Virginia's upset of No. 13 Minnesota on Monday night altered the entire projection for the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. After all, that game was supposed to be a given, the best example of a good Big Ten team taking on a clearly inferior ACC squad at home.
The Golden Gophers would kick off the Big Ten's attempt to win its second straight Challenge in style and ease, and then everyone would drive home in the Minnesota cold, pleased with a Gophers win. Easy enough, right?
Of course, things didn't happen that way. The Cavaliers won, everyone was wrong, and all of a sudden the ACC -- despite its clear status as the more shallow of the two conferences this season -- was well-positioned to take the Big Ten's lunch money for the 11th time in 12 years.
A day later, the tide has changed again. With minimal exception, the Big Ten handled its business Tuesday night, winning four of the five Challenge games, building a 4-2 overall lead and -- again, all of a sudden -- setting itself up for a victory.
Will we be thrown for another loop on Wednesday? Who knows? Predicting this thing is hard. Recapping it is much easier. Let's do that then, shall we?
No. 21 Illinois 79, North Carolina 67: Before we delve into the hot mess that is North Carolina, let's heap some praise on the Fighting Illini. This is as deep and talented a team as Bruce Weber has had since that joyous, two-loss 2004-05 season. As Illinois' young pieces continue to mesh over the course of the season, you can probably expect to see more box scores like this one. Five Illini players (Mike Davis, Demetri McCamey, Mike Tisdale, D.J. Richardson, and Jereme Richmond) scored in double-digits in Tuesday's win, a testament both to the depth and versatility of this lineup and to McCamey's ability to run Weber's traditional motion offense with impressive ease.
And, of course, there's Carolina. The defensive end is one thing, and stopping this Illini team is tough, so we'll grant UNC a brief reprieve in that regard. But on offense? Yuck. This season's Tar Heels look all too similar to last season's version -- a team composed of disparate talented parts with no idea how to maximize each other's abilities on offense.
Point guard play remains a major concern, as neither Dexter Strickland, Larry Drew II nor Reggie Bullock can create their own shot or facilitate good looks for teammates. This is having a major effect on Harrison Barnes, who seems to make every catch on the wing at the free throw line, extended with a defender in his face. Barnes -- who went 2-for-9 from the field and scored eight points in Champaign --probably needs to be more assertive, but he would also benefit from a scheme that maximizes his ability. (For example, one that ran him off screens and helped him get into the lane, where he can finish over smaller defenders.) Instead, UNC doesn't seem to know what to do with him, and Barnes looks equally lost.
The one bright spot for Carolina on Tuesday? John Henson. The lanky forward scored 16 points on an efficient 8-for-11 shooting night, and his continued development can only help matters. But, um, yeah. That's about it. UNC has three or four things to figure out if it expects to make the tournament the season. In the meantime, Heels fans will continue what is no doubt already a full-fledged freak-out. It's hard to blame them.
No. 2 Ohio State 58, Florida State 44: This was an ugly game -- it's not too often you can shoot 32.2 percent from the field and win -- but it was a good win all the same for Ohio State. The Buckeyes faced what appears to yet again be the best defensive team in the country, and they did so on the road.
Florida State isn't just good at keeping opposing scores down; they're a visually impressive defensive team. Chris Singleton is that good and the FSU team defense is that complete. It's a counter-intuitively beautiful thing to watch. OSU managed it well, got scores when it could, kept turnovers in relative check and got back on defense as quickly as possible. When Florida State attempts to play offense, everything goes haywire. The Seminoles' next task is to find a way to get some sort of offense to match their defense. No matter how well you rotate and help on one end of the floor, if you're scoring 44 points you're not going to win very often.
Northwestern 91, Georgia Tech 71: The Associated Press headline you'll read if you click that link in the score refers to Northwestern as "perfect." It's not much of an exaggeration. The Wildcats shot 64.6 percent from the field and 63.2 percent from beyond the arc. Six players scored in double-figures and only one of those players needed more than eight shots to get there.
In fact, the only thing Northwestern wasn't really, really good at was free throws: The Wildcats went 17-of-30 from the line, so this margin could have been even more ugly than it was. Georgia Tech deserves some of the credit for that shooting -- at least get a hand in John Shurna's face, Jackets -- but for the most part, Northwestern was deadly accurate. This was never a game. Let the first-ever NCAA tournament talk continue.
Michigan 69, Clemson 61: Don't look now, but these Wolverines are marginally impressive. Considering the context -- this is basically a rebuilding year for John Beilein and company -- this has been a pretty tremendous start for Michigan. That includes a near-miss against Syracuse last week and now a road win at Clemson.
The Tigers didn't do themselves many favors, especially from long range; shooting 29 3-pointers and making seven of them is not a recipe for success, no matter the opponent. Nor is Clemson a definite NCAA tournament team. Still, getting a combined 38 points from two freshmen (Evan Smotrycz and Tim Hardaway, Jr.) in a nonconference road win is a good sign for this program's -- and maybe even this very team's -- future.
Wake Forest 76, Iowa 73: I'm not sure I've ever seen a more simultaneously ugly and exciting final two minutes of a game than in Wake Forest's three-point win over Iowa. The final two minutes were marked by bad shots, turnovers, long rebounds, more bad shots, and more long rebounds. And then came the king of bad shots: With the game tied at 73 and more than three seconds left on the clock, freshman J.T. Terrell pulled up for an entirely ill-advised 25-foot shot ... that, of course, went in. Iowa turned the ball over on its final possession and that was that. To Terrell's credit, he had been making shots all night. But with that much time left in a tie-game situation, you don't shoot that shot. Unless you're playing in the Wake Forest-Iowa game, I guess. Hey, whatever works.