To me the Big Ten/ACC Challenge annually marks the unofficial end of the preseason. The general consensus seems to that the Big Ten will prevail again this time but it's my policy to always be wary of consensus. Some wacky computers even think Wisconsin should be the favorite against North Carolina.
Putting trepidation aside, however, it's a good time to be a Big Ten fan. The league is fresh off back-to-back Challenge titles after a 10-year struggle. The Big Ten's Pomeroy rating is well ahead of any other conference at this point.
For Wisconsin, Wednesday night's showcase in Chapel Hill represents perhaps not only the toughest game of the season, but also the start to a grueling four-game, 11-day stretch of the schedule also featuring No. 16 Marquette and No. 18 UNLV. Likewise, these Challenge games will provide a nice springboard for each of the victors as they prepare for conference play.
Now on to the Day One predictions ...
Tuesday, Nov. 29
No. 14 Michigan (5-1) at Virginia (5-1)
Tony Bennett's style produces upsetting results from time to time and Virginia is certainly capable of that at home. However, the Wolverines are far too talented for the improved Cavs. Tim Hardaway, Jr. is the star everyone thought he might be last season and freshmen Trey Burke has filled in nicely at the point guard spot. John Beilein has plenty of experience at the other positions as well.
Pick: Michigan (1-0 Big Ten)
Northwestern (5-0) at Georgia Tech (4-2)
I'm not sold on Northwestern at all this season (take a glimpse at their schedule so far). With that said, I have to go with my gut and take the 'Cats in this toss up. A more talented, more disciplined team should beat Northwestern at home, but that team is not Georgia Tech. New head man Brian Gregory has some work to do in Atlanta; having Glen Rice Jr. is not enough.
Pick: Northwestern (2-0 Big Ten)
Illinois (6-0) at Maryland (3-2)
The Illini were my sleeper pick in the conference, so I have to stick with them in this contest against a rudderless Maryland team that is without Gary Williams for the first time in Challenge history. Lack of leadership was a charge against Illinois the past couple seasons, but transfer Sam Maniscalco helped alleviate that. Also, center Meyers Leonard is a star. The talented Illini should easily dispatch Terrell Stoglin and the Terrapins, giving the Big Ten another crucial road win.
Pick: Illinois (3-0 Big Ten)
Miami (4-1) at Purdue (6-1)
Another toss-up, as I don't see Purdue being as great as people think. The Hurricanes have a new head coach as well, but their only blip has been a narrow road loss at Mississippi in overtime. The Boilers barely beat Iona, 91-90, and appear soft in the middle. But Miami is not built to take advantage, as Jim Larranaga's team shoots terribly from 2-point range. Thanks goodness for home court ...
Pick: Purdue (4-0 Big Ten)
Clemson (3-2) at Iowa (4-2)
AVOID THIS GAME AT ALL COSTS!!! Iowa's return to the run-n-gun has been a welcome sight, but so far this season the Hawkeyes have regressed. An embarrassing blowout loss to Campbell in Iowa City is all you need to know. Clemson typically start fast, but not this year -- the Tigers have two terrible losses of their own already. They do have a pretty fair defense, ranking No. 1 in the country in block percentage. Something has gone wrong with Melsahn Basabe this season, so I like the ACC's chances here.
Pick: Clemson (4-1 Big Ten)
No. 3 Duke (7-0) at No. 2 Ohio State (6-0)
Columbus is host to this year's premier contest pitting two Top 5 squads against each other. Jared Sullinger will be challenged inside by Duke's Plumlee brothers, but I think he is up to the task. Both teams have remarkable shooters to kick out to: William Buford for the Buckeyes and Seth Curry for Duke. Keep an eye on the lead guard matchups. The Blue Devils are trying to get by without a point guard right now and Aaron Craft's smart play and tough defense could pose some problems for a young prima donna like Austin Rivers.
Pick: Ohio State (5-1 Big Ten)
I'll reveal my Day Two picks tomorrow. For now, leave your own predictions in the comments and enjoy a potential Big Ten butt-kicking. Feel free to join the discussion during the games too.
Also, follow me on Twitter @hoopsmarinara throughout the night for additional commentary on the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.