Another ACC/Big Ten Challenge is in the books, and though the result was in doubt for much of Wednesday night's proceedings, in the end the Big Ten notched its second straight (and second overall) Challenge win. So: Has the balance of power changed?
Let's not get carried away. The event is a lot of fun and it gives us some great hopes in late November, but it's folly to use it as a barometer of which conference is actually better. For one, the Big Ten is considerably better than the ACC this season, but with such a slim margin of victory (6-5), if one game goes the opposite way, we're looking at an ACC win. Plus, the lesser conference has won in the past: According to KenPom.com, the ACC was the best conference in the country last season, but the league still fell to the Big Ten for the first time in the competition's 11-year history. One conference can be better and deeper, and it doesn't matter. It's all about the matchups.
We had plenty of those this year, and plenty of them during Wednesday night's finale. So let's get a'recappin', shall we?
No. 1 Duke 84, No. 6 Michigan State 79: There are several lessons from Wednesday's game of the night -- one of the best we've seen all season -- and they are as follows:
1. Kyrie Irving is the best freshman, and maybe the best point guard, in the country. One of the lovely and insightful commenters in Wednesday night's live chat made the point that it took all of five games for Irving to realize that he can't be guarded. By, like, anyone. It might not have even taken that long. The point is, Irving is already a dominant college point guard, and there are few, if any, perimeter defenders in the country who look capable of stopping him.
The line is silly: 31 points (8-of-12 from the field, 13-of-16 from the line), six rebounds, four assists, two blocks and two steals. The ability is even sillier: Irving controls Duke's entire offense as though he's been in Durham for four years. He splits high ball-screen hedges with ease. He gets to the rim at will. He finds open shooters in Duke's spread offense. He gets the ball on the break and goes end-to-end as fast as any player in the game. He does, well, everything, and he is, after Wednesday's performance, looking like college hoops' freshman of the year. And yeah, guess what? Player of the year isn't that far off, either.
2. Michigan State is as good as advertised, provided the Spartans stop turning the ball over. This is nothing new for Tom Izzo's team. For whatever reason, MSU has been plagued by turnovers more often than not in recent years, and 2010-11 is thus far no different. The Spartans are averaging 17 turnovers per game; their turnover rate of 24.6 percent (which doesn't include Wednesday night's stats) ranks them No. 287 in the nation at giving the ball away. The Duke game continued the trend: MSU had 20 turnovers, plenty of which were sheer giveaways. The good news? The Spartans turned the ball over 20 times at Cameron Indoor Stadium against a very good Duke team and still managed to play the Dukies close throughout. If Izzo's squad can cut down on wasted possessions, they'll be every bit the Final Four team most predicted before the season began, and there will be an awfully good chance they'll face Coach K and company again. (Please, basketball gods, let this happen. We don't ask for much.)
3. Both of these teams should be pretty pleased. Duke should be happy because it's the best team in the country. Michigan State should be happy for the aforementioned reasons. Neither team should leave this game with anything resembling disappointment, even if the Spartans will be crushed at not pulling out the statement victory. These are two of the best teams in the country, and both proved as much on Wednesday night. The best is yet to come.
No. 18 Purdue 58, Virginia Tech 55: First, a quick order of back-patting business. Only one ESPN.com writer picked Purdue to win at Virginia Tech. Not only that, said writer picked Purdue to win by three. Who was this writer? (OK, OK, it was me. Gloating stops now.) How did Purdue make me look prescient? (No, seriously, I'll stop.) By doing what this Purdue team does: Playing defense so stifling, it can overcome a litany of struggles on the offensive end. And, of course, by relying on JaJuan Johnson. The preseason All-American was great -- 29 points, including the two biggest shots of the game -- but the rest of his team was not, at least not on the offensive end.
It's difficult to parse out how much of that has to do with Purdue, and how much has to do with Virginia Tech. The Hokies have been a great defensive team thus far this season. They, like their Boilermaker counterparts, simply struggle on the offensive end. Wednesday night, much of that struggle started with reigning ACC scoring leader Malcolm Delaney. Delaney went 2-for-18 and had four turnovers -- a consistent bugaboo for him this season -- and despite the Hokies' admirable effort on defense, you can't win many games if your star player shoots 11 percent from the field.
Right now, Virginia Tech faces a pressing question: Wherefore art thou quality nonconference wins? Much was made of Tech's tougher out-of-league schedule this season, but in every major test thus far -- Kansas State, UNLV and Purdue -- the Hokies have failed. No one left on the pre-ACC schedule looks like a marquee win opportunity; the best game is probably Mississippi State. Seth Greenberg's team will have to settle things in league play, or you'll see Greenberg agonizing on Selection Sunday for the third straight year.
Boston College 88, Indiana 76: This wasn't the greatest game in the world -- it contained shades of Wake Forest-Iowa from Tuesday night, and yes, I probably just made a bunch of Wake fans angry again -- but there were good takeaways for both teams. The Hoosiers proved they can score and compete with decent teams on the road, even if their defense needs serious work. Boston College proved it can play a more intelligent and composed brand of basketball under new coach Steve Donahue. Neither team looks tourney-bound, but neither team looked truly horrible either, and given where both of these programs are, those count as steps in the right direction.
Maryland 62, Penn State 39: Yes, you're reading that score line right. At home, against a young (albeit talented) Maryland team, Penn State scored a whopping 39 points. The Nittany Lions shot 14-for-68 from the field. They went 3-of-27 from 3. And because Maryland struggled so much in the first half, this game was actually close (26-20) at the break. Yes, your math is correct. That halftime score means Penn State scored exactly 19 points in the second half. We've seen offensive performances more putrid than this one so far this season -- take a bow, Cal Bears! -- but if you're in this conversation, it's not a good thing. And when even Talor Battle plays poorly, Penn State is going to have no chance of winning. That simple.
Wisconsin 87, NC State 48: For the sake of Wolfpack fans' collective sanity, perhaps the least said about this one the better. There are a few excuses for Sidney Lowe's team here. They were missing senior forward Tracy Smith, they were playing a Wisconsin team coming off a disappointing Old Spice Classic performance, and they happened to be playing that Wisconsin team at the Kohl Center, where that Wisconsin team almost never loses. All well and good. Still, a defeat this comprehensive -- the third-worst in Challenge history -- was not the sort of thing NC State fans pictured when Lowe landed his 2010 recruiting class, a class most scouts heralded as one of the best in the country. It was the class that would get NC State to the NCAA tournament, the class that would save Lowe from resignation territory in the near future. Even with the valid excuses for Wednesday night's blowout, all of that is now in doubt.