The 14 matchups of this year's ACC-Big Ten Challenge were released today, and as expected, there are plenty of good, and a number of ugly games ahead of us this winter. We get an old conference rivalry revival between perhaps the two preseason favorites in the two leagues, UNC and Maryland, an Elite Eight rematch between Louisville and Michigan State, and a blue blood showdown between Duke and Indiana. There's also Virginia Tech vs. Northwestern, which probably won't have neutral fans quite as excited.
In all, every team from the two leagues, save for Georgia Tech, is involved, and these games always bring a lot of intrigue. Here is our ranking of the entire challenge:
14. Boston College vs. Penn State:
Jim Christian's first year at Boston College (13-19, 4-14) wasn't great by any standard, and things may not get any better in 2015-16. Olivier Hanlan, one of the team's lone bright spots, is off to the NBA Draft. It seems unlikely that the Eagles make any significant noise in the coming year. They will host Penn State in this year's ACC-Big Ten Challenge, making for a pretty uninspiring matchup. Like BC, Penn State loses its one bonafide star—D.J. Newbill—from last year's team. Perhaps these two young teams can find more balance offensively and improve without their prodigious scorers, but we wouldn't bet on it right now. This will be BC and Penn State's third ACC-Big Ten Challenge showdown since 2011. The two programs split the first two of those matchups. If this game is as good as the 2014 Pinstripe Bowl between the two schools' football programs, we'll be in for a pleasant surprise.
13. Rutgers vs. Wake Forest:
Rebuilding jobs in young coaching tenures is a common theme in the low-ranked games on our list, and that is definitely the case for Rutgers vs. Wake Forest. The Scarlet Knights knocked off national semifinalist Wisconsin on January 11, and proceeded to lose out the rest of the season, to finish a lowly 2-16 in conference and 10-22 overall. To compound matters, two of the team's best players, Myles Mack and Kadeem Jack, are gone, leaving Eddie Jordan with a very lean roster in year three of his Rutgers tenure. Wake Forest is not an overly-talented team, but they were much more competitive in the ACC than Rutgers was in the Big Ten. They might not be a tournament team yet, but they will probably handle Rutgers in an uninspiring game at The RAC.
12. Virginia Tech vs. Northwestern:
There's a chance that this game is more fun than we're giving it credit for by the time these two meet on the court, but for now, we have to keep the Hokies and Wildcats fairly low. Virginia Tech has been totally rebuilt under Buzz Williams, with a number of freshman receiving a lot of playing time in 2014-15, and a Top 30 recruiting class coming in, there is some hope for the hoops team in Blacksburg. Unfortunately for the Hokies, like BC and PSU, Tech is losing its top player Adam Smith to transfer, which won't help matters in the near future. Northwestern is also playing better basketball under Chris Collins than it has in the past. Seven footer Alex Olah had a solid 2014-15, and should continue to improve, and Northwestern will be pairing him with four-star recruit Aaron Falzon in the frontcourt. We have to see more before we move a Hokies-Wildcats game up, but there is potential here.
11. Minnesota vs. Clemson:
The Gophers and Tigers are far from the worst that their respective conferences have to offer, but this is a pretty boring match-up to be honest. Minnesota looked ready to turn a corner after winning the 2014 NIT, but instead slipped to a 6-12 Big Ten finish and 18-15 overall record. Clemson was a very solid defensive squad, but after losing K.J. McDaniels from the year before, the Tigers' offense went in the tank. Jaron Blossomgame is an intriguing player, and Clemson had a few young guys like Donte Grantham step up last season, but we don't envision them being an overly interesting team in 2015-16 as currently constructed.
