Each year, after the turkey settles and the college basketball Thanksgiving tournament buffet closes, the ACC/Big Ten Challenge arrives for three glorious days in early December and delivers tasty tilts between perennial powers expected to contend for championships in March and April.
The three-day ESPN creation also aims to give one conference bragging rights - not that many fans remember, or care, frankly, which one holds the edge in the 14-game challenge. Instead, this affair revolves around the marquee match-ups between ranked teams, providing an early barometer of a team’s potential and for the visitors, testing their mettle against a strong opponent in a hostile arena.
When viewed through that lens, the ACC / Big Ten Challenge has never been better. On Tuesday and Wednesday, nine teams ranked in the latest AP Top 25 poll will compete, including three games featuring two top-11 teams. Representatives from the two conferences occupy the top five slots in the Pomeroy Ratings and 10 of the top 15. Newly crowned No. 1 Louisville plays host to sizzling No. 4 Michigan in the meet on Tuesday
Here are six things to watch for this week.
The Tar Heels rebounded from a dismal effort against Michigan in the semifinals of the Battle 4 Atlantis to defeat No. 13 Oregon 78-74 and escape the island with a 6-1 record. Still, this is an atypical Roy Williams squad on the offensive end. UNC has finished top 25 nationally in points per possession the last five seasons but is 106th (1.034 ppp) as Ohio State brings the nation’s second best defense to town. The Carolina secondary fastbreak became a staple in Chapel Hill under Dean Smith and the Heels have played even faster under Williams but these Heels rank 337th in scoring efficiency in transition (0.799 ppp).
The Buckeyes breezed to a unbeaten record in seven home games to open the season and anyone questioning this team’s ceiling should examine how they dismantled Villanova 76-51 on Nov. 13th. Kaleb Wesson is a 6-foot-9, 270-pound problem for opponents, controlling the paint on both ends. The final destination for this Ohio State team depends on the production it receives from the backcourt. Duane Washington, C.J. Walker and Luther Muhammad have shown flashes, but must be consistent to lead their squad to Atlanta next April.
After rising briefly to No. 1, the Blue Devils plummeted to No. 10 following a home loss Stephen F. Austin and a mediocre performance against solid Big South Conference program Winthrop. Now they head to East Lansing to face coach Tom Izzo and the Michigan State Spartans, who also held the top perch but have lost twice. Both teams are battling injuries. Duke will miss athletic freshman Cassius Stanley (hamstring) and Joshua Langford hasn’t played for Michigan State this season. Duke committed 59 turnovers the last three games and the Spartans should dominate the rebounding battle.
This is the game for the college basketball fan who appreciates a good defensive stand. There will be many bodies on the floor and long possessions in this rematch of an epic Elite 8 game Virginia claimed in overtime last year en route to the national title. From an efficiency perspective, Virginia’s defense is better, although it must find someone to replace the scoring of forward Braxton Key, who is recovering from wrist surgery. Virginia (7-0) leads the nation in points allowed per possession (0.67) after holding poor Maine to 26 points last time out. Purdue (4-3) is 7th, relying on 7-3 center Matt Haarms to deter opponents from scoring near the basket.
Terps fans have been here before under coach Mark Turgeon, feeling good about their team in the early going only to watch another March collapse. They’ve reached the Sweet 16 just once in the previous eight seasons. So far, this squad feels different, rallying to avoid an upset to Tulane in the opening round of the Advocare Invitational, slipping past pesky Harvard and destroying Marquette in the title game to rise to No. 3 in the poll - the program’s highest mark since the 2015-16 season. The Terps have four wins over top-100 KenPom teams and should pick up another at home against Notre Dame, keeping hope alive in College Park a little longer, anyway.
Perhaps a prelim, if you will, to another meeting between these two on the first Monday in April. The Louisville Cardinals have ACC preseason player of the year Jordan Nwora. Michigan has Zavier Simpson and a host of shooters. The Wolverines hit 33 of 70 3-pointers in streaking to the Battle 4 Atlantis title. They vaulted from outside the poll to No. 4, tying a record set by Kansas in the 1989-90 season for highest debut. The Cards have been sharp in breezing to seven consecutive season-opening victories but have yet to play an opponent inside the KenPom Top 80. The KFC Yum! Center is certain to be cooking in coach Chris Mack’s biggest game yet in his two seasons on the Louisville sidelines.
Miami at Illinois, 7 p.m. (ESPN2)
Clemson at Minnesota, 9 (ESPN2)
Iowa at Syracuse, 7 (ESPN2)
Northwestern at Boston College, 7 (ESPNU)
No. 4 Michigan at No. 1 Louisville, 7:30 (ESPN)
No. 17 Florida St. at Indiana, 9 (ESPN2)
Rutgers at Pittsburgh, 9 (ESPNU)
No. 10 Duke at No. 11 Michigan St., 9:30 (ESPN)
No. 5 Virginia at Purdue, 7:15 (ESPN2)
Nebraska at Georgia Tech, 7:15 (ESPNU)
Notre Dame at No. 3 Maryland, 7:30 (ESPN)
Wake Forest at Penn State, 9:15 (ESPNU)
Wisconsin at N.C. State, 9:15 (ESPN2)
No. 6 Ohio St. at No. 7 North Carolina, 9:30 (ESPN)