Before the season started, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski talked of the newly expanded ACC as perhaps the best conference in the history of the game.
To accomplish that, the ACC may have to overcome the Big Ten. The Big Ten was the nation’s top league through last year’s regular season, and last year’s tie in the conference challenge was the first time since 2008 the Big Ten didn’t win.
The ACC is formidable, indeed, with Duke and Syracuse leading the way. Michigan State joins the Blue Devils and Orange as national championship contenders.
But as Syracuse, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh participate in their first ACC-Big Ten Challenge, the ACC’s middle teams are struggling. North Carolina has had two embarrassing losses. Potential NCAA runs for Boston College and Georgia Tech have yet to materialize. NC State and Miami are rebuilding.
Not that the Big Ten is the nation’s most perfect conference. Michigan, Ohio State and Indiana are still finding their way after elite seasons a year ago.
For teams in both leagues, the ACC-Big Ten Challenge will be a key springboard.
The ACC-Big Ten Challenge: Ranking the Matchups
All times Eastern.
1. Michigan at Duke (Tuesday, 9:15 p.m., ESPN)
The best game in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge features two teams still trying to get their bearings. Duke has lost its two marquee games this season to Arizona and Kansas on neutral courts and needed a free throw in the final seconds to beat Vermont by one point. This year’s Duke team has less experience than most, and the evidence has been clear early on. Sophomore Rasheed Sulaimon has struggled to start this year, and point guard Quinn Cook disappeared at times in two games in Madison Square Garden. Jabari Parker also failed to score 20 points for the first time this season against Arizona. He scored 19, thanks in part to an 0 for 5 performance from 3-point range. Michigan’s story has been more related injuries. Nik Stausktas’ status is unclear for Tuesday thanks to an ankle injury. Michigan’s leading scorer (20.3 ppg) missed a warmup game against Coppin State on Friday as Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III have also been hobbled.
2. Indiana at Syracuse (Tuesday, 7:15 p.m., ESPN)
Now the ACC feels more like a reality for Syracuse with the Orange participating in one of the top matchups of the ACC-Big Ten challenge. Syracuse looks every bit the ACC title contender after winning the Maui Invitational with a 75-67 win over Baylor. C.J. Fair and Jerami Grant were a combined 18 of 29 from the field for 43 points against the Bears. The duo could be quite the barometer for Hoosiers freshman Noah Vonleh, who is averaging 12.9 points and 10.4 rebounds this season.
3. Notre Dame at Iowa (Tuesday, 9:15 p.m., ESPN2)
Iowa went to the Battle 4 Atlantis looking to prove it was more than the product of a weak early season schedule. The Hawkeyes may still have some work to do after defeating Xavier and UTEP and falling in overtime to Villanova. Notre Dame recovered from its home loss to Indiana State to pound three overmatched opponents. The key will be the play of two big guards, the 6-6 Roy Devyn Marble for Iowa and 6-5 Jerian Grant for Notre Dame.
4. North Carolina at Michigan State (Wednesday, 9 p.m., ESPN)
North Carolina has been all over the place with a win over Louisville and losses to Belmont and UAB. Without P.J. Hairston, the Tar Heels are low on game-breaking players. James Michael McAdoo is averaging just 13.8 points and six rebounds. Marcus Paige, Carolina’s only true outside shooting threat, is averaging 20.8 points per game, but he’s playing out of position. Michigan State is as deep and experience as any team in the country. Between this game and Kentucky on Dec. 14, this could be a long stretch for the Tar Heels.
5. Wisconsin at Virginia (Wednesday, 7 p.m., ESPN2)
Two teams from cut from the same cloth meet again with one loss between them (Virginia’s to VCU). Wisconsin, more or less, has been balanced among its five veterans in the starting five. Virginia has been stingy on defense to start the season, and South Carolina transfer Anthony Gill has taken some of the scoring load off Joe Harris. Harris is averaging 12.4 points per game, four points fewer than last season, but he’s shooting a career high from the field (60.3 percent) and from 3-point range (55.2 percent).
6. Maryland at Ohio State (Wednesday, 7 p.m., ESPN)
Raise your hand if you thought Maryland would find a go-to scorer before Ohio State this season. Jake Layman, a 6-8 wing, has become the key guy for Maryland this season, averaging 16.4 points after averaging 5.5 a year ago. The Buckeyes have been more balanced, but neither LaQuinton Ross nor Lenzelle Smith Jr., has become the breakout scorer Ohio State has been seeking.
7. Illinois at Georgia Tech (Tuesday, 7:15 p.m., ESPN2)
Illinois is off to another hot start under John Groce even if it lacks the buzz of the Maui Invitational win a year ago. The key win for Illinois is a 61-59 victory over UNLV on the road. Drake transfer Rayvonte Rice is quickly becoming one of the Big Ten’s top newcomers after scoring 25 points with 10 rebounds against the Runnin’ Rebels. Georgia Tech is also led by a transfer in Trae Golden, who was eligible immediately after leaving Tennessee, but the results haven’t been as good for the 5-3 Yellow Jackets.
8. Boston College at Purdue (Wednesday, 9 p.m., ESPN2)
Boston College rebounded from a disastrous 1-3 start to beat Washington in the 2K Sports Classic, but the Eagles aren’t anywhere near where the need to be. Olivier Hanlan and Ryan Anderson need help. Purdue is 6-2 but had difficulties in the Old Spice Classic, losing in a rout to Oklahoma State, folding in the second half against Washington State and surviving a scare against Siena. Both teams need to turn a corner heading into conference play.
9. Florida State at Minnesota (Tuesday, 9:30 p.m., ESPNU)
Boris Bojanovksy (Slovakia) and Michael Ojo (Nigeria) are on their way to becoming a solid frontcourt duo on a team that already includes Okaro White (Clearwater, Fla.). Minnesota continues to be led by the unrelated backcourt duo of Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins, the latter is second on the team in rebounding (7 rpg)
10. Penn State at Pittsburgh (Tuesday, 7:30 p.m., ESPNU)
Pittsburgh is 7-0 and has allowed only two opponents to score more than 60 (both scored 67), but the schedule is paper thin. The Panthers’ best win is over Stanford. Penn State won’t be much of a tougher test, but D.J. Newbill and Tim Frazier are a high-scoring backcourt.
11. Northwestern at NC State (Wednesday, 7:30 p.m., ESPNU)
T.J. Warren is carrying the load for NC State right now, scoring 30 points in each of the last two games — on 41 shots. Northwestern is still adjusting to a new coach and new system during its 4-4 start.
12. Miami at Nebraska (Wednesday, 9:30 p.m., ESPNU)
Don’t tune in expecting Miami’s team from last season. Almost the entire returning cast is gone, and it shows. Nebraska basketball is about what you’d expect, though at least the Cornhuskers beat Georgia.