Mixed bag for Big Ten after Challenge split with ACC

Mixed bag for Big Ten after Challenge split with ACC
December 5, 2013, 2:30 pm
Share This Post
Vinnie Duber

The Big Ten lost the first 10 editions of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. So maybe 2013's 6-6 split shouldn't have Big Ten fans too down in the dumps.

What has the ACC emerging from the annual event looking the better conference, however, is the Big Ten's missed opportunities.

Tuesday night, it was Illinois blowing a 12-point second-half lead at Georgia Tech and walking out of that game a shocking loser. Wednesday, it was Michigan State falling flat on its face at home to North Carolina, surely costing the Spartans their No. 1 ranking.

Throw in the highly ranked ACC teams scoring big wins — No. 4 Syracuse thumped Indiana, 69-52, and No. 10 Duke handily beat on No. 22 Michigan, 79-69 — and the Big Ten doesn't necessarily look like the gleaming conference it seemed before the season started.

[MORE: Illini blow 12-point lead to Georgia Tech, suffer first loss]

With the college basketball world tuned in to the No. 1 Spartans' 79-65 home loss to a North Carolina team coming off a loss to UAB, there wasn't a better example of this conference's supposed best team missing a golden opportunity to record the kind of statement win it did against Kentucky earlier in the season.

"It was probably one of the more disappointing performances in my career here, to be honest with you," Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said after the game. "I just thought from the opening jump ball they took it to us. I mentioned that we haven’t been practicing real well and I think they’re not playing very well. I can’t think of a time I’ve been more disappointed in maybe myself. It’s my job, and we looked like a softer team. That solely falls on me, nobody else."

Izzo was right. The Spartans looked downright bad. They shot 35.9 percent from the field and 66.7 percent from the free-throw line, all while being out-rebounded by 11.

"We uncharacteristically looked soft," Izzo said. "We just did not play with the tenacity. The loose balls, they got them all early. The crowd tried to bring us back, and we didn’t even let that happen. We have no one to blame but ourselves. I think there’s plenty of people responsible — players, coaches, trainers, everybody in our group is responsible, and we’re going to have to fix it. It’s one game, and they made some shots. They banked in a couple, they hit some free throws that rolled around, 60-percent team as I said, and they made a lot of throws during that stretch when it mattered."

[RELATED: Illini's Rayvonte Rice wins Big Ten weekly honor]

But it wasn't all bad.

A 6-6 split means that half the conference emerged with wins, even if they didn't come in the highest-profile games. No. 5 Ohio State looked every bit a top-five team with a terrific performance against Maryland, winning 76-60. No. 8 Wisconsin won on the road at Virginia. No. 23 Iowa held off Notre Dame, 98-93, and Minnesota and Nebraska picked up notable wins over Florida State and Miami, respectively.

For some of these up-and-coming Big Ten squads, these wins were signature ones in the non-conference portion of the schedule.

"Of all of the games we've played, that was the toughest we've played," Minnesota head coach Rick Pitino said. "There were a lot of very good things. (Florida State is) a very good team that, to me, is an NCAA Tournament team. So to take care of business when you're coming back from Maui, we had a lot of tough obstacles. It was big for our program."

"We're thrilled to win it. I'm excited to win it more for the impact it will have for our résumé," Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. "(Notre Dame) is a team that is going to be in the NCAA tournament. They've been. We want to get in. Well, you better play some teams, you better beat some teams that have been in."

[MORE: Big Ten basketball roundup: Here comes a 'Challenge']

Then there's the positive impression specific players made during the two-night event. Illinois' Rayvonte Rice continues to wow, scoring 24 points and almost singlehandedly building that lead the Illini had before the collapse. Terran Petteway also continued his hot streak for the Huskers, tallying another 14 points in Nebraska's win. And then there's Ohio State, who saw two players have huge nights. LaQuinton Ross scored 20, with 17 coming in a remarkable first-half shooting display. And Sam Thompson scored 14, eight of which came on four show-stopping alley oop dunks.

While the Spartans had a night to forget Wednesday, the Buckeyes looked great and hope they can keep playing like they did all the way until April. The offensive exploits of Ross, Thompson and the two other players in double figures were impressive, but the cornerstone of Ohio State is its defense. That certainly showed Wednesday, as the Buckeyes held future conferencemate Maryland to 60 points, the Terps' second-lowest output of the season.

“No matter how well we are shooting the ball, no matter how well we are playing offensively, we will always be a team that hangs on our defense," Thompson said. "Anytime our defense is clicking like that and we are able to get easy layups and transitions off of our defense, it really gets us into a flow offensively.”