November 29, 2011

Bragging rights on line in league challenges

Conference bragging rights are on the line this week in three conference challenges, with matchups between the ACC and Big Ten, the Big East and SEC, and the Missouri Valley and Mountain West.

The ACC-Big Ten Challenge is the longest running of the three, but it's still full of surprises. After years of dominance by the ACC, the Big Ten has won the past two.

The Big East-SEC Challenge is a revamped "tournament" that has expanded from four games to 12, though the organizers may need to take a closer look at scheduling. The ACC/Big Ten offers us Duke-Ohio State and Wisconsin-North Carolina while the SEC's marquee program, Kentucky, catches a rebuilding St. John's team.

The Missouri Valley-Mountain West Challenge is a relative newcomer, but it's important nonetheless. The Mountain West's 8-1 performance last year foreshadowed a strong season, as BYU and San Diego State combined to win 66 games on the season.

Here's a look at the top games in conference challenges this season.

ACC/BIG TEN CHALLENGE

TOP GAMES
Duke at Ohio State, Tuesday, 9:30 p.m., ESPN: Duke already has had a lot of good news, what with Mike Krzyzewski passing Bob Knight on the career wins list and the Blue Devils winning the Maui Invitational title. Gs Seth Curry and Austin Rivers have delivered as expected, but the revelation in Maui was the play of the big guys. Ryan Kelly scored 17 points in each game, against Tennessee, Michigan and Kansas. Mason Plumlee emerged as a legit double-double guy, too. Ohio State hasn't been as tested as Duke, but the Buckeyes defeated Florida 81-74 on Nov. 15. William Buford looks to have risen to the task of replacing the output of departed Gs Jon Diebler and David Lighty.

Florida State at Michigan State, Wednesday, 7:30 p.m., ESPN: Both teams have taken losses, with Michigan State losing to Duke and North Carolina and Florida State losing to Harvard and Connecticut. FSU lost to Harvard in a game in which G Michael Snaer was the only player to score in double figures (10 points) for either team. Since facing Duke and North Carolina in the first two games, Michigan State has won four in a row. But Tom Izzo still is trying to manage a roster short on proven players.

Wisconsin at North Carolina, Wednesday, 9:30 p.m., ESPN: The Tar Heels are searching for answers after losing 90-80 to UNLV on Saturday. There's no let-up in the schedule, though, with Wisconsin in Chapel Hill and Kentucky on the road on Saturday. UNLV made 13 3-pointers against North Carolina in an up-tempo game. Wisconsin might not play as fast, but the Badgers can hit shots. Ben Brust hit 7-of-10 3-pointers against BYU. If North Carolina had trouble defending UNLV's guards, how will the Heels handle Badgers All-America G Jordan Taylor?

THE OTHER GAMES
Michigan at Virginia, Tuesday, 7 p.m., ESPN2
Northwestern at Georgia Tech, Tuesday, 7:15 p.m., ESPNU
Illinois at Maryland, Tuesday, 7:30 p.m., ESPN
Miami at Purdue, Tuesday, 9 p.m., ESPN2
Clemson at Iowa, Tuesday, 9:15 p.m., ESPNU
Indiana at N.C. State, Wednesday, 7:15 p.m., ESPN
Penn State at Boston College, Wednesday, 7:15 p.m., ESPNU
Virginia Tech at Minnesota, Wednesday, 9:15 p.m., ESPN2
Wake Forest at Nebraska, Wednesday, 9:15 p.m., ESPNU

Last year's winner: Big Ten 6-5
All-time record: ACC 72-47

BIG EAST/SEC CHALLENGE

TOP GAMES
Georgetown at Alabama, Thursday, 9:30 p.m., ESPN2: The Hoyas raised some eyebrows in the Maui Invitational with a competitive 67-63 loss to Kansas and a 91-88 overtime win over Memphis. Georgetown entered the season without the buzz of past teams under John Thompson III, but this is a young team that should cause problems for Big East foes with its size. G Jason Clark averaged 23 points per game in Maui. Alabama hasn't been pretty (1-of-11 3-pointers, with 13 turnovers and just 10 assists against VCU), but the athletic Tide always play good defense. F JaMychal Green returned from an ankle injury to take over against VCU, finishing with 21 points and 14 rebounds.

