Okay, it's actually a made-for-TV event to generate ratings for ESPN and line everybody's pockets (unfortunately, not mine) with more money. Either way, it's still a lot of fun to see these teams compete. Here is my game-by-game analysis.
Northwestern (2-2) at Florida State (Monday, 7 PM, ESPN2)
Tempo will be the key to this game. Northwestern Coach Bill Carmody brought his "Princeton offense" with him to Evanston when he left the Ivy League school and will want his team to set a very methodical pace. Florida State Coach Leonard Hamilton, on the other hand, will want his defense to force a faster tempo. This would take advantage of the Seminoles' huge edges in athleticism and depth and allow star Tim Pickett to work his magic in the open court. The Wildcats will need a big game from wing Jitim Young, and point guard T. J. Parker will need to be very efficient running the half-court offense.
This game appears to have been set up as the preliminary game of the Challenge between two perennial doormats of their respective conferences. Unfortunately for Northwestern, Florida State is rising off the mat this season and should control this contest. PICK: Florida State.
Indiana (2-1) at Wake Forest (2-0) (Tuesday, 7 PM, ESPN)
Indiana brings the Bracey Wright show into Winston-Salem to face the Deacons' ensemble production. So far, the Hoosiers have been primarily a perimeter shooting team that has received little contribution from it's inside players. Wright is the only Indiana player scoring in double figures. Wake has four players averaging over 12 points per game, and Eric Wiliams and Vytas Danelius are waiting to pound the Hoosiers inside.
Wake Forest is averaging over twice as many assists as Indiana, and this balanced attack along with likely domination of the boards should lead the Deacons to victory, possibly a big one. PICK: Wake Forest.
N.C. State (3-0) at Michigan (2-0) (Tuesday, 7:30 PM, ESPN2)
This should be a very competitive game, matching NC State's experience (two senior and two junior starters) vs. Michigan's youth (one freshman and three sophomore starters) and home crowd. Julius Hodge does it all for State, leading the team in scoring, rebounding, and assists. Scooter Sherrill has helped shoulder the scoring load for the Wolfpack. Sophomores Lester Abram and Daniel Horton have led the Wolverines' attack, which features four scorers averaging double figures. They also have big man J. C. Mathis, a transfer from Virginia, coming off the bench along with freshman Dion Harris to provide a spark.
The game will probably be decided by how well NC State handles Michigan's defensive pressure. This will be a good test for the Wolfpack, since they are likely to see that defensive strategy often this season. If State can get past it and set up their offense, they are in good shape. However, I think the Wolverines will be able to disrupt their offensive flow and withstand the Wolfpack's own pressure well enough to pull out a win at home. PICK: Michigan.
Illinois (3-0) vs. North Carolina (3-0) at Greensboro (Tuesday, 9 PM, ESPN)
This game features the best individual matchup of the Challenge; sophomore point guards Dee Brown of Illinois and Raymond Felton of North Carolina squaring off. Both players have explosive wings to dish the ball to; Deron Williams for Illinois and Rashad McCants for North Carolina. Each team also has a strong presence inside; James Augustine for Illinois and Sean May for North Carolina. Both teams also have new coaches; Bruce Webber at Illinois and Roy Williams at North Carolina.
So, how do I separate these teams? Illinois has a deeper bench, but it is Carolina that will look to force the tempo. Also, as gifted as the Fighting Illini stars are, I give the Tar Heels slight advantages at all three key positions. That, plus playing in front of a partisan crowd, should enable Carolina to win a close one. PICK: North Carolina.
Wisconsin (3-0) at Maryland (3-0) (Tuesday, 9:30 PM ESPN)
These teams have split two meetings in the last three seasons, but neither team will resemble the ones that played in those contests. The Badgers have transformed from a half-court team to an athletic group that can play end-to-end, while the Terps no longer have the low post presence that was the focus of their offense. Wisconsin, led by senior Freddie Owens and junior Devin Harris, have a huge advantage in experience over Maryland, which starts four sophomores and a senior.
The key to this game will be the Terps' ability to force turnovers and score in transition. So far this season, Maryland's offense has been fueled by its defense because the half-court game is still a work in progress. Wisconsin, however, was second in the nation in fewest turnovers committed last season (10.4), and is on an even better pace this year. I see the Badgers' veterans taking care of the ball and picking up a nice road victory. PICK: Wisconsin.
