Big Ten hoops gauntlet starts Friday

Michigan trounces UNC to stay unbeaten (1:31)

The Wolverines use 24 points from freshman Ignas Brazdeikis and another 21 from Charles Matthews to breeze past the Tar Heels 84-67 in Ann Arbor. (1:31)

The ACC-Big Ten Challenge again showcased the depth in two of America's most powerful leagues. We had multiple upsets and a series of dominant efforts (Hello, Duke and Michigan) from both conferences, which tied (7-7) in the event.

The ACC started the season surrounded by hype. Duke's young stars have dominated the headlines and airwaves. Virginia has resumed its per-possession strengths. And the league welcomed multiple five-star freshmen who've enhanced the conference.

But the Big Ten had a difficult offseason and more questions to address about its collective health when the year began. Mo Wagner left a Michigan squad that reached the national title game. A pair of lottery picks, Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr., left Michigan State. Purdue's standout senior class graduated.

The ACC-Big Ten Challenge offered the league an opportunity, however, to prove last year's four-bid Selection Sunday was an anomaly.

Here's what I learned about the Big Ten during the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, as the conference prepares to start league play on Friday:

1. Ignas Brazdeikis is America's MVP

The Lithuanian-Canadian sensation could lead Michigan to the national title that eluded the program a year ago. Somehow, John Beilein lost Mo Wagner, a first round pick by the Los Angeles Lakers who averaged 21.2 PPG and 10.3 RPG last year, and improved. OK, it's a little early and the sample size is a bit small to suggest the Wolverines with Brazdeikis, the 6-foot-7 combo forward who scored 24 points in Michigan's 84-67 win over North Carolina on Thursday, is definitively better than last year's dominant group. But consider this from hooplens.com: Michigan has made 40 percent of its 3-pointers and 53.4 percent of its shots inside the arc while committing turnovers once every 10 trips up the floor and generating a 1.17 points-per-possession offensive rate with Brazdeikis on the floor. With Brazdeikis on the bench, the Wolverines have made just 20 percent of their 3-pointers and nearly doubled their turnover percentage. Also, the team hovers around a ridiculous 0.70 PPP defensive efficiency with or without Brazdeikis. The Wolverines, right now, are the Cleveland Cavaliers with LeBron James when Brazdeikis is on the floor and the Cleveland Cavaliers post-LeBron James when he's on the bench. If Brazdeikis maintains this production and impact throughout the year, Beilein could cut down the nets in Minneapolis.

2. The Big Ten is a gauntlet again

The league endured its most embarrassing Selection Sunday in a decade last year when just four teams (Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State and Purdue) secured berths to the NCAA tournament. After the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, however, it's clear the Big Ten has left that disappointment in the past. The league has more depth this year. Ethan Happ led Wisconsin to a win over NC State, another sign the Badgers could challenge Michigan for a league title. Nebraska beat a good Clemson squad. Maryland (41 percent from the 3-point line) pushed Virginia in a 76-71 loss. Iowa held off an improved Pitt team. And Purdue played Florida State to the final buzzer in a road loss. At its best, the Big Ten has been a deep conference in recent years, with six, seven or eight teams all competing for NCAA tournament bids throughout the last decade. Last season's finish failed to follow that pattern, but the league should return to its more successful ways in 2018-19. And the Big Ten teams' performances in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge could boost their postseason aspirations.


Hunter throws down disrespectful poster slam on Fernando

Virginia's De'Andre Hunter explodes to the rack from beyond the 3-point line and smashes a massive dunk on Bruno Fernando.

3. The ACC's pro talent pool could be the difference (again) between the two leagues in March

Duke's 21-point win over Indiana was another statement from the uncanny Blue Devils. Against most teams not named Gonzaga, expect to see that version of Duke this season. Like the Indiana-Duke game, the overall talent gap between the two leagues in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge was obvious, too. De'Andre Hunter and Ty Jerome, a pair of NBA prospects, led Virginia to a win over Maryland. Syracuse's Tyus Battle dropped 20 points in his team's double-digit win over Ohio State. With the advantage in potential pro talent, the ACC seems more equipped to field multiple Final Four teams this season.

In ESPN.com's mock draft, two of the projected first-round picks are from the Big Ten and eight are in the ACC. That matters because no team has won a national title in the one-and-done era (since 2006) without a first-round pick who contributed to those championship runs. Florida (2006), Duke (2010) and Villanova (2016) all had key players who earned first-round slots the year after they led their teams to national titles. The Big Ten has not won a national championship since Michigan State's run in 2000. Since that year, the ACC has won seven (Maryland was still a member during its title run in 2002, but Syracuse and Louisville joined the ACC after winning their 2006 and 2013 national titles, respectively), with Duke and North Carolina earning six of the seven. Since 2006, the Big Ten has produced 40 first-round picks. The ACC has produced 78 first-round picks in that span, nearly doubling the Big Ten's tally. Both conferences should send a sizable representation to the NCAA tournament. But the ACC could outlast the league with its star power.

4. Brad Davison is everything Wisconsin and the Big Ten need

The sophomore drew multiple offensive fouls in Wisconsin's win over NC State in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. And that's fine. A lot of folks hated that. But it was very Wisconsin-like. Kirk Penney-ish even. He's what the Badgers need, though. Wisconsin's Happ looks like an All-American, and his supporting cast is no joke, either. A team that wasn't healthy enough or tough enough last season has the pieces to compete for a Big Ten title. Davison's tenacity punctuated that new reality for the Badgers, who lost eight games last season by five points or less. The Badgers are playing top-20 defense right now. So Mr. Davison, do what you do, man. Ignore the haters.

5. Is Iowa for real?

The Hawkeyes beat Bol Bol and Oregon earlier this season, although the Ducks continue to await the arrival of Louis King, the five-star freshman sidelined by a knee injury. This week, the Hawkeyes battled Pitt in a one-point win during the ACC-Big Ten Challenge on Tuesday. Yet, they have more to prove. Iowa has done a great job getting to the free throw line and making its free throws (77.6 percent) when they do get there. The 6-9 Tyler Cook and the 6-11 Luke Garza have been a problem for opponents. But the team has also given up 72 points per game to a slate that includes four sub-100 opponents on KenPom.com. I think Iowa is a good team. The team's upcoming three-game stretch that includes matchups against Wisconsin, Michigan State and Iowa State will either solidify or debunk that assessment.