At a time of year when the guiding principle behind many coaches' scheduling seems to be avoiding damaging their NCAA Tournament hopes with any mishaps, the annual “challenges” between top conferences comes as a welcome relief for fans of women's basketball. This year's seventh annual Big Ten-ACC Challenge, taking place on Wednesday and Thursday, will be no exception, offering a slate of entertaining games, with several matchups between Top 25 teams on tap.
Though the annual face-off between Big Ten and ACC teams is, for the most part, far more competitive than the typical preconference fare, for the first six years of the event, the Big Ten has not put up much of a challenge. The ACC has won five of the six events. The Big Ten’s best showing was a 6-6 tie in 2011.
Though this season's challenge appears to be better balanced than it has at times in the past, this does not look to be the year that the Big Ten finally breaks through. Of the 12 games to be played over the next two days, only one -- Minnesota, who entertains Miami on Thursday -- feature a Big Ten school as the favorite.
In Wednesday's matchups, Illinois will likely not find much success at Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech is favored to win at Indiana, and despite national rankings that might suggest otherwise, Florida State should handle a wildly inconsistent Michigan State team at home. The latter game will be the pick of the litter among Wednesday's Challenge games. Though the Seminoles are not currently nationally ranked and the Spartans, who started the season in the Top 25 of both polls, have dropped out of the AP poll altogether and slipped to No. 25 in the Coaches' Poll after losing badly (81-62) at Notre Dame and surviving a scare from Dayton in overtime (96-89), both teams are definitely still in the mix. The 'Noles proved their chops over Thanksgiving weekend by forcing then-No. 4/3 Louisville to overtime before falling, 69-59, in the extra minutes. In this week's AP poll, Michigan State received the most votes (88) among teams that finished outside the Top 25, with Florida State right behind, drawing 33 ballots from AP voters. Florida State was the top unranked vote-getter in this week's Coaches' Poll, again finishing on the heels of Michigan State with 47 votes.
The eight games on Thursday provide some very interesting match-ups. Northwestern hosts North Carolina State and the improved Wildcats should have the edge over the Wolfpack. At Virginia, look for the Cavaliers to handle a very inexperienced Michigan squad. Wisconsin should edge Boston College in Madison, while Maryland can be expected to handle a young Ohio State team easily.
If those games go according to form, the ACC would own a five-to-three lead, leaving the top four games -- the best two of them on Wednesday and two more well worth watching on Thursday -- to decide this year's challenge. Each of those four games features two nationally ranked opponents.
Wednesday's marquee match-up, and potentially the best game of this year's Challenge, will come when No. 4/5 Notre Dame travels to No. 10/11 Penn State. The game will mark the first meeting between Penn State coach Coquese Washington and her mentor and former boss Muffet McGraw, who will be leading the Irish into their first Big Ten-ACC Challenge as a newcomer to the ACC. McGraw has built Notre Dame into one of the nation’s premiere programs, and the Irish show no sign of slowing down since the graduation of All-American Skylar Diggins last June. Washington has quickly turned the Lady Lions around; they are coming off two consecutive regular-season Big Ten championships.
For the Irish, sophomore guard Jewell Loyd has picked up where she left off last season, leading the team with 17.2 points a game to which she tacks on seven rebounds per outing. The Irish are averaging more than 90 points a game and outrebound their opponents by 20 a game despite an early-season schedule that has included two nationally ranked opponents to date: Michigan State, ranked No. 18/20 at the time, whom Notre Dame defeated, 81-62, on opening weekend, and DePaul, whose brief stint at No. 25 in both polls came to an abrupt end when the Irish took them down, 92-76, last week. Notre Dame, always known for its aggressive defense, has no shortage of firepower this season, with Kayla McBride, a senior featured on all the major watch lists, contributing 15.5 points, 6.3 boards and better than three assists per game, and Taya Reimer (12.2 ppg/7.7 rbg), Lindsay Allen (10.8 ppg), Natalie Achonwa (10.7 ppg/7.0 rbg) and Michaela Mabrey (10.5 ppgs) joining Loyd to give Notre Dame an arsenal of double-digit scoring options that extends all the way through to the bench.
Penn State is led by senior Maggie Lucas, the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year, who averages 22.2 points a game. Lucas’ range is anything over the half-court line, and when she's hot, which happens often, she can carry her team. Though Penn State has seven freshmen on their roster, its three top scorers are seniors, with 6-3 forward Ariel Edwards joining Lucas in double figures (12.0 ppgs), and 5-8 guard Dara Taylor, an All Big Ten Defensive Team selection, good for 9.8 points per night. The bad news for the Lions: There is no one beyond those three who has shown that she can step up and score on a consistent basis. The Lady Lions are a good rebounding team, but their +9 boards a game pales in comparison to the Irish mark -- an impressive +20;8. The key to this game is simply talent. Lucas might be the best player on the floor, but numbers 2 thru 6 are likely to be wearing the Notre Dame uniforms. Earlier this season Penn State hosted Connecticut and was able to compete with the Huskies for only the first 10 minutes. They won’t likely have much better luck against the Irish.
