Every year, the ACC and Big Ten conferences get together for a week to put their teams to the test, and some marquee matchups always result and give fans an early preview of some potential NCAA tournament matchups. The ACC dominated this challenge for the first ten years, going 10-0, but hasn’t won since, with five losses and two ties over the past seven years. The ACC is looking to get back to its winning ways in a matchup where they appear to have the stronger teams on paper. However, nothing can be expected in college basketball, where the madness can begin well before March.
Pitt (5-1) at Maryland (7-0): Pitt (KenPom ranking: 56) lost a tough game to SMU a little over a week ago in which they had a big problem with turnovers, committing 13, and were outrebounded by 7. Since then they’ve rebounded with three straight wins, including one over a good Marquette team. Pitt will rely on Michael Young (23.3 ppg) and James Artis (19.3 ppg) to put the ball in the hole. Young will also be relied upon to control the paint as Pitt’s leading rebounder (8.2 rpg) and shot blocker (1.5 bpg). Maryland (KenPom ranking: 55) is undefeated thus far but have some good experience in close games with four wins by six points or less. Maryland is led by star guard Melo Trimble (21.1 ppg) who is having another fantastic year after deciding not to enter the NBA draft last year. Maryland has struggles shooting the three thus far, making only 31% of their tries. They will look to get that going in this one behind sharpshooting freshman Justin Jackson (11.7 ppg). In the end, Pitt’s Young and Artis will be too much for Maryland to handle, but the game should be somewhat close.
Prediction: Pitt 77, Maryland 72
Georgia Tech (4-1) at Penn State (4-3): Georgia Tech (KenPom ranking: 106) and Penn State (KenPom ranking: 104) come into this game somewhat evenly matched, both projected to be near the bottom of the conference’s standings. Tony Carr (14.3 ppg) and Shep Garner (14.3 ppg) are the players to watch for Penn State, while Josh Okogie (19.0 ppg) and Ben Lammers (17.6 ppg) are the top scorers for Georgia Tech. We like Georgia Tech in a close one.
Prediction: Georgia Tech 68, Penn State 62
#22 Syracuse (4-1) at #17 Wisconsin (5-2): Syracuse (KenPom ranking: 9) is coming off of a neutral site loss to a strong, potential tournament team, in South Carolina. Going into the game they were undefeated with four straight wins. Even with the loss to South Carolina, this “defense-first” team is yet to face a test as big as Wisconsin. One thing to watch is how Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone can stop the overwhelming size of Wisconsin. On the offensive side, Nebraska transfer Andrew White III (15.8 ppg) paces the offense, but also affects the game with his rebounding (4 rpg) and steals (1 spg). Following White III is potential 1st round draft Tyler Lydon (11.4 ppg) and seniors John Gillon (10 ppg) and Tyler Roberson (10 ppg). Wisconsin (KenPom ranking: 8) has two losses on the season, but to two ranked opponents in #22 Creighton and #4 North Carolina. However, they do have some quality wins against relevant programs in Tennessee and Georgetown. The veteran team of Wisconsin is led by two seniors, Bronson Koenig (14.4 ppg) and Nigel Hayes (11.6 ppg). They also have a returning big man in Ethan Happ (11.9 ppg). These three Wisconsin players are all in contention to finish with a spot on an all Big Ten team. If Wisconsin cannot turn their play around against ranked opponents, they could be in for a long day against a great defensive team in Syracuse. For Wisconsin to win this game, they need to find a way to limit the athleticism and length of Syracuse. This will be done with crashing the boards by Hayes and Happ, as well as the shooting ability of Koenig (.246 3P%), Vitto Brown (.458 3P%), and Zak Showalter (.304 3P%). If Syracuse wants to pull off a miniature upset of Wisconsin, it is essential for Lydon to make some offensive improvements. He has slightly disappointed on the side of the floor thus far. Also, they need to make sure they stretch their zone to contest the shooters of Wisconsin, but not get beat on the boards.
Prediction: Wisconsin 71, Syracuse 59
Iowa (3-3) at Notre Dame (6-0): Iowa (KenPom ranking: 72) comes into this matchup as a heavy underdog to Notre Dame (KenPom ranking: 29). Iowa has lost a lot of key contributors from years past, and are trying to find their footing to start the season. Their lead player is Peter Jok (25.3 ppg) who is scoring at an insane rate to start the season. However, Notre Dame has experienced starters Bonzie Colson (17.2 ppg) and Steve Vasturia (15.3 ppg) leading the way, and their veteran experience will be too much for Iowa to handle.