10. Nebraska vs. Miami:
We're big fans of the jobs that both Jim Larranaga and Tim Miles have done at two schools that are traditionally football-focused, but we're not sure that this game will be as good as it would have been a few seasons ago. Nebraska followed up a very promising NCAA Tournament season in 2013-14 with a disappointing one this past year, and now the Huskers lose top player Terran Petteway to the NBA. Miami, on the other hand, brings back a number of its best players, including guards Rodriguez and Sheldon McClellan, and rim protector Tonye Jekiri. Miami should be a factor in the ACC this year, but it is yet to be seen if Nebraska will bounce back to where it was two years ago.
9. Pittsburgh vs. Purdue:
After losing early season games to teams like North Florida and Gardner Webb, all Purdue did was go 12-6 in a tough Big Ten to land itself in the NCAA Tournament. After a few down seasons following the very good Robbie Hummell, E'Twaun Moore teams, Matt Painter's Boilermakers seem like they've shaken off the rust, and could be very good in 2014-15. A.J. Hammons and Isaac Haas give Purdue a very strong frontcourt, which could still be further bolstered with a commitment from blue chip forward Caleb Swanigan, who recently decommitted from Michigan State. Pitt, which has one of the nation's top programs in the 2000s, has been a fairly average club so far in the ACC. James Artis, James Robinson, and Michael Young are nice players, but this Purdue game could be a good indicator for whether or not Pitt will establish itself in the top half of the ACC in 2015-16.
8. Iowa vs. Florida State:
This is the first match-up that should feature two NCAA Tournament contenders. Florida State has one of the biggest frontcourts you'll see, with juniors Boris Bojanovsky and Michael Ojo returning, along with the arrival of Jean Marc Christ Koumadjie, the Monteverde Academy center who is listed by some at 7-foot-5. FSU also brings back star guard Xavier Rathan-Mayes, who made headlines last season when he dropped an unthinkable 30 points in the final 4:38 against Miami. Iowa is a pretty solid team as well, returning four starters from an NCAA Tournament team that blew out a solid Davidson squad in the 7 vs. 10 game before losing to Gonzaga. This may not be the sexiest matchup, at least by name, but these are two solid teams that should make for a good game.
7. Illinois vs. Notre Dame:
Few teams lose a player combination like Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant, and Notre Dame will certainly look different in 2015-16, but if the rest of the team takes the step forward that it should be capable of, Mike Brey shouldn't have to wait another 12 years to make it back to the NCAA Tournament's second weekend. Illinois could be a very strong team this year as well. The Illini bring in the No. 15 ranked class in 247Sports' composite team rankings, with a trio of four-star talents: point guard Jalen Coleman-Lands, shooting guard Aaron Jordan, and small forward D.J. Williams. The Irish will be putting more on guys like Zach Auguste, who had a huge NCAA Tournament, steady point guard Demetrius Jackson, and forward Steve Vasturia, who made a lot of big shots this March. Illinois will be looking to take a step forward, similar to what Notre Dame did last season. This is a pretty enticing game.
6. Ohio State vs. Virginia:
After the closure of the 2014-15 season, it looked like Virginia may have a shot at a preseason No. 1 ranking for next year. Unfortunately for the Hoos, Justin Anderson declared for the NBA Draft, and while the team still returns a number of its top players and will be an ACC favorite, it does take a bit of the luster away from an early season matchup like this. Ohio State loses even more than that, with D'Angelo Russell looking to be the first guard taken in the draft, and Shawn Scott, Sam Thompson and Amir Williams all gone from last year's team. The Buckeyes do have a Top 10 recruiting class coming in, headlined by four-star guard Jaquon Lyles, who may be the heir apparent to fill the large gap left by Russell. The Buckeyes have a chance to really prove themselves against Virginia and its vaunted pack-line defense.
