The ACC/Big 10 Challenge enters its fourth year with the ACC enjoying a 15-11-1 advantage over the Big 10. The odd tie in that record comes as a result of what Virginia coach Pete Gillen called the "Bambi on Ice" game. The Cavaliers and Michigan State were unable finish their game played in Richmond when the hockey ice under the floor made playing conditions too dangerous to continue. The warm weather and ice combined to produce a continuous supply of condensation on the floor and steady stream of players sliding around out of control. It was like watching the Bush daughters driving home after last call on a snowy night.
This year, the ACC looks poised to stretch out the slight lead they've established in the series. The Big 10 has had several disappointments in the early season while the ACC has been stellar. Over the run of the Challenge, Duke has led the ACC charge against their corn-fed counterparts. The Blue Devils have gone 3-0, a record that has been matched only by Wake Forest (albeit against somewhat weaker competition).
This year the Devils square off against Ohio State in a game that ESPN is happy is being played on the hardwood rather than the gridiron. Guiding the Buckeye hoopsters is one of the most underrated coaches in the country. In 5 years at Ohio State, Jim O'Brien has led the Buckeyes to 4 straight NCAA tournament appearances including a Final Four in 1999 and a Conference Tournament Championship last year. He was also the coach of the Boston College team that ended UNC"s hopes of a national championship repeat in 1994, so he's got that going for him.
On the surface, the Duke/Ohio State matchup would seem an unlikely pairing as the games have historically been set (or at least loosely set) according to the preseason projections. For the ACC, Duke is the highest rated team and generally picked to finish in the top two of the conference. Ohio State on the other hand, enters the game unranked and picked to finish 4th in the conference. All that looks promising for Duke on paper but then again, it probably looked promising for Alabama too before they were pushed to edge in their 54-48 win over Ohio State this weekend. That, combined with the fact that Duke's first two games revealed as many questions about the Blue Devils as they answered, makes this contest anything but predictable.
The main concern for Ohio State, aside from having to face the Blue Devils, is having enough healthy bodies for the game. Starting point guard Brandon Fuss-Cheatham and top reserve Shun Jenkins are both out for several weeks following injuries in the team's exhibition win over the Harlem Globetrotters. I think they ran into each other while scrambling to get out of the way in the old "bucket of confetti" trick. Either that or they got between Oliver Miller and the pizza vendor. Their injuries leave O'Brien with just 7 players in his rotation.
With Fuss-Cheatham out of the lineup the Buckeyes are forced to move Brent Darby back to the point guard spot. They had hoped to use him more at the off-guard spot this season where they could take advantage of his considerable offensive talents. The 6-1 senior has spent most of his first three seasons playing point guard so the transition shouldn't be too taxing. But with the departure of two of the team's top three scorers from last year, the Buckeyes desperately need to place Darby in a position where he can put up some points. Darby is a scorer who will shoot the deep ball and drive the lane. He's just an average distributor of the ball but a strong defensive player. Without a point guard Ohio State needs Darby to put points on the board and they also need him to distribute the basketball and they need him to play 40 minutes of basketball. That's a lot to ask from one guy.
The Buckeyes claim to use a three-guard lineup with Sean Connolly and Matt Sylvester joining Darby in the starting lineup. Calling that a three-guard lineup is somewhat disingenuous as Connolly goes 6-5 while Sylvester is listed at 6-7. Connolly is an experienced 5th-year senior after sitting out a year following a transfer from Providence. In the "small world" category, Connolly was signed in 1998 by then Providence head coach, Pete Gillen. He probably doesn't have warm feelings about that coincidence since Gillen had assured him we would stay at Providence when the recruit was signing his Letter of Intent.
Connolly's strengths are his experience and his ability to shoot the deep ball. He has some difficulty on the defensive end of the floor, particularly with quicker guards. You could almost use the same description for Sylvester, a redshirt freshman who missed his first season following a back injury and subsequent surgery. That sounds pretty serious until you find out he was shot during an argument at a party this past September. Bullet wound or back surgery, bullet wound or back surgery - tough call. O'Brien described the injury a "minor flesh wound" which is a charitable way of saying he took one in the tush. Hopefully the Ohio State sports information department has an appreciation of irony when they describe him as a good long range shooter.