Georgia Tech (5-0) at Ohio State (2-2) (Wednesday, 7 PM, ESPN)
A week ago, I looked at this game a lot differently than I do now. Georgia Tech has exploded onto the national scene with it's dominating wins over #1 Connecticut and Texas Tech en route to winning the Preseason NIT Championship. The Jackets, led by B. J. Elder and Isma'il Muhammad, have been relentless at both ends of the court. They have not relied on three-point shooting to score, aggressively challenging defenses by driving the lane and attacking the hoop.
Transfers Tony Stockman (from Clemson) and J. J. Sullinger lead the Buckeye's perimeter based attack, and Terence Dials (6' 9", 260 pounds) gives Ohio State the inside presence Tech lacks. The Buckeyes, unlike the Jackets, have staggered out of the gate. I see Tech's momentum and aggressiveness carrying them to a win. PICK: Georgia Tech.
Clemson (3-0) at Purdue (3-1) (Wednesday, 7:30 PM, ESPN2)
Purdue is a classic example of the old saying that "they do grow ‘em big in the Midwest." Nine players on the Boilermaker roster stand over 6' 7", and six of them weigh over 230 pounds. Clemson is a big team, but Purdue is BIG. On top of that, the Boilermakers showed in their upset of Duke in Alaska that their backcourt of Kenneth Lowe and David Teague must be reckoned with. Those two badly outplayed Duke's much more heralded duo of Chris Duhon and J. J. Redick.
Clemson is off to a nice start, but they struggled in wins over High Point and Wofford. The Tigers are receiving good contributions from their front line of Sharrod Ford, Chris Hobbs, and Olu Babalola, but they don't have the firepower or strength to match up with Purdue, especially on the road. PICK: Purdue
Duke (3-1) at Michigan State (3-1) (Wednesday 9 PM, ESPN)
Michigan State has not always looked like a Top-Five team in the early going this season, but Duke has played far below its consensus #2 ranking. The Spartans lost a tough game at Kansas and have received solid play from big man Paul Davis and guard Chris Hill and Maurice Ager. Tom Izzo has also been able to go deep into his bench, with nine players averaging at least ten minutes per game.
Duke's offense has functioned like a car in need of a tune up; you know how it performs but you just need to clean some gunk out of it. The Blue Devils' backcourt has been particularly gunked up, with sharpshooter J. J. Redick and point guard Chris Duhon both making less than 40% of their shots. Fortunately for Coach K, freshman Luol Deng has lived up to his pre-season billing and Shelden Williams has been very strong down low. Duke will eventually be fine, but the Breslin Center is not the place to take a misfiring squad. PICK: Michigan State.
Minnesota (2-1) at Virginia (Wednesday, 9:30 PM, ESPN-2)
Minnesota freshman Kris Humphries, who signed with the Golden Gophers after being released from his original Letter of Intent with Duke, has been spectacular so far. Adam Boone, a transfer from North Carolina, has played a solid floor game as Minnesota's starting point guard. Other than a 32-point explosion from guard Ben Johnson, contributions from the rest of Coach Don Monson's roster have been minimal. The Gophers have struggled in beating lesser opponents for their two wins this season.
Virginia has their own emerging freshman star in Gary Forbes and continue to receive steady play from senior guard Todd Billet. The Cavaliers have not been overwhelming against lower tier opponents themselves, but they have played better offensively than Minnesota and have the home court advantage here. PICK: Virginia.
There you have it! In summary, I predict the ACC will win the Commissioners' Trophy by 5-4 over the Big 10. The ACC has won five games in all four of the previous events. Does it mean anything? No, not really. The competition has been too close to call the ACC clearly superior to the Big Ten. Are my picks reliably accurate? No, not really, but hopefully you've enjoyed reading them and learned something about the teams.
Please post your feedback on the message board or send me e-mail at email@example.com. I'll be back later this week to look at what happened and why.
Until then, court is adjourned.
Jim Johnson writes "The CourtMaster" column covering ACC hoops for seven ACC sites on The Insiders' network and covers Maryland basketball for TerpTown.com.
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