Florida at Syracuse, Friday, 6:30 p.m., ESPN: In the NIT Tip-off, Syracuse needed a second-half surge to beat Virginia Tech and a late burst to edge Stanford in the final. Syracuse needed a spark in both games - G Dion Waiters off the bench against Virginia Tech and a full-court press against Stanford - to win. Florida's guard-oriented lineup will be even more focused on the perimeter with a knee injury to starting F Erik Murphy. Even without Murphy, Florida has five players averaging in double figures.

Vanderbilt at Louisville, Friday, 8:30 p.m., ESPN: The Commodores haven't played with a full roster yet this season because of Festus Ezeli's suspension and injury and injuries to G John Jenkins and F Steve Tchiengang. Louisville also is dealing with significant injuries. The Cardinals are just getting by with G Peyton Siva hobbled by an ankle injury. Fs Rakeem Buckles and Wayne Blackshear have yet to play a game this season.

West Virginia at Mississippi State, Saturday, 9 p.m., ESPNU: Both teams might be relieved the MAC isn't involved in this conference challenge. Both teams lost by 10 at home to MAC programs earlier this season - Mississippi State to Akron and West Virginia to Kent State. Mississippi State may have proven its loss was a fluke with back-to-back victories over Texas A&M and Arizona in the 2K Sports Classic in New York. The key matchup will be in the frontcourt; the Bulldogs' duo of Arnett Moultrie (16 points, 10.8 rebounds) and Renardo Sidney will be going against Kevin Jones (21.8 points, 12.3 rebounds) and Deniz Kilicli.

THE OTHER GAMES
Providence at South Carolina, Thursday, 7 p.m., ESPNU
St. John's at Kentucky, Thursday, 7:30 p.m., ESPN2
Ole Miss at DePaul, Thursday, 9 p.m., ESPNU
Cincinnati at Georgia, Friday, 7 p.m., ESPNU
Auburn at Seton Hall, Friday, 9 p.m., ESPNU
Arkansas at Connecticut, Saturday, 3:15 p.m., ESPN
Pittsburgh at Tennessee, Saturday, 5:15 p.m., ESPN
LSU at Rutgers, Saturday, 7 p.m., ESPNU

Last year's winner: SEC 3-1
All-time record: Tied 8-8

MISSOURI VALLEY/MOUNTAIN WEST CHALLENGE

TOP GAMES
Creighton at San Diego State, Wednesday, 10:30 p.m., The Mtn.: No one told San Diego State it was supposed to struggle a bit without Kawhi Leonard and four other starters. The Aztecs are 7-1, including wins over Long Beach State in overtime, at Arizona and at UC Santa Barbara. Sophomore Jamaal Franklin has gone from a little-used bench player to producing 15.7 points and 5.1 rebounds per game. Washington State transfer Xavier Thames has been similarly productive. Creighton sophomore F Doug McDermott has picked up where he left off last season, averaging 23.4 points and 7.8 rebounds.

Missouri State at New Mexico, Saturday, 10 p.m., The Mtn.: Missouri State F Kyle Weems, the defending MVC player of the year, is struggling. He's shooting only 25 percent from the field and averaging 10.5 points. His slump hasn't hurt Missouri State (4-0) yet, but he may need to return to form if the Bears are going to win in The Pit. New Mexico lost its first game of the 76 Classic in overtime to Santa Clara, a loss that doesn't seem so bad after Santa Clara defeated Villanova for the tournament title. That said, New Mexico has the talent to contend for an NCAA tournament slot. Losses to a WAC team (New Mexico State), a West Coast Conference team (Santa Clara) and an MVC team (Missouri State) would be an inauspicious start to the season.

UNLV at Wichita State, Sunday, 4 p.m., local TV only: This game is far more interesting after UNLV's upset of North Carolina. The trip to Wichita State will open a challenging December schedule for the Rebels, who play at Wisconsin (Dec. 10), at Illinois (Dec. 17) and at home against California (Dec. 23). Under new coach Dave Rice, UNLV is playing an up-and-down style reminiscent of teams under Jerry Tarkanian, who was Rice's coach when he was a Runnin' Rebel. Wichita State may not have the athletes to keep up.

THE OTHER GAMES
Colorado State at Northern Iowa, Saturday, 2:30 p.m.
Air Force at Drake, Saturday, 8 p.m., local TV only
TCU at Evansville, Saturday, 8 p.m.
Indiana State at Boise State, Saturday, 10 p.m.
Bradley at Wyoming, Saturday, 10 p.m.

Last year's winner: Mountain West 8-1
All-time record: Mountain West 12-6

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