The only depth in the backcourt comes from Emonte Jernigan, a 6-3 junior. Jernigan sat out last year after transferring to Ohio State from Oregon State where he had played one year after transferring in from Santa Rosa Junior College. Jernigan doesn't exactly fill up the stat sheet and the telling thing here is that he's kept out of the starting lineup by a 6-7 white guy with a bullet in his butt. While IÂm at it here, shouldn't a basketball player who gets shot in the gluteus maximus somehow end up playing for Bobby "it was a hunting accident" Knight? Wouldn't that be perfect? I'm serious, if this guy wants to transfer to Texas Tech the NCAA should waive the one year and let him play right away.
In an age where the NBA is all abuzz with excited twitteration over the prospect of signing any European big man, the staff at OSU has some how managed to sneak in a 7-0 international player. Maybe they got away with that because junior Velimir Radinovic is an international player only in the sense that Greg Newton was an international player. Radinovic was born in Toronto, although his parents are from what used to be Yugoslavia. At this point in his career Radinovic has the potential to be the next Serge Zwikker. That means that he moves so stiffly it's like watching Claymation. Think Al Gore dancing here.
Starting at the other frontcourt slot is 6-7 junior, Zach Williams who has been the most consistent performer on the team at this point in the season. He's the kind of player that every coach loves - he knows his strengths and plays to them. He's aggressive on the boards and rarely strays too far from the lane on offense. At a legitimate 230 lbs. he has the strength to establish low post position. He should provide a stern test for the Duke frontline.
Rounding out the players in the OSU rotation is Terence Dials, a physical player who can occasionally display a casual indifference to defense. The 6-9/240 lbs. sophomore would be in the starting lineup ahead of Radinovic if he were able to give the team a consistent effort. What he's best at though is keeping Buckeye fans alternately excited and frustrated with his potential. He finished the season strongly last year but has yet to show that form so far this year. He's not a threat to shoot it from beyond a few feet from the basket and has trouble defending on the perimeter.
The easy analysis is that Ohio State lacks the depth to stick with Duke for 40 minutes. Backcourt starters Darby and Connolly have been playing every minute of each game so far and Zach Williams has been on the court for all but one minute of the season.
Look for O'Brien to try and lessen the impact of those minutes by playing some zone and trying to slow the pace of the game on the offensive end of the floor. It's somewhat clichÃ©, but this is a game that the Buckeyes want to be playing in the 50's, not the 94 points that Duke has been averaging so far this season. Ohio State may have trouble with both strategies if Duke is executing well. With JJ Redick finding his shooting touch, along with the solid play of Chris Duhon and Daniel Ewing, playing a zone against Duke can be difficult. Likewise on the other end of the floor the longer the Buckeyes hold the ball the more opportunities for Duke to force turnovers.
If Ohio State's problem is to try and find a way to slow down the game then Duke's problem is trying to establish some consistency and identify the roles of the players. So far this season Shelden Williams has looked like a freshman and Shavlik Randolph looked like he was going to be the kind of player you can count on for the same type of performance every night. That was before he went oh-for-Indy over the weekend. (That performance was eerily reminiscent of Shane Battier's game at Michigan his freshman season.) Offsetting those performances on Saturday were career games (or arguably career games) by both Nick Horvath and Casey Sanders. That along with what has been the consistent performances from Redick, Ewing, and Duhon allowed Duke to leave Indianapolis with a win over a UCLA team that has been anything but impressive thus far this season.
All of that leads to speculation over a potential starting lineup change for Tuesday night. Will Krzyzewski add Horvath, Sanders, or Redick to the starting lineup? Don't be surprised to see the latter move into the starting lineup while Horvath and Sanders continue to come off the bench. Dahntay Jones is the kind of personality who would be likely to be motivated by that type of shakeup while Randolph and Williams would likely have their confidence damaged. Regardless of who starts on Tuesday it remains critical that the Blue Devils establish some sort of inside game in order to become a Final Four level team. At the start of this season that meant Randolph and Williams. But with the play of Horvath and Sanders that no longer remains the case.
Tuesday's game has the potential to be much closer than Duke fans would like. The Devils are still searching for an identity and O'Brien is too good of a coach to let his team be taken out of the game.
Unless of course Redick goes off for a boatload of three-pointers - then all bets are off.