Prediction: Notre Dame 83, Iowa 74
NC State (5-1) at Illinois (4-3): North Carolina State (KenPom ranking: 51) enters this matchup with their only loss coming in a high-scoring shootout with Creighton (number 22 at the time) 112-94. The Wolfpack with be without sophomore guard Maverick Rowan (17.0 ppg) due to a concussion, as he had only played in one game this season due to the injury. Guards Dennis Smith Jr. (21.6 ppg), Terry Henderson (17.3 ppg) and Torin Dorn (17.3 ppg) will lead the way for NC State on offense, with junior forward Abdul-Malik Abu (13.8 ppg, 8.3 rpg) patrolling the paint and collecting rebounds down low. NC State has also thrust freshman guard Markell Johnson (4.5 ppg) into large minutes, as they are a bit light on depth following Rowan’s injury. The Wolfpack have had a balanced attack on offense, with each of Smith, Henderson, Dorn and Abu having led them in scoring in a game this season. Dennis Smith Jr. is coming off of a 30 point game against Georgia Southern, and the freshman phenom will be a pivotal part of the game tonight. If he and his fellow guards can get hot early, their scoring prowess should give them an advantage. Illinois (KenPom ranking: 92) is coming off of three straight losses, with the last two coming to West Virginia (#19 at the time) and Florida State (#25 at the time). The Illini lean on senior guard Malcolm Hill (18.3 ppg) to be their spark on offense, with backcourt mate Tracy Abrams (10.4 ppg) and frontcourt duo Michael Finke (11.0 ppg) and Leron Black (10.3 ppg) pitching in. Finke and Black are both prominent rebounders, averaging 6.7 and 8.0 rpg, respectively. Illinois is still trying to find the right rotation, with eight players averaging at least 15.0 min/g so far this season. The Illini will need to limit the trio of high scoring guards that NC State will be feeding the ball to in order to win, and their senior leaders will need to be authoritative with the ball on offense to keep pace in scoring and get the home crowd involved. If Illinois can sustain a few big runs with the crowd behind them, they have a good shot at winning this even matchup. In my opinion, the game will be close throughout, with the home crowd playing a factor, but NC State’s scorers will be too much for the slumping Illini in the end.
Prediction: NC State 74, Illinois 71
Michigan State (4-3) at #5 Duke (6-1): Michigan State (KenPom ranking:30) has played a brutal early season schedule, one that has left them battered and bruised as they have lost each of their three contests against ranked teams thus far (Arizona, Kentucky and Baylor). That is not to say, however, that Michigan State has not learned anything from their start to the season, as they have been tested repeatedly and have a good idea of how their team stacks up against the big boys. Freshman guard Miles Bridges (17.4 ppg, 8.7 rpg) is almost averaging a double-double to start the season, and has proved to be a difference maker just seven games into his first year. His freakish athleticism has been on display with some highlight-reel dunks, and he is clearly an impact player in both the Big 10 and nationally. Bridges has been the leading scorer for the Spartans thus far, with senior guard Eron Harris (12.7 ppg) and freshman forward Nick Ward (10.4 ppg) pitching in. Michigan State has struggled to score as a team, however, to start the year, as Bridges has been their only real force on offense with the rest of the team struggling to find an offensive identity. This could pose a problem matching up with Duke (KenPom ranking: 1), as they average 86 points per game as a team to start the year and have the most efficient offense in the nation according to KenPom rankings (kenpom.com). With junior star and player of the year candidate Grayson Allen (16.1 ppg) and sophomore backcourt mate Luke Kennard (17.1 ppg) scoring at the rate they have, it will be difficult for Michigan State to keep up. Allen and Kennard are just the start, however, to an incredibly deep Duke team which is missing arguably three of its starting five players (Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum, Marques Bolden) due to injury. Without these three, they have still started the season off strong, with their only loss coming to number 4 Kansas, 77-75. Senior leader Amile Jefferson is nearly averaging a double-double as the starting center (13.6 ppg, 9.4 rpg) and has been the only consistent option in the frontcourt for the Blue Devils thus far this season. Coach K has primarily run a four guard lineup, with Allen and Kennard being joined by freshman blue chipper Frank Jackson (16.0 ppg) and senior sharpshooter Matt Jones (11.6 ppg) on the floor. This has worked well thus far, with sophomore PF/C Chase Jeter (16.0 min/g) rotating in periodically. Duke’s strength is its offense, where they have all five starters capable of scoring in double digits each night. On defense, senior Matt Jones is their best defender, while Amile Jefferson is also an above-average defender on the blocks. If Duke’s offense gets rolling early, this one could get ugly in front of the Cameron Crazies at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Michigan State’s Tom Izzo will have to get his team to step up on the defensive end, which they are usually capable of, and have someone join Miles Bridges on offense in scoring to have a chance. In the end, in this matchup of two historic programs and legendary coaches, Duke’s depth and scoring will be too much for Michigan State to keep up with.
Prediction: Duke 78, Michigan State 68