Wednesday also features what should be one of the most evenly matched games of this year's Challenge, when No. 15/13 Nebraska travels to No. 18/16 North Carolina. This year's edition is a typical Tar Heels team -- athletic, aggressive and strong defensively. Nebraska is a well-coached, fundamentally strong team with few readily apparent weaknesses. The Cornhuskers dominate on the boards, outboarding their opponents to the tune of 45-33 per game. The Tar Heels, are good, but not as good, on the glass, outrebounding their opponents by fewer than five a game. North Carolina features four double-digit scorers led by freshman phenom Diamond DeShields (16.8 ppg) who gets plenty of scoring support from classmates Allisha Gray (15.4 ppg) and Stephanie Mavunga (14.8 ppg) and and "veteran" forward Xylina McDaniel (10.5 ppg), a sophomore. Nebraska has just three reliable scoring options -- Jordan Hooper (20.4 ppg), Emily Cady (14.2 ppg) and Rachel Theriot (12.4 ppgs), but holds the edge in experience and leadership. The Huskers are led by one of the two best players in the Big Ten in 6-2 senior Hooper, a Naismith and Wade Trophy watch-lister who is averaging a double-double, adding 10.6 rebounds per game to her 20.4 points per outing. Moreover, despite being a post player, Hooper is a strong 3-point shooter (on an otherwise weak -- 21.8 percent 3-point field-goal percentage -- team), who will be a match-up problem for the Carolina posts.
The key to this game will be tempo. North Carolina wants a fast-paced, full-court game, while Nebraska prefers a slower tempo played primarily in the half-court. Whichever team dictates the pace will likely win the game. The guess here is that Nebraska will edge North Carolina in one of the best games of the young 2013-14 season.
No. 16/22 Purdue travels to No. Duke on Thursday and it’s difficult to envision the Boilermakers giving the Blue Devils much trouble, especially after falling so badly (86-69) to No.6/4 Stanford in Puerto Vallarta over Thanksgiving. Purdue is a guard-oriented team with a relatively weak post game; the Boilers start three guards and two 6-2 forwards. Duke is a well-balanced team with a strong post presence who will have the three best players on the floor in guards Trisha Liston and Chelsea Gray and 6-3 center Elizabeth Williams. The key to the game will be the boards. Purdue is being slightly outrebounded on the season while Duke outboards its opponents by 15 a game. This year's edition of the Blue Devils, as usual, is dominating on the defensive end, while shooting over 50 percent from the field. Purdue is decent on both sides of the ball, averaging sligtly better than 73 points per game while giving up a little more than 65, albeit against a schedule that, apart from Stanford, has been decidedly soft to date. The Boilers average 41.5 percent from the field to their opponents' 41.7 percent, and net 35.1 percent of their 3-point attempts, while allowing 29.8 percent. Again, solid, respectable, but not likely to be enough to get the job done against a team with the strength of Duke.
On Thursday, ACC newcomer Syracuse, which cracked the rankings this week at No. 22/23 after upsetting then-No. 12/11 Texas A&M at the Paradise Jam over Thanksgiving, will travel to Iowa, which enter the AP's Top 25 in the bottom spot this week, while picking up 24 votes from the coaches. The Hawkeyes have taken on two nationally ranked opponents thus far, and both games were squeakers: Iowa got the better of the Dayton Flyers, then ranked No. 14/16, with a 97-93 overtime win on opening weekend, but came up short two weeks ago at then-No. 16/20 Colorado, falling 90-87.
The Orange are a decent offensive squad who get 42 percent of their scoring from a pair of sophomore guards, Brittany Sykes (19.1 ppg) and Brianna Butler (17.1 pgg). Iowa is a well-balanced team with four players averaging double figures and the fifth just below that line. The key to this game will be ball handling. Syracuse forces teams to turn the ball over 23 times a game while Iowa generally handles the ball well and coughs up the rock 15 times per outing. Iowa point guard Samantha Logic leads the team with 14.3 points, while dishing out seven assists, per game. No one on the Syracuse team averages even as many as four assists a game. Logic is an excellent point guard and should help the Hawkeyes maintain their poise. That, plus home-court advantage, should give the edge to the Hawkeyes.
Bottom line: The ACC should get a 7-5 win in this year's challenge. B1G fans will have to wait till next season when Maryland switches sides and joins the league. And, in good news for fans of all persuasions, thanks to the Big Ten network team-based video downloads, and ESPN, the majority of the games can be viewed either online or on national television with the following schedule:
2013 Big Ten-ACC Women's Basketball Challenge Broadcast Schedule
|No. 15/13 Nebraska @ No. 18/16 North Carolina||Wed., 12/4||6:00 p.m.||ESPN3|
|RV 88/No. 25 Michigan State @ RV 33/RV 47 Florida State||Wed., 12/4||7:00 p.m.||ESPN3|
|Ohio State @ No. 8 Maryland||Wed., 12/4||7:00 p.m.||Terps TV*|
|Illinois @ Georgia Tech||Wed., 12/4||7:00 p.m.||ESPN3|
|Virginia Tech @ Indiana||Wed., 12/4||7:00 p.m.||--|
|No. 4/5 Notre Dame @ No. 11/10 Penn State||Wed., 12/4||7:30 p.m.||BTN|
|No. 16/22 Purdue @ No. 2 Duke||Thu., 12/5||6:30 p.m.||Blue Devil Network Plus*|
|Michigan @ Virginia||Thu., 12/5||7:00 p.m.||CBSSports.com Gametracker|
|No. 22/23 Syracuse @ No. 25/RV 24 Iowa||Thu., 12/5||7:00 p.m.||BTN|
|NC State @ RV5/- Northwestern||Thu., 12/5||7:30 p.m.||BTDN on Wildcats All-Access|
|Miami @ Minnesota||Thu., 12/5||7:00 p.m.||BTN|
|Boston College @ Wisconsin||Thu., 12/5||8:00 p.m.||
Note: * = live video link available at start time.