Typically, the schedule-makers for the Big Ten/ACC Challenge try to pit teams of equal caliber against one another, but when Michigan State-North Carolina was originally inked, perhaps they couldn't envision the two powerhouses being in such different places in early December.
In any other year, this would sound like one heck of a marquee matchup between the two legendary programs on a national stage. But while the No. 1 Spartans are college basketball's current top dogs, the Tar Heels are 5-2, out of the rankings, with losses to Belmont and UAB on their resume.
But still, don't expect Tom Izzo to treat this like any old cupcake.
Izzo wants to focus on what Carolina has done well, and Roy Williams' Heels can claim an upset win over Louisville, the defending national champions, on a neutral court. So it hasn't been all bad news in Chapel Hill.
"I watched this team dismantle Louisville," Izzo said at his weekly press conference Monday. "They lost to UAB, yeah, but they beat Louisville soundly. I have a tendency to say they beat Louisville soundly. Look at their pedigree, their reputation and the number of great players they have. They'll be one of the more well-coached teams that come in here."
But Michigan State has experience against the nation's top programs. In fact, the Spartans knocked off the then-No. 1 Kentucky Wildcats earlier this season in Chicago. This time around, they figure to have home-court advantage, as well, to go along with the incredible way in which they've been playing.
Williams, who recognizes the differences that have made his own powerhouse program slightly less of one so far in this campaign, has seen a big difference in this season's Michigan State squad.
"They've never played slow. I've never thought Tom wanted to play a 50-point game or anything like that. But to me, this one appears to be playing even faster," Williams said at his own press conference earlier this week. "Kentucky, the first part of that game, Kentucky needed a bicycle."
North Carolina has already scored one big upset over a top-ranked team this season, so Izzo knows his team will have to keep playing at its best in order to avoid the same fate as Louisville. But Izzo's confident because what he's seen so far has been encouraging, to say the least.
"I think we have dealt with the pressure of being a No. 1 team and listening to everybody say this team should have beat us and this team could have beat us, but we've won every game by 10 or more except one. In that game we had a big lead, and, yes, they missed some free throws, but we had some guys sitting on the bench, too," Izzo said. "So I feel like we've done a pretty good job so far in the first maybe fifth of the season with a lot of season left, including this big game on Wednesday."
Michigan State and North Carolina tip off at 8 p.m. Wednesday on ESPN.
Here's a look at the other games on the second night of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge:
Maryland at No. 5 Ohio State, 6 p.m., ESPN. It's been a long time since these two have seen each other, last playing way back in 1985. But they'll see a lot of each other starting this season. Next year, the Terps join the Big Ten, but for now, the Challenge will have to do. The fifth-ranked Buckeyes figure to be big favorites here, especially playing at home in Columbus. But Maryland could provide a challenge for the defensive-minded Buckeyes. The Terps are averaging 74.3 points per game, more than 20 points than the Buckeyes are allowing per contest (53.3, best in the Big Ten).
No. 8 Wisconsin at Virginia, 6 p.m., ESPN 2. A rematch of a game from last year's Challenge, the Cavaliers scored a win in Madison a season ago. Now, the eighth-ranked Badgers will look to return the favor as they also try to maintain their undefeated record. But this could prove to be Wisconsin's toughest task so far this season. Virginia is 7-1, with the only loss coming against a ranked Virginia Commonwealth team. The Cavaliers are close to getting their own number in front of their name, the first team in the receiving votes category in the coaches poll and the second in the AP top 25. But Wisconsin has the firepower, with five players averaging more than 10 points per game, including Ben Brust, the Big Ten's leading 3-point shooter.
Northwestern at North Carolina State, 6:30 p.m., ESPN U. It's been a struggle thus far for Northwestern, and another trip away from Chicagoland isn't necessarily what the Wildcats need right now. Chris Collins' team enters its Challenge matchup with North Carolina State at 4-4, the worst record of any Big Ten team, and that includes three big losses in all three games played away from the shadow of Chicago's big shoulders. The Cats have lost those games — at Stanford and vs. Missouri and UCLA in Las Vegas — by a combined 40 points, all by double digits. NC State's not great, with only four wins of their own in the young season, but they do have a scoring machine in T.J. Warren, averaging 22.7 points in six games this year.
Boston College at Purdue, 8 p.m., ESPN 2. The Boilermakers will be happy to return home to West Lafayette after a miserable trip to Disney World (how is that possible?) that saw them get smoked by both Oklahoma State and Washington State. Things haven't gone as desired for Matt Painter's team, and a game against Boston College could cure some of the Boilers' ills. The Eagles come in at just 3-4 including losses to Providence, (now-ranked) UMass and Toledo, plus they needed overtime to get past Sacred Heart in their last outing. Still, watch out for the Eagles' top two scorers — Olivier Hanian and Ryan Anderson — who are averaging a combined 40.7 points per game for this high-scoring BC group.
Miami at Nebraska, 8:30 p.m., ESPN U. The Huskers have benefitted from an easier schedule as they've started the season at 5-2. They're getting big performances from Terran Petteway, who ranks 10th in the Big Ten with a 16-point-per-game average. But can they keep the good start going when Miami comes to Lincoln? The Hurricanes, a two seed in last year's Big Dance, you might remember, already have three losses to their name this season, defeats at the hands of St. Francis, Central Florida and George Washington. Miami has had a tendency to play extra sessions, with three of their eight games (two losses) going to overtime.