Tonight officially marks the beginning of the 2015 Big Ten / ACC Challenge, with two games set to take place on the ESPN body of networks. Both Big Ten programs playing tonight (Rutgers and Minnesota) will be at home, with the first two games of the challenge being a bit more low key than some of the later matchups. Also in action tonight is Indiana, who host Alcorn State in attempt to turn things around after a dreadful trip to Maui last week.
Game of the Night: Clemson at Minnesota (9:00 PM ET | ESPN2 | Big Ten/ACC Challenge)
The second Big Ten / ACC Challenge is easily the best game tonight, with Minnesota set to host Clemson on ESPN2 at 9 PM. Last season's Gopher team won their game in the event, beating Wake Forest by 15 on the road, but should get a bit tougher of a draw tonight with Clemson. Of course Clemson isn't an ACC powerhouse, but they are coming off of an 18 point victory over Rutgers and have looked pretty solid outside of a bad loss to Massachusetts (that was influenced by an explosive shooting performance by the Minutemen, converting 16 of 31 threes).
Clemson is led by Jaron Blossomgame, who is scoring an impressive 18.2 points per game, while Donte Grantham has added 13.6 points a night thanks to shooting almost 40% from deep. Complicating things inside is center Landry Nnoko, with the Cameroon native recording three blocks a night, as well as 9 points and 6.4 rebounds per game in only about 23 minutes a night. The Tigers also keep control of the ball, only averaging nine turnovers a game.
As for Minnesota, Richard Pitino was supposed to take a promising first year and use it to propel the team to a NCAA Tournament appearance last season. It didn't happen. The bitter taste from last season led a lot of people to sour on the program, with not much support for the Gophers heading into the 2015-16 season. Unimpressive non-conference wins, including wins against Missouri State and Nebraska-Omaha by a combined eight points, haven't changed the narrative much, even more so when you factor in losses to Texas Tech and Temple. Simply put, a win tonight is something Minnesota desperately needs, even more so when you look at a relatively uninspiring remaining non-conference slate outside of a game against Oklahoma State.
If there's one thing we should see tonight it's offense, with the Gophers scoring about 75 points a night and averaging over 37% from beyond the arc. Leading the way is Joey King, shooting at an alarming 57.1% rate from deep throughout the first six games. The 6'9" forward has been absolutely lights out while guards Carlos Morris and Nate Mason have also been able to make key contributions from the backcourt. The issue for Minnesota, though, is that the team doesn't have much of a presence inside, which was seen as a major issue heading into the season. Bakary Konate, who was dealing with injury issues heading into the season, has worked his way back into the starting lineup and will need to help the team establish itself inside if they want to improve at all this season.
Either way, Minnesota has the offensive firepower to score plenty of points on Clemson. The only question is if they have enough talent in the frontcourt to not get beaten up inside, with Minnesota likely needing to rely on a strong perimeter shooting performance if they want to pickup a win tonight.
Wake Forest at Rutgers (7:00 PM ET | ESPNU | Big Ten/ACC Challenge)
The Scarlet Knights kick off the Big Ten / ACC Challenge tonight, hosting Wake Forest in one of the more unappealing games for this year's challenge. While on one hand you can argue that tonight's game won't draw much interest, it is a nice draw as it's a somewhat balanced pairing, putting each team in a game they could realistically win. This will be the Scarlet Knights second game in the challenge, winning their debut last season at Clemson (luckily their 26 point performance two nights before to Virginia wasn't part of the event). That Rutgers team ended up being really, really bad and there's a chance the 2015-16 team might not be much better.
Coming in off of back-to-back double digit losses to Creighton and Clemson, as well as an earlier loss to St. Johns, Rutgers hasn't gotten off to a great start this season. Even their three wins haven't been much to write about, as the team struggled with Rutgers-Newark, Howard and Central Arkansas. To complicate things even more, Rutgers has had difficultly shooting the ball (30.4% from three, 65.5% from the free throw line) and are committing 16 turnovers per game. Wake Forest might have been pretty bad last season, but the team looked relatively decent in Maui with wins over Indiana and UCLA. Rutgers does have the advantage of being at home, but if they don't find a way to play considerably better basketball, Wake Forest definitely has the offensive firepower to run past Rutgers, especially if senior Devin Thomas can keep things going (17.7 PPG, 10.3 RPG).
Alcorn State at Indiana (7:00 PM ET | BTN)
This game is more or less a blessing for Indiana as the Hoosiers program suffered a massive setback last week with the team finishing sixth in Maui (out of eight teams) even though they entered the invitational ranked 13th in the nation. Even the teams lone win out west, against St. Johns, was an uninspiring 10 point victory over a team coming off of a 37 point loss to Vanderbilt, as well as losing by 32 points to St. Thomas Aquinas in their exhibition game (to further complicate things, the Red Storm only beat Chaminade by seven points in the seventh place game). But in better news, Alcorn State has lost all five games (four by at least 22 points) and is ranked 348th out of 351 teams in the KenPom ratings as of writing this (Sunday evening).
The Hoosiers have had issues with turnovers all season and the question raised was how they would fare when they weren't shooting lights out. Their trip to Maui more or less answered that and it's became quickly apparent that Indiana needs to clean up their offense while still trying to fix up their woeful defense. That being said, though, Alcorn State will be decisively over matched and it's hard to fathom Indiana letting them stick around, even if Tom Crean's program goes on to commit 30 turnovers and forgets how to play defense entirely. The biggest issue here is Crean is back to dealing with massive hot seat chatter and he needs a decisive win while trying to ready his team for an upcoming trip to Duke on Wednesday, with a lot of eyes likely paying attention to see how his program will handle the adversity this week.