It's one of those rituals that have become part of the college basketball scene. Two conferences –- the Big Ten and the Atlantic Coast Conference –- dominate our focus for two nights. Then we sit down and try to sort it all out.
Which conference is better? Which teams disappointed? Who surprised? Who was overrated in the preseason?
The first step in all of this reminds me of election night. They put the results right there on your television screen, sort of a secondary scoreboard. Ohio State is playing Duke and they tell you the Big Ten needs two more wins to take the Challenge. Can't you just close your eyes and imagine that map on the ice skating rink in Rockefeller Center? Blue states. Red states. Why is it that the state of Ohio always determines the outcome?
Honestly, after a day of covering conference realignment and trying to explain why the ACC presidents voted to invite Louisville, but snubbed Connecticut, I struggled to add up the results. Maryland traveled to Northwestern and the Terps won 77-57. Is that a win for the ACC or the Big Ten?
It's all so complicated these days.
"It was a November game against an ACC team," Northwestern's Dave Sobolewski said. "It's not the end of the season. We've got a lot of work to do for sure, but we're not going to stop working. If anything, this will make us hungrier. It was nothing more than a loss in November."
Thanks, Dave. That seriously puts it all in perspective.
It also clears up that scoreboard issue. With Maryland in the ACC (at least at this moment), the Terps earned a notch for the Tobacco Road gang. And when Duke finished off its impressive comeback and defeated Ohio State in Cameron Indoor Stadium, the ACC had managed a 6-6 tie in the Challenge.
Not sure anyone expected this to end in a tie. It is the first time in this series that it has happened. The Big Ten had been flexing its muscles in early season games and led the Challenge 4-2 after the first night. But Virginia went to Wisconsin and shocked the Kohl Center crowd with a 60-54 victory over the Badgers. Then Michigan State was outscored by 12 in the second half at Miami and the Hurricanes added to Tom Izzo's misery with a 67-59 win over the Spartans.
Check out Ken Davis' latest college basketball power rankings at FOXSports.com.
That's how we got to 6-6.
It is November, so this is dangerous. But here are a few observations, based on what we've seen so far.
Duke looks pretty special. Consider these pre-December accomplishments. The Blue Devils already have victories over three of last season's Final Four participants (Kentucky, Louisville and Ohio State). Well, that's so last year, you say. Really? All three were ranked in the top five in this year's polls.
Did you see the way Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski celebrated with his assistant coaches at the end of the game Wednesday night? Not sure he was even that enthusiastic when his USA squad won the gold medal in London.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, it's "the first time since 1965-66 that Duke has won multiple regular-season non-conference games against squads ranked in the Associated Press top five." We are seven games into the season, people. That's remarkable.
"It would be hard to find anybody who has been through a stretch like this, and they've gotten better," Krzyzewski said. Can't argue with that.
Second observation: This may be the Year of the Big Man. Duke's Mason Plumlee makes your jaw drop every time he plays. He has improved so much and he just takes control of games until the opponent wilts.
Plumlee finished with 21 points and 17 rebounds against Ohio State. To score that way when he is surrounded by teammates Rasheed Sulaimon, Ryan Kelly and Quinn Cook is amazing. One night earlier it was Indiana's Cody Zeller who had 20 points, eight rebounds, one assist, one steal and four blocks. Talk about filling up the box score. North Carolina coach Roy Williams must have had nightmares of Zeller after that 83-59 loss to the Hoosiers. That constant image of Zeller running out in front of everyone and dunking would keep any opposing coach awake.
|Tubby Smith has the Gophers flying high early in 2012.|
During the Duke game, analyst Jay Bilas observed it would be better letting Zeller grab a rebound so that he can't run out on you. It's so true. And Kansas wasn't part of this Challenge (I think the Jayhawks are still in the Big 12) but center Jeff Withey had a triple-double (16 points, 12 rebounds and 12 blocks) in a 70-57 win over San Jose State Monday. Can't remember the last time college basketball had big-man performances like those on three consecutive nights. Wow.
Third: Minnesota and Illinois seem legitimate. Minnesota is 7-1 and that loss came against Duke. It's not easy to beat Florida State in Tallahassee. Maybe the Seminoles don't have their patented defense up to speed yet, but the Gophers went to Tallahassee and emerged with a 77-68 victory.
Who could have predicted Minnesota and Illinois both moving into the rankings this early in the season? The Illini are 8-0 after a 75-62 win over Georgia Tech Wednesday night. Guard Brandon Paul is ready for stardom. And coach John Groce is the first coach since World War II to start his Illini career with eight straight wins.
Fourth: Michigan State and North Carolina State may have been overrated. Michigan State hasn't gotten into its transition game the way Izzo wanted. The Spartans have had injury problems. But after opening the season with a shocking loss to Connecticut, Michigan State looked back on track beating a good Kansas team. The loss to Miami puts Izzo back at square one, it seems.
Give North Carolina State credit for fighting to the end at Michigan, but the Wolfpack has lost two of its last three and just dodged an upset bid by UNC Asheville. Coach Mark Gottfried is searching for some chemistry.
You've got to love Miami coach Jim Larranaga. When the Hurricanes upset Michigan State, some Miami fans stormed the court.
"I was thinking, 'This is what college basketball is all about,'" Larranaga said. "In fact, what I was really thinking was, 'This is what being a college student is all about.' Your greatest memories don't come in the classroom. They come at events like this that you'll remember years down the road."
Great quote. But Larranaga may be getting a call from Miami's admissions director after that comment. Those admissions people are so sensitive.