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Inside the Bracket: Take-aways from the Big Ten/ACC

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The Big Ten won its third straight Big Ten-ACC Challenge.  While that may help the league’s overall perception, teams earn NCAA bids, not conferences.  Here are a few bracket-related observations from this year’s Challenge:

Ohio State is playing like a No. 1 seed.  While the Buckeyes have yet to leave Value City Arena, they dominated Duke by 22 points.  This was the same Duke team which defeated Michigan and Kansas enroute to another Maui title.  The Blue Devils had also compiled wins over Michigan State and Belmont.  When you add in OSU’s victory over Florida on November 15, the Buckeyes begin December with eyes on a No. 1 seed.  A trip to Kansas on December 10 will be OSU’s first true road test.

Indiana could be an NCAA team.  The Hoosiers’ schedule hasn’t featured any heavyweights (yet), but IU has a balanced attack that creates problems for opposing defenses.  Pulling out a tough road win at NC State is a promising sign for a team that didn’t win a single road game last year.  The Hoosiers host Kentucky on December 10.  Beating the Wildcats would likely allow IU to enter Big Ten play without a loss.

So could North Carolina State.  The Wolfpack were supposed to be a year away, but as witnessed against Indiana, NC State has the talent to be an NCAA contender.  They rank 18th in the nation in assists, a great sign of team play, as is a team field goal percentage of .417 – also a Top 50 stat.  With non-conference games at Stanford and vs. Syracuse still on the schedule, the Wolfpack have the chance for a resume-building win ahead of ACC play.

Illinois has found a floor leader.  Bradley tranfer Sam Maniscalco has given the Illini the type of leadership and mental toughness missing the past couple of seasons.  The senior leads Illinois in scoring (13.3 ppg),  FT percentage (88%), and 3-point percentage (41.9).  He scored 24 in a comeback win at Maryland.  There are a lot of new faces in Champaign, and the Illini won’t challenge for a Big Ten title, but there’s no reason to think a Top 6 finish and NCAA bid is out of reach.

Michigan State has found its toughness.  The Spartans out-defensed Florida State in East Lansing – allowing the Seminoles to shoot just 38 percent.  After back-to-back losses to UNC and Duke to open the season, MSU has won five straight and should wrap up another couple of victories before a trip to Gonzaga on December 10.  Offensive questions remain as MSU ranks 191st in points scored.  But team chemistry is much improved and coach Tom Izzo has talked about how much he likes his team.

Rebounding may be a problem for Duke.  The Blue Devils have plenty of firepower and super-frosh Austin Rivers is star in the making.  But interior defense and rebounding are potential issues – especially when shots aren’t falling.  Ohio State held a double-digit rebounding advantage in the Buckeyes’ rout, and Duke ranks 274th nationally in rebounding to date.  That said, one road loss doesn’t make for a trend.  Nor should it discount a high number of quality wins in November.

Wisconsin is Wisconsin.  The Badgers simply don’t change.  Defense. Shot selection.  Toughness.  Bo Ryan.  As witnessed in Chapel Hill, Wisconsin just isn’t a fun team to play.  And playing the Tar Heels to a close finish on the road is even more promising.  The Badgers are almost impossible to beat at the Kohl Center.  If they can take some of that mojo on the road, a high seed is very possible come March.

UNC has yet to reach its stride.  It’s way too early to be concerned about the Tar Heels.  There’s simply too much talent.  But Carolina has been very inconsistent for much of the first month of the season.  There are stretches where UNC looks like a No. 1 team – particularly on offense.  But team defense isn’t always a priority right now.   Maybe the Heels are trying to cruise through games.  Who knows.  It’s somewhat surprising that UNC wasn’t sharper against Wisconsin – especially after losing at UNLV a few nights before.  Up next is the Tar Heels’ trip to Kentucky.

Northwestern can break its string.  The Wildcats have never made it to the NCAA Tournament.  John Shurna put up 25 during a win at Georgia Tech and is getting help from Drew Crawford (18.2 ppg).  A better non-conference schedule will also help Northwestern, remaining pre-Big Ten games include Baylor and Creighton – provided the ‘Cats at least split those games.  Rebounding could be a deciding factor.  Northwestern currently ranks 334th nationally in rebounding.  That stat is unlikely to improve in conference play.

Florida State’s offense can disappear.  Yes, playing at Michigan State is tough.  But consider this: in FSU’s last three games the Seminoles scored 41 in a loss to Harvard, notched 76 in a two-point loss to Connecticut, and then posted just 45 in East Lansing.  Defense will keep Florida State in games and win the Seminoles enough contests to secure an NCAA berth.  At the same time, FSU needs to improve its team field goal prespective (currently 141st nationally), and assists (274th).  Against MSU, Florida State made just 4 of 20 three-point shots, and shot 38 percent for the game.

Robbie Hummel is healthy.  That’s good news for Purdue.  The Boilermakers controlled Miami-FL behind Hummel’s 17 points and five rebounds.  Hummel is averaging 19 ppg and averaging over 44 percent on all FG attempts, including three pointers (44.9%).  To date, Purdue has beaten potential NCAA opponents Iona and Temple, and battled Alabama in its only loss.  Ryne Smith is making better than 50 percent of his treys and Lewis Jackson is running the point effectively.

Virginia Tech is a likely bubble team – again.  The Hokies dropped a close decision at Minnesota, which was playing without Trevor Mbakwe who is now out for the season with a knee injury.  The Barn is a tough place to play, but VT missed a chance to steal a big road victory. 

Ditto for Minnesota.  Without Mbakwe, it will be tough for the Gophers to make the NCAA Tournament.  He was leading Minnesota in both scoring (14 ppg) and rebounding (9.1 rpg) before his season-ending injury.  The Gophers held off Virginia Tech at home, but finding ways to win on the road without Mbakwe will be an even bigger challenge.

Virginia continues to make strides.  We projected the Cavaliers as one of the final at-large teams in our preseason bracket.  A home win over Michigan helps solidify that as an option.  Consistent scoring and rebounding will be issues for the Cavs – they currently rank in the bottom third of Division I teams in both categories.  And maybe Michigan was just a good matchup.  But there’s no reason to think UVA can’t compete for a spot in the upper half of the ACC.

Miami needs to find better offensive balance.  Malcolm Grant and Durand Scott put up 16 and 12 points respectively in the Hurricanes’ loss at Purdue. Shane Larkin added 16.  But the rest of the team scored 21 combined and UM shot just 38 percent as a team.  The ‘Canes will contend for an NCAA berth, but it won’t be easily without better balance and some front-court scoring.

A lot of questions remain for teams like Clemson, Georgia Tech, Maryland, Clemson, and Wake Forest in the ACC.  Same for Penn State, Iowa, and Nebraska in the Big Ten.  None of them look like NCAA contenders at this time.

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