It’s that time of year again, when the powers of the Midwest exert their basketball dominance over the Atlantic Coasters. Or at least that’s been the story in recent years, with the Big Ten taking three of the last four Challenges (last season was an unsatisfying tie). We won’t talk about what happened in the 10 prior Challenges.
We’re going to give a quick rundown on each of the 12 games, complete with our picks. First, here’s our look at Tuesday’s games.
Notre Dame at Iowa
Pomeroy says: Iowa by 12
The teams: Notre Dame has played the third-weakest schedule in all of D1 and lost at home against its only decent opponent (Indiana State). The Fighting Irish don’t currently look like an NCAA tournament team despite being picked fifth in the ACC preseason media poll. The Hawkeyes have feasted on cupcakes at home, and they also showed well in the Bahamas. Expectations were high coming into the season, and Iowa has not disappointed.
What to look for: Notre Dame’s three-point shooting will be a huge factor in this game. The Hawkeyes’ stout interior defense has forced opponents to take 40 percent of their shots from three, and opponents have made only 22 percent of those hoists. Iowa’s defense is good, but that’s still a fluky conversion rate. If the inevitable reversion to the mean starts against the Irish (a 43 percent three-point shooting team in their own right), this could be a closer game than expected.
Geeks say: Iowa
Michigan at Duke
Pomeroy says: Duke by 3
The teams: Both teams have been mildly disappointing thus far. Duke snuck past a mediocre Vermont team and was never in position to beat top 10 teams Kansas and Arizona. Michigan’s loss at Iowa State was understandable, but losing to Charlotte threw up red flags. “Not-just-a-shooter” Nik Stauskas is questionable with an ankle injury.
What to look for: Michigan’s defense is grading out as the best of the John Beilein era, but it has yet to face an offense like this, led by uber-freshman Jabari Parker. The Wolverines’ defensive strengths–rebounding and not fouling–aren’t really important to the Blue Devils’ attack.
Geeks say: Duke
Indiana at Syracuse
Pomeroy says: Syracuse by 7
The teams: The Hoosiers survived an early scare against LIU Brooklyn and have otherwise ridden their defense to a solid start, losing by just a point to a good Connecticut team. Syracuse won the Maui Invitational in convincing fashion and now resumes its typically New York-heavy nonconference schedule.
What to look for: The obvious question is how the Hoosiers handle the 2-3 zone just eight months after it ended their dream season, but I’m actually more interested to see this Indiana defense against an elite offense. The Orange use a high volume of shots (i.e. offensive rebounds and few turnovers) to drive their efficiency, so the Hoosiers will have to crash the defensive glass. With one of the nation’s top rebounders in Noah Vonleh, that will be an intriguing battle to watch.
Geeks say: Syracuse
Florida State at Minnesota
Pomeroy says: Minnesota by 4
The teams: Florida State has surprised with a blowout of VCU and close losses to Michigan and Florida. This was supposed to be another rebuilding year for the Seminoles, but that always desirable combination of seniors and sophomores has Florida State looking like a potential tournament team. Minnesota has had defensive issues under first-year coach Richard Pitino, but the resume isn’t irreparably damaged yet. This is, however, the Gophers’ last shot at a top 50 nonconference win.
What to look for: As usual, Florida State has supreme length, making it great at defending twos. Minnesota is a perimeter-oriented team with an excellent backcourt. If the Gophers are patient and can move the ball without turning it over, they’ll be able to hurt the Seminoles with threes despite a decided interior disadvantage.
Geeks say: Minnesota
Illinois at Georgia Tech
Pomeroy says: Illinois by 1
The teams: Illinois has played the weakest schedule of any Big Ten team, which makes its consecutive one-possession wins something of a red flag. Georgia Tech has faced only one team ranked ahead of the Illini in KenPom, yet the Yellow Jackets have three losses.
What to look for: Illinois relies on dribble penetration for much of its offense, which is precisely what Georgia Tech’s packed-in defense is designed to prevent. The Yellow Jackets have the worst Adjusted Offensive Efficiency of either conference. Unless somebody goes nuts from three, this will be a close, low-scoring grinder.
Geeks say: Illinois
Penn State at Pitt
Pomeroy says: Pitt by 15
The teams: Penn State is coming off a very good weekend, knocking off St. John’s and taking Ole Miss to the wire. Pitt has run roughshod over a fairly weak schedule and is looking like a national title contender in the eyes of the computers.
What to look for: The Nittany Lions’ perimeter-oriented offense can score on anyone if the threes are falling, but it’s hard to see Penn State’s defense slowing Pitt enough for it to matter. The Panthers have always been superior offensive rebounders under Jamie Dixon, and that hasn’t changed. The Nittany Lions just don’t have the interior horses to keep up.
Geeks say: Pitt