negate anything the NBA is already thinking about McAdoo, but the well-worn paradox here is that within the narrow and remorselessly present-tense provinces of college hoops a markedly less sexy plodder like Tyler Zeller would have a more beneficial impact on the Heels’ offense.
BONUS “I am the Mayor of Lemmingville” note! I actually don’t see much consequence in debating Indiana vs. Duke for the No. 1 ranking, but, for the record, the “best resume” argument does strike me as odd. Rankings are about teams, not resumes, and if the Miami Heat were a D-I team that had happened to play a meh schedule up to this point, I would still vote them as No. 1, meh resume and all. But, again, it’s November, and who knows what we’ll find to debate about in three months or so. On the other hand, if the Hoosiers and Blue Devils stay exactly where they are and finish the season with us still parsing their differences, they’ll both be No. 1 seeds. Problem solved.