After winning the first ten ACC/Big Ten Challenges, the ACC was bested by the Big Ten for the second straight year, both times by the record of 6-5. The bastion of Midwestern athletics secured its second Challenge triumph with Purdue's overtime win on Wednesday night and officially reasserted its prominent position throughout the college basketball world. Although the Big Ten was victorious, there were a number of superlative performances by players and coaches within each conference:
Michigan State at Duke
Edging Purdue/Virginia Tech ever so slightly - and in no small part because of the name brand teams on the court - was the matchup between the sixth-ranked Michigan State Spartans and the unanimously top-ranked Duke Blue Devils. For all the pregame hype this contest received, it may even have exceeded those expectations. Though Duke was able to take double-digit leads on multiple occasions, the two top ten squads were essentially neck and neck for the entire game. Each team struggled at times (the two combined for 35 turnovers), but the end result was an intensively competitive game that was not truly settled until the final minute. Ultimately, the Blue Devils' combination of talent, execution, and home court advantage proved too much for the vanquished but impressive Spartans.
Best Individual Performance
ACC - Kyrie Irving, Duke
The most highly-touted recruit Duke has landed since Kyle Singler, the precocious Irving has shown remarkable poise and moxie throughout his young career, and this game was no different. On the biggest of stages Irving shone, scoring 18 points in the first half alone as senior stars Singler and Nolan Smith struggled out of the gates. The talented freshman point guard finished the game with 31 points on 8-12 shooting (2-3 3pt FG, 13-16 FT) along with six rebounds, four assists, two steals, and two blocks for good measure. Though Irving - and, by extension, Duke - is bound to experience some growing pains, any such issue was absent last night.
Big Ten - Jon Leuer, Wisconsin
With all due respect to Korie Lucious (20 points, 8 assists) and Jajuan Johnson (29 points, 5 rebounds), Leuer had the Big Ten's signature performance of the tournament. The versatile 6-10 forward had 22 points and 11 rebounds for the Badgers in their rout of NC State, as well as two blocks, assists, and steals. Wisconsin's senior star was also efficient, making seven of his eleven field goal attempts and seven of eight free throws. Leuer's excellence, coupled with the Badgers' ridiculous 70-5 Kohl Center record against nonconference opponents, translated into a long night for the feeble Wolfpack.
Mike Krzyzewski/Tom Izzo
When looking for the best coach, look no farther than the marquee matchup of the Challenge. Sporting a combined 17 Final Four appearances and five National Championships, this one is too close to call. Coach K, calmer and more reserved than in his early days at Duke, preaches unity and collective responsibility, while Izzo, fiery and emotional as ever, is well known for squeezing the most out of every single player and team he has. Both coaches were on display and in their element last night, and while Krzyzewski's Blue Devils got the better of Izzo and the Spartans this time, each is at the top of his game - and the sport - and you cannot go wrong with either.
UVA at Minnesota
Fresh off their Puerto Rico Tip-Off title, Minnesota had risen to 13th in the rankings and seemed prepared to assert itself as a Big Ten contender. Virginia, on the other hand, was coming off a rough 1-2 performance in the Maui Invitational, during which it lost by double-digits to Wichita State and suffered a 43-point undressing at the hands of Washington. Naturally, none of that mattered as the Cavaliers went into Williams Arena and comfortably put away the Golden Gophers, 87-79. Though Minnesota was without steadying senior guard Al Nolen, the Gophers were doomed by their poor defensive effort. Their porous defense gave Virginia one open three-pointer after another, which the Cavaliers opportunistically converted into a 10-13 mark from behind the arc. Guards Joe Harris and Mustapha Farrakhan tallied 24 and 23 points, respectively, and senior forward Mike Scott added 17 as UVA turned a ten point halftime deficit into an eight point road win.
Summary and Forecast
Though the Big Ten long served as the ACC's whipping boy in this annual competition, it appears that the tables may be turning. Some of the 2010 ACC's shortcomings can be attributed to random variation - injuries at VT and UNC's inability to rebound from the mass exodus that followed their 2009 National Championship - but some more persistent problems may spell trouble for the ACC's prospects in this competition. Wake Forest has struggled since former coach Skip Prosser passed away in 2007 and Georgia Tech's Paul Hewitt has been marked by a proclivity to recruit and underperform with one-and-done talent (Javaris Crittenton, Thaddeus Young, Derrick Favors) as well as questions regarding the duration of his tenure. At the same time, though they clearly stumbled, Minnesota appears to be on the rise, Indiana has improved every year under Tom Crean and seems poised to return to its traditional prominence, and even Northwestern, they of zero NCAA tournament appearances, look ready to make the leap. If the ACC isn't careful, the Big Ten could run off ten straight wins of its own.