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November 28, 2006

ACC, Big Ten take center stage

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Bragging rights are on the line for two of the biggest conferences. Actually, pride might be a more accurate term - especially when it comes to the Big Ten.

The eighth annual ACC-Big Ten Challenge began Monday night, ends Wednesday and features 11 games (Wake Forest is the ACC team excluded this season) between the conferences.

The ACC has never lost the series, winning seven commissioners cups (the trophy given to the winner) and racking up a 40-24 overall edge.

But that record is misleading. The Big Ten has been close to breaking through on several occasions. Three of the first four series were decided by one game. Last year, the ACC won six games to the Big Ten's five. The ACC only dominated in 2003 and 2004 when it won seven out of nine games.

Third-ranked Ohio State's road trip to No. 7 North Carolina (4-1) on Wednesday night highlights this year's matchups. The Tar Heels and Buckeyes (6-0) landed the nation's No. 1 and No. 2 recruiting classes this year according to Rivals.com, and each group includes a few future first-round NBA draft picks.

The young Buckeyes are off to an impressive start without center Greg Oden, the top-ranked prospect in the class of 2006. Oden isn't expected to return from a wrist injury until Jan. 1. With a starting lineup that includes two freshmen and a junior college transfer, Ohio State has won each of its first six games by double digits and has an average margin of victory of 26.1 points per game.

The Tar Heels were upset by No. 22 Gonzaga 82-74 in the semifinals of the NIT Season Tip-Off in New York City last week, but bounced back with a 101-87 win over Tennessee in the consolation game.

We break down the UNC-Ohio State showdown and each of the matchups in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge (with the exception of N.C. State's 74-67 win over Michigan on Monday night) in this version of A Look Ahead.

While the annual series takes much of the national spotlight this week, there are two games on Saturday that deserve plenty of attention as well.

Gonzaga (6-1) and Texas (4-1) meet in Phoenix in what pits a team of veterans versus one of the nation's youngest squads. The Zags have rebounded from the loss of star Adam Morrison, thanks to several former role players who have raised their level of play. The most notable improvement has come from big man Josh Heytvelt (17.3 points per game). The Longhorns start four freshmen including Kevin Durant (22.4 ppg), who is off to a sensational start.

Eleventh-ranked Duke (5-1) will look to get revenge when it plays host to No. 18 Georgetown (3-1). The Blue Devils were ranked No. 1 and sported a 17-0 record when they lost to the Hoyas 87-84 last season. The Blue Devils look far different now, having lost J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams. To make up for their departures, coach Mike Krzyzewski added four highly touted freshmen.


ACC-Big Ten Challenge
WEDNESDAY
Michigan State (6-1) at Boston College (2-2) – 7 p.m. (ESPN)
This game appears to be coming along at the wrong time for the Eagles. Picked to finish third in the ACC, the ACC-Big Ten Challenge newbie is already being called one of the nation's most overrated teams after losses to Vermont and Providence. Now they face the Spartans, who have the best record (4-1) of any Big Ten team in the series. The Spartans aren't as talented as in the past, but they remain dangerous with veteran point guard Drew Neitzel (17.7 ppg) and power forward Raymar Morgan (10.9 ppg). The Eagles rely heavily on do-it-all wing Jared Dudley (18.3 ppg) and center Sean Williams' ability to control the paint.
ACC-Big Ten Challenge records: Michigan State 4-1, Boston College 0-0
Virginia (4-0) at Purdue (4-1) –7:30 p.m. (ESPN2)
This is a dangerous game for the Cavaliers, who got off to a great start with a season-opening 93-90 upset over No. 16 Arizona in their first game in the new John Paul Jones arena. They looked every bit of an NCAA Tournament team that night, but these are the kind of games that often separate NCAA Tournament teams from NIT teams. The Boilermakers aren't one of the Big Ten's top teams, but they are far improved from their nine-win season in 2005-06. That was shown with victories over DePaul and Oklahoma in the Maui Invitational. The return of Carl Landry (19.4 ppg) gives Purdue a proven scorer. The Cavs are a perimeter-oriented team led by guards Sean Singletary (17.0 ppg) and J.R. Reynolds (16.8 ppg).
ACC-Big Ten Challenge records: Virginia 4-2, Purdue 1-4
Iowa (2-3) at Virginia Tech (3-2) – 8 p.m. (ESPNU)
Both teams enter this matchup in dire need of a win. The Hawkeyes lost all three games they played in the Paradise Jam in the U.S. Virgin Islands last week, including an ugly 67-64 defeat to a rebuilding Arizona State team. The Hokies didn't look much better in the Old Spice Classic in Orlando, Fla., falling to Western Michigan and Southern Illinois. A couple more non-conference losses will make it difficult for either team to contend for an NCAA Tournament bid. The Hawkeyes boast one of the nation's top freshman, Tyler Smith (14.6 ppg). The Hokies have one of the nation's top backcourts in guards Zabian Dowdell (16.6 ppg) and Jamon Gordon (11.8 ppg).
ACC-Big Ten Challenge records: Iowa 2-3, Virginia Tech 0-1
Ohio State (6-0) at North Carolina (4-1) – 9 p.m. (ESPN)
The amount of talent in this game is overwhelming – and that's minus Oden. Six five-star recruits will play, all of which were ranked in the top 20 of their respective class. The Tar Heels have a big edge down low in size and depth with Tyler Hansbrough (20.6 ppg), fast-rising freshman Brandan Wright (16.6 ppg) and newcomers Alex Stepheson (2.2 ppg) and Deon Thompson (3.0 ppg). Look for the Buckeyes to play four guards in effort to create matchup problems and force the Tar Heels out of big lineups. The play of Ohio State power forward Othello Hunter (7.7 ppg) will be critical. If he can slow down Hansbrough, that will greatly help the Buckeyes' chances.
ACC-Big Ten Challenge records: Ohio State 2-3, North Carolina 2-5
Clemson (7-0) at Minnesota (2-4) – 9:30 p.m. (ESPN2)
This matchup pits two programs heading in opposite directions. The Tigers are on a steady rise, and fourth-year coach Oliver Purnell appears to have his best team yet. The Gophers are riding a four-game losing streak and are playing with a level of talent that is far below most in the Big Ten. Furthermore, coach Dan Monson is on the hot seat. The Tigers feature five players who average between nine and 13 points, but veteran point guard Vernon Hamilton (10.7 ppg) is the key. A terrific defender, Hamilton also plays with a pass-first style that fits their personnel on offense. Minnesota is led by guard Lawrence McKenzie (15.6 ppg).
ACC-Big Ten Challenge records: Clemson 5-2, Minnesota 3-4




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