The conferences keep growing, the ACC's all-time series lead keeps shrinking and, in a sport that is always on the lookout for new early-season events, the Big Ten/ACC Challenge keeps serving up some of college basketball's best, most reliable nonconference action.
The 2015 Challenge -- its schedule was revealed Wednesday afternoon -- is no different. Indeed, with so many solid teams on either side of the now-16-year-old competition, it may prove difficult to fulfill the mandate of this story: Rank all 14 of this winter's Big Ten/ACC games, best to worst. Will we be able to find one matchup that stands out from the crowd?
1. Maryland at North Carolina: Just kidding. Found it! Yes, Maryland's Dec. 1 trip to UNC is the best game on the 2015 Big Ten/ACC Challenge calendar. With all due respect to everyone else, it's not all that close. A season ago, the Terps' home date with Virginia was notable mostly for the sheer realignment weirdness that brought two founding ACC member schools together in a cross-conference competition. In 2015, it's all about the hoops. Mark Turgeon's breakout 2014-15 season has been followed by one of the nation's more successful multi-front recruiting efforts, and suddenly the Terps are loaded and balanced and one of the few true national title contenders.
Which is helpful, because North Carolina is also among that few. Indeed, if there is one team with a better blend of sheer talent and experience in college basketball, it may well be these Tar Heels. Save J.P. Tokoto, UNC brings everyone back from 2014-15's good-but-not-great run. "Everyone" includes a healthy Marcus Paige, a loaded frontcourt and potential breakout sophomores Justin Jackson, Theo Pinson and Joel Berry. (Plus, two more four-star newcomers.) With Kentucky submitting an uncharacteristically fallow reload, UNC is 2015-16's consensus preseason No. 1. Maryland is a tight No. 2.
So, no, it wasn't particularly difficult to choose the 2015 Big Ten/ACC Challenge's best matchup. Or, more accurately: It was super easy.
2. Indiana at Duke: UM-UNC is not the only game worth watching. Indiana's Dec. 2 trip to Duke is a solid No. 2, actually, and a fascinating chance to see how far the Hoosiers have come. A season ago, Tom Crean's undersized, offensively brilliant team shrugged off a season's worth of nonexistent defense and outright fan revolt in time to resurrect an NCAA tournament berth (and acquit themselves well in the round of 64 against Wichita State). Now the real test begins. The Hoosiers retained everyone and added desperately needed frontcourt size (or just a frontcourt, period) in the form of four-star center Thomas Bryant. With the big man in tow, the Hoosiers are regarded as the best threat to Maryland's Big Ten hegemony -- provided they, you know, actually play defense. What better way to gauge that process than a trip to Cameron Indoor Stadium, where the freshmen-led 2015 champs have already impressively reinforced their ranks?
3. Louisville at Michigan State: With Montrezl Harrell, Terry Rozier and Wayne Blackshear all gone, and with Rick Pitino relying on freshmen and transfers more than he has had to at any point in the past five (very successful) seasons, it's hard to know what to make of Louisville in advance of 2015-16. But it's even harder to see the words "Pitino" and "in East Lansing" and not get excited. As you likely noticed, this is a rematch of Michigan State's 79-75 Elite Eight overtime win in March, which was itself a rematch of the 2012 Sweet 16 game when Louisville's press sent the Spartans and Draymond Green home early. No matter the date or venue, Pitino versus Tom Izzo is guaranteed must-watch stuff.
4. Virginia at Ohio State: The gulf in predictive certainty here couldn't be much wider. With Virginia, you know what you're going to get: Stifling pack-line defense; intelligent, cautious offense; and a team that, minus Darion Atkins and Justin Anderson, will look identical to the powerhouse of a season ago. With Ohio State, who knows? The Buckeyes will be talented and young. Ostensibly, their ceiling is just as high as all of Thad Matta's teams. Yet the potential floor also feels unusually low. Seeing Matta's greenhorn group try to wrest control away from the wily Hoos should make for interesting, and telling, viewing.
5. Wisconsin at Syracuse: In 2015-16, both Wisconsin and Syracuse, two of the past two decades' most consistent teams, will find themselves in two somewhat similar states of unfamiliarity -- if for vastly different reasons. For the Badgers, the previous season yielded massive success and plenty of departures. For Syracuse, it was a massive mess. The school, under long-term NCAA heat, cynically self-imposed a postseason ban after realizing that it likely wouldn't make the NCAA tournament -- only to have the NCAA impose a handful of harsh penalties anyway. Now the question is whether Jim Boeheim -- who, even at 70, is in no mood to let the NCAA enforcement committee define the end of his career -- can turn a strong four-player recruiting class into a team that more accurately resembles his tenure.
