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December 3, 2009
ACC-Big Ten
Now Tenable!

by John Gasaway

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Regardless of which conference was going to actually win the thing, it was clear to me last night a little after 9 Eastern that the ACC-Big Ten Challenge had for once fulfilled its promise. At that moment there were three games in which there was less than a minute to play in regulation, and in all three games the Big Ten team was trailing. Minnesota was losing at Miami, Michigan trailed Boston College in Ann Arbor, and Illinois was down by a point at Clemson. Had the ACC held onto all three leads, the conference would have won the Challenge for the eleventh consecutive year and late games played at Wisconsin and Ohio State would have been mere formalities.

In other words, for once this Challenge was coming down to the wire across three different ESPN-family networks simultaneously, precisely what the Worldwide Leader had in mind, no doubt, when they first pitched this nutty idea to the ACC and Big Ten back in the late ‘90s. This is the way a two-conference “challenge” should play out. And this time the challenge went to the Big Ten, 6-5.

In real time it went down something like this….

Boston College 62, Michigan 58. The visiting Eagles, who played this game without Rakim Sanders, led by 17 with just under seven minutes to play but the Wolverines rallied late thanks to some timely threes from Zack Gibson. (Yes, the same Zack Gibson who made seven threes all of last year.) The lead was built in part by Corey Raji, who scored 24 points on 11-of-16 shooting from the field.

Michigan was of course ranked in the preseason and last night they lost at home to a short-handed foe not commonly regarded as particularly scary while shooting 34 threes in a really slow (59-possession) game. I therefore predict some rote die-by-the-three variety criticism will be directed at John Beilein’s team. Fair enough, but let me add two additional points.

One, don’t blame Michigan for a preseason ranking they never should have had in the first place. (Or as I put it in the book, which by the way makes a great gift for all the hoops fans in your life, “It’s not Michigan’s fault that, for reasons that escape me, this team is being a little overrated in the preseason.”) Two, there will be games where you make just 26 percent of your threes, as did the Wolverines against BC. What you expect in such games is that taking care of the ball and making your twos will pull you through anyway. Given that Beilein’s team committed just five turnovers they indeed had ample opportunities to score. The problem was Michigan went just 12-of-31 on their twos against a defense that in its previous two outings had allowed both Northern Iowa and Providence to clear the point-per-trip barrier with ease. So I say threes, schmees: This game was lost inside the arc at both ends of the floor, as the Wolverines missed their twos and got pummeled on their defensive glass.

Miami 63, Minnesota 58.A Big Ten team records 58 points and loses by a couple of scores to an ACC opponent in a game that has 60 possessions give or take. Sounds familiar! Missing eight of 15 free throws certainly didn’t help the visiting Gophers. Nor did the fact that Durand Scott did his best Jack McClinton imitation for the Hurricanes, scoring 20 points on 17 shots. Scott’s efforts helped open up the perimeter for Villanova transfer Malcolm Grant, who scored 16 for the ‘Canes by hitting 4-of-7 threes. You could make a case that of the 22 contestants who played in this Challenge, Miami at 8-0 is the single most surprising team, edging Northwestern in a photo finish.

Illinois 76, Clemson 74. Here’s the thing. The Tigers utilize a full-court press that last year created turnovers on a league-high 23 percent of ACC opponents’ possessions. Oliver Purnell’s team was playing at home in front of a raucous crowd against an opponent starting two freshman guards. Not surprisingly, Clemson therefore led by 20 at the half and by 23 with 19 minutes left to play. I guess what I’m saying is that if you watched this entire game and didn’t switch away once to either of the two contests described above, you’re strange.

But if you did stay glued to your set for the whole game you saw an unbelievable comeback by the Illini in its entirety. Indeed some overly quantitative observers are even calling it the biggest comeback in Illinois history, although personally I think coming back from 15 down with just four minutes to play in an Elite Eight game would have to qualify as way more stupendous. (Hey, Bill James agrees!) Be that as it may, you could have counted on the fingers of one hand the number of Illini fans, players, and coaches who truly believed that their team would end this game on a 48-23 run. Go figure, they did.

That lying pile of Courier known as the box score says seven-footer Mike Tisdale scored just 12 points for Illinois (as opposed to 22 from Mike Davis and 20 from Brandon Paul), but for his part Bruce Weber voted with his whiteboard and called two timeouts in the closing minutes specifically to route the offense through the big guy. Coming out of each timeout Tisdale got the ball and scored. Buckle in, Illinois fans. Your big man’s relative lack of defensive rebounding will keep the opponent in a lot of games. (Last night Clemson hauled in fully 48 percent of their own misses.) But Tisdale’s uncanny ability to make twos does come in handy in this here sport.

Wisconsin 73, Duke 69. When the clock hit all-zeros in this one the fans in the Kohl Center stormed the court, even though the Badgers very rarely lose in Madison. Surprising? Not in the least. In truth it was a wholly understandable celebration of the fact that Andre Dawkins wouldn’t be shooting any more threes for the Blue Devils. By Godfrey I mean to tell you that freshman is a stone-cold assassin. Not since Salim Stoudamire was draining treys for Lute Olson at Arizona have I seen a player who gives me this kind of “count it” feeling at the release of every single three. Nor was Kyle Singler too shabby in the first half. By the time Singler had scored 17 points in the game’s first 15 minutes, a furious texting battle had erupted between yours truly and a former Wisconsin player at the game over how best to defend the young man. (I haven’t talked to my eminent Badger friend about including said battle here, so I won’t go into further specifics. But I was right.) If you had told Mike Krzyzewski before tipoff that Singler would score 28 and Dawkins would hit every three he attempted (4-of-4), the coach would have liked his chances.

And yet Wisconsin won anyway. Rarely has the Bo Ryan brand of no-turnover ball been carried out with such literal and efficient fidelity. The Badgers gave the ball away just five times. They took care of their defensive glass and they didn’t foul. There you have it, the Tao of Bo. It’s how they do it in Madison. Trevon Hughes gave Singler a run for his scoring money, recording 26 points on 16 shots.

BONUS pro bono scouting note for Duke opponents! Hughes got some great looks in part because Wisconsin’s big men forced Coach K’s bigs to guard them out on the perimeter, a fact that ESPN analyst Bob Knight (who really ate his Wheaties last night) was of course all over from the start.

Ohio State 77, Florida State 64. If you want to see an ugly game, watch Florida State this year. Their defense is very good and they’ll make the opponent look hideous, exhibit A being Ohio State in this game’s first 12 minutes. Then again Leonard Hamilton’s team is not what you’d call poetry in motion on offense themselves: Chris Singleton, Deividas Dulkys, and Derwin Kitchen were a combined 0-of-11 outside the arc against the Buckeyes. The only sour note of the evening for fans in Columbus was that, shockingly, Evan Turner did not record a triple-double. Sources close to the program tell me that if Turner posts one more halfhearted mail-it-in performance like last night’s 25-point, 13-rebound, six-assist effort, Thad Matta “will be forced to take a long look” at starting Jeremie Simmons.

John writes about epoch-defining events like this in real time on Twitter: @johngasaway. College Basketball Prospectus 2009-10 is now available on Amazon.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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