No. 3 Michigan State salvaged some pride for the Big Ten on Thursday night, but the Spartans’ 81-63 victory over No. 5 Notre Dame marked the end of an ACC/Big Ten Challenge that should help boost the reputation and the tournament résumés for several ACC programs.
ACC teams won 11 of the 14 matchups against their Big Ten brethren this week. Along the way, they helped us at least begin to answer some questions about what to expect this season as the first month of college basketball comes to a close and conference play draws closer. So what have we learned about both leagues from a week full of impressive performances and dramatic finishes? Let’s take a look.
Who in the Big Ten can challenge Michigan State?
The list is looking pretty short based on this week’s results, but there are teams that should be able to improve after going through early growing pains.
Purdue bounced back from two disappointing losses in the Bahamas to beat No. 17 Louisville in spite of not being able to buy a bucket in West Lafayette, Indiana. Richard Pitino said his Minnesota team “squandered opportunities” to beat Miami. The Golden Gophers should be in better shape to take advantages of those chances when junior guard Dupree McBrayer returns from a leg injury.
Maryland took undefeated Syracuse down to the buzzer thanks to the 3-point shooting of sophomore Kevin Huerter. If the Terps’ loaded sophomore class can figure out how to close games more effectively, they could turn into a dangerous team. For now, though, Michigan State’s depth -- Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford both poured in 17 points and made big plays against the Irish -- has Tom Izzo’s group sitting head and shoulders above the rest of the league.
Can Duke keep winning close games?
Three times in the past week, the top-ranked Blue Devils have come up with the clutch plays they needed to win tight games. Most recently, they outscored Indiana 16-6 in the final five minutes Wednesday at a revved-up Assembly Hall to break a 75-75 tie and get their ninth win of the season. So are these nail-biters a good sign for a young team developing its killer instinct, or is Duke bound to lose a few of these eventually?
The composure the Blue Devils showed after a long week of travel and emotionally taxing games can’t hurt. And it’s hard to imagine many bad things happening if freshman star Marvin Bagley III continues on his current trajectory. He’s averaging 22.3 points and 11.1 rebounds without making it feel as though he’s taking touches away from any of his teammates. Bagley has been as good as advertised in his first month of college hoops without truly taking over a game yet. When he starts doing that, Duke might not have to worry about how it will handle close games.
Does Luke Maye have staying power for the Tar Heels?
North Carolina’s homegrown hero from last season is more than just a feel-good story who shined for one weekend in March. Maye scored 27 points in a bounce-back victory over Michigan this week, marking the third time he’s topped 25 in seven games this season. The junior leads the Tar Heels in minutes and scoring after one month and has carved himself out a spot as one of the league’s better big men.
Who helped themselves the most for March?
Tyus Battle and Syracuse added a quality win to its 6-0 record by beating Maryland, but the Orange’s biggest test will come this weekend against Kansas. The team that might have bought itself an extra seed or two this week was No. 10 Miami, which finished its undefeated November by beating the 12th-ranked Gophers on the road.
Both those teams should get better as the season wears on, which should make the Hurricanes’ victory stand out to the selection committee as the tournament approaches. They have a shot to finish nonconference play without a loss. The Canes look as though they could be one of the most exciting and entertaining groups in a conference that proved this week that it’s deeper and more dangerous than any league in the country.