6. Michigan at NC State: Plenty of Michigan fans were upset with the most recent edition of our too early top 25, claiming that Caris LeVert's decision to return to school made Michigan worthy of greater expectations. They may have a point, even if the Wolverines weren't exactly stellar with LeVert on the floor in 2014-15, either. How much better can the current group of Wolverines get? And how quickly? Say, Dec. 1? That's when a road trip against a tough NC State team -- and its massive, Villanova-owning front line -- should give us a clearer idea.
7. Florida State at Iowa: Call it the Battle of the Underrateds. Florida State wasn't much to look at last season, that's for sure. But the Seminoles did quietly unleash freshman guard Xavier Rathan-Mayes, whose high-volume trial by fire, should set him up nicely for a more efficient and productive sophomore season. Combine that with the relative youth of Leonard Hamilton's team, and the loaded recruiting class he's adding this summer (including top-15 prospect Dwayne Bacon), and it feels like people are ignoring FSU a little too readily this spring. The same goes for Iowa, which, despite losing Aaron White, still returns four experienced starters (Jarrod Uthoff, Mike Gesell, Adam Woodbury, Anthony Clemmons) and still has plenty of depth to go around.
8. Notre Dame at Illinois: Before Wisconsin ended 38-1 Kentucky's shot at history, Notre Dame nearly beat the Badgers to the punch. Despite the brutal Elite Eight loss in Cleveland, few would characterize Notre Dame's 2014-15 season -- which saw the Irish finish 32-6 with an ACC tournament title and a reputation-shattering run deep into the NCAA tournament -- as anything but an overwhelming success. Two main creators of that success (Jerian Grant, Pat Connaughton) are gone, but Demetrius Jackson, Steve Vasturia and Zach Auguste should do just fine with ever-larger roles and a taste of late-March hoops. At the very least, it's a group that won't be fazed by a good early-December Illini crowd -- which, despite Illinois' talent, is about the only safe prediction for John Groce's fourth season in Champaign.
9. Purdue at Pittsburgh: It really is going to be fascinating to see what A.J. Hammons does with his final college hoops season. After two years of alternating between immense potential and frustrating disengagement, Hammons finally broke out as a junior, at once refining his offensive skills and stretching his prodigious shot-blocking and rebounding talents over more (and more consistent) minutes. If his development continues apace, he has a chance to be one of the more dominant big men in college basketball, and the youngish Purdue team around him will be much more than the late-season NCAA tournament insurgent of early 2015.
10. Miami at Nebraska: Speaking of figuring various Big Ten teams out, here's a doozy. A season ago, Nebraska finished 13-18 with essentially the same group of players that, just a year prior, earned the school its first NCAA tournament bid in ages. It was also a team that was often criticized by its coach for its effort and focus, and yet was at its best in the phase of the game (defense) most commonly associated with those traits. What happens next? And then there's Miami. As up and down as 2014-15 was, the Hurricanes have basically everyone back, most notably guard Angel Rodriguez. But as Tim Miles' team proved a season ago, time and minimal turnover doesn't automatically make you better.
11. Northwestern at Virginia Tech: Raise your hand if you're kind of excited for this game. We're not even being sarcastic. Northwestern improved throughout 2014-15. It played a host of close games against good teams down the stretch. And, most exciting of all, as the Bill Carmody era recedes further into memory, the Wildcats are now employing refreshingly modern basketball strategems such as "ball screens" and "man-to-man defense." Meanwhile, Virginia Tech will be far more talented in Buzz Williams' second season. How much more so -- and how long until the Hokies' inevitable rise -- are more pertinent questions.
12. Clemson at Minnesota: Let's be honest, there's not a whole lot to get the blood pumping here. Neither team will be bad, but neither looks very good, either, at least at this early date. Minnesota is somewhat interesting, in that the roster is gradually adding more and more of the types of players the uptempo-inclined Richard Pitino wants, and less of the bruisers former coach Tubby Smith typically preferred. And Clemson, a punishing defensive team, does at least offer stylistic contrast.
13. Penn State at Boston College: The fun part about the Big Ten/ACC Challenge is that while not all games are created equal, every game does count the same toward the overall conference scoreboard. And the overall scoreboard is almost always close. That makes games like this -- which, to be fair, will include a smattering of talented recruits between the two nonetheless still-rebuilding teams -- just as important as Maryland-UNC.
14. Wake Forest at Rutgers: Deacs fans take note: Wake is actually shaping up to be a pretty interesting team next season, what with Cody Miller-McIntyre leading a bunch of experienced returners and center Doral Moore providing an immediate talent injection up front. It's just that, well, one game had to be last, and Rutgers was involved. Sorry.