5. N.C. State vs. Michigan:
Over the last few years, N.C. State has been as unpredictable as any team in the nation. In 2014-15, Michigan was just disappointing. Star guard Cat Barber returns to the Wolfpack this season, and will have a very strong front court featuring Abdul-Malik Abu and BeeJay Anya to work with. Expect West Virginia transfer Terry Henderson and young wing Caleb Martin to be Barber's main running mates on the perimeter. Michigan should take a big step forward this season with the return of Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton from their injuries, as well as the development of many of the young players who were thrust into important roles last season. However, no one really expected the Wolverines to fall off the way that they did in 2014-15, but John Beilein is a top coach, and should be able to return his team to form. If everything breaks right, this could be a preview of two Sweet 16-caliber teams.
4. Syracuse vs. Wisconsin:
Back in the 2012 NCAA Tournament, C.J. Fair, Scoop Jardine, and Dion Waiters outdueled a red-hot Wisconsin team that shot 14-for-27 from three to win a fantastic Sweet 16 game, and advance to the Elite Eight. The 2015-16 Orange and Badgers will look totally different from those two tournament teams, but this is still a headline-worthy game at the Carrier Dome. Syracuse will look for guards Trevor Cooney and Mike Gbinije to take big steps forward and lead the team back to the NCAA Tournament, while Wisconsin has to account for the loss of stars Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker. Wisconsin's fantastic ball movement and shooting against Syracuse's long 2-3 zone should be a fun watch as well, especially with the backdrop of around 30,000 fans in the Dome.
3. Duke vs. Indiana:
While any coach would be happy to score a win over a team like Duke, a victory in this game could help Tom Crean bring the fans back to his side. Since bowing out early in the 2012-13 NCAA Tournament as a top seed, Crean's teams have underachieved, despite having incredibly talented rosters. With lead guard Yogi Ferrell, and talented scorers like Troy Williams James Blackmon, Robert Johnson, and Hanner Mosquera-Perea all back, Crean is probably coaching for his job this season. The same obviously can't be said for Mike Krzyzewski, whose team will enter this game as the defending national champion, albeit with a far different roster than the one that beat Wisconsin just over a month ago. Duke brings in a monster recruiting class featuring four five-star players—Brandon Ingram, Chase Jeter, Luke Kennard, and Derryck Thornton—to go with breakout tournament star Grayson Allen, and useful role players like Matt Jones and Amile Jefferson. Why yes, we are excited for this one.
2. Michigan State vs. Louisville:
The Cardinals and Spartans met in the Elite Eight at the Carrier Dome in March, and Rick Pitino's team will have a chance to avenge the loss in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, whether he likes it or not. With Montrezl Harrell, Terry Rozier, and Wayne Blackshear gone, Pitino has to retool a core that has been very good to him over the last few seasons. With Trey Lewis, an All-Horizon League first teamer, on the roster after transferring in from Cleveland State, as well as elite freshman guard Donovan Mitchell, we're sure the Hall of Fame coach will figure things out. Now, will that be enough to outdo Tom Izzo? Where Pitino seems a bit concerned about the difficulty of his schedule, Izzo embraces slates like this on an annual basis, and many credit that philosophy for his team's amazing NCAA Tournament success. The Spartans bring back Denzel Valentine and bring in a talented recruiting class of their own, but they don't always begin to click this early in the season. If they're in mid-season form in 2015, this could be a pretty epic game in East Lansing.
1. North Carolina vs. Maryland:
This is the big one. While some will bang the drum for Duke and Virginia, UNC will likely be the preseason favorite in the ACC, and Maryland looks poised to be a solid favorite in the Big Ten. North Carolina returns every key player in its rotation, save for athletic forward J.P. Tokoto, and add four-star shooting guard Kenny Williams to the club. Maryland brings back one of the nation's best guards in Melo Trimble, a very good forward in Jake Layman, top forward recruit Diamond Stone, Duke transfer Rasheed Sulaimon, and former Georgia Tech forward Robert Carter. Maryland may have the most complete starting five in the country, and UNC is one of the only teams that can probably challenge them on it, depending on how freshman-laden teams like Duke and Kentucky turn out. When you get a matchup of potential champions from the ACC and Big Ten, all college basketball fans win.