Grading the Early Season

Duke, Carolina and NC State are in exams this week, so it's a good time to look back at the first month of the season and see how they've done, whether they are meeting expectations, and whether expectations should be changed going forward.

Duke:  Duke has met expectations, despite a tough loss at Wisconsin.  The Blue Devils have gotten a nice boost from Andre Dawkins, who has proven he is ready to play at a high level.  Dawkins has shot well from outside, connecting on 51% of his threes, including four in a row late in the comeback that fell short against the Badgers.  At this point, Duke is the best team in the ACC.

Carolina:  The Tarheels are about what THJ expected.  They are good, but the guard play is causing them some problems, as they were beaten soundly by Syracuse and dominated by John Wall.  Carolina did pick up a nice win against Michigan State.  Larry Drew II and Dexter Strickland are improving, and the Heels are looking like a strong number two in the ACC.

NC State:  The Wolfpack have been surprising to many, winning the Glenn Wilkes Classic and beating Marquette on the road.  Javi Gonzalez has really improved his game and Freshmen Josh Davis and Scott Wood have been solid contributors.  However, the Pack needs some consistent scoring from someone other than Gonzalez, Dennis Horner and Tracy Smith.  State is 2-1 in the games THJ defined as their swing games with Arizona and Florida remaining.

All three triangle teams are playing well and either meeting or exceeding expectations.  Duke and UNC still look like the top two teams in the conference, and State looks like it could finish anywhere from fifth to tenth.   Can Carolina's guards continue to develop?  Is State a tournament-caliber team or will they falter as the season progresses?  Will Duke's young bigs provide enough help to Singer, Scheyer and Smith, and can Dawkins stay hot? December should provide some answers with each team facing some talented opponents, including: UNC/Texas, Duke/Gonzaga, State/Arizona.  It should be interesting to find out!


Illinois at Clemson (Wednesday, ESPN): Illinois, ranked in the top 25, has been disappointing with losses to Utah and Bradley. Clemson rebounded from a loss to Texas A&M by beating #10 Butler. This game could be one of the best of the Challenge, in terms of competitiveness and style of play. The Illini pull off the upset in Littlejohn.
Definitely the best game of the Challenge.  Clemson blows a 23-point lead in the second half to fall to Illinois. 

Minnesota at Miami (Wednesday, (ESPNU): Miami has looked good so far, cruising to the Charleston Classic championship by beating Sourth Carolina handily. Minnesota has two losses, but they were to good teams- Texas A&M and a surprising Portland squad. Miami wins in a barnburner.
Maybe Miami is legit... We'll see.

Boston College at Michigan (Wednesday, ESPN2): Michigan has not looked great and is probably not deserving of its #15 ranking, but is a solid team that will be a tough out every night. BC has lost to St. Joseph's and Northern Iowa and is without Rakim Sanders. The Wolverines will win one for the Big Ten.
In the biggest surprise of the Challenge, BC wins at Michigan, and actually led by double-digits most of the way.

Duke at Wisconsin (Wednesday, ESPN): Duke appears to be the ACC's best team, though their two wins in New York weren't pretty to watch. Wisconsin was okay in Maui but not spectacular. Duke grinds out another win, but this one probably won't be pretty either.
Wisconsin simply outplayed Duke, though the Blue Devils made a great comeback.  Dawkins almost saved the ACC, but they ran out of time.

Florida State at Ohio State (Wednesday, ESPN2): After getting hammered by Florida, the Seminoles got back on track in Orlando by beating Iona, Alabama and a surprising Marquette team. Ohio State is off to a good start, with its only loss being a close one to UNC in New York. The Buckeyes get the edge playing at home.
The Seminoles were never really in this one.  Perhaps they had tired legs from the Old Spice tourney. 

Big Ten wins it, 6-5.  The ACC had several opportunities to pull of its 11th straight victory, but just couldn't get it done.


Penn State at Virginia (Monday, ESPN2): Not much is expected out of either of these teams this season. Penn State has already lost to UNCW and Tulane, while Virginia got crushed at South Florida and lost to Stanford. Virginia should win this one at home in a battle of two of the worst teams in each league.
Wow, Penn State has a pretty good player in Battle.  Free throws Sylven, free throws.

Wake Forest at Purdue (Tuesday, ESPN): Purdue has looked fantastic so far, and Wake hasn't played anyone of consequence yet, and lost at home to William & Mary. Wake will play tough, but Purdue wins.
Deacs were solid, but Purdue is just too good.

Northwestern at NC State (Tuesday, ESPNU): Both NC State and Northwestern have exceeded expectations in their first few games- Northwestern has beaten Notre Dame and Iowa State and NC State has looked solid in getting off to a 5-0 start. The Princeton offense could cause problems for State's young team, but the Pack will ride Tracy Smith to the win and improve to 6-0.
Pack couldn't throw it in the ocean last night, and were too passive on both ends of the floor.  Good job, Wildcats.

Maryland at Indiana (Tuesday, ESPN2): Maryland did not play well in Maui, but Indiana is bad and should be no match for the Terps.
Terps beat the Big Ten's doormat.

Michigan State at UNC (Tuesday, ESPN): This matchup of last season's National Championship participants figures to be a great game between two talented teams. UNC has had a bit of trouble replacing the Hansbrough, Lawson, Ellington and Green. The Heels' youngsters will have to really play well to beat the Spartans. Michigan State is better than Carolina at this point in the season and will leave Chapel Hill with a win.
Maybe the Heels are better than THJ thought, maybe Izzo just can't beat Carolina.  We'll see Saturday in Lexington.

Virginia Tech at Iowa (Tuesday, ESPN2): Iowa has played poorly, losing in ugly fashion to Texas-San Antonio and Duquesne, then getting blown out by Texas and Wichita State. Virginia Tech tends to play down to its competition, but is the better team and should secure a big road win for the ACC.
Hokies eek one out against a poor Iowa squad to tie the Challenge.

3-3 is not so bad after how this Challenge began.  Big night tonight!