Forget made-for-TV events like the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and the Gavitt Games, series that ensure a few decent on-campus games in the first month of the season but are generally out of mind once league play arrives.
The de facto ACC/Big East Challenge set for PNC Arena on Saturday night carries far greater consequences certain to be remembered for some time.
North Carolina and Virginia, the ACC’s heavyweights in this subregional, advanced Thursday with varied degrees of difficulty. Butler and Providence, the fourth and fifth teams out of the Big East, earned victories as No. 9 seeds in the day’s more riveting games.
This obviously isn’t a callback to the old ACC/Big East Challenge, which died a quarter-century ago after a three-year run. The forerunner to the modern conference challenges, that event was a series of doubleheaders in early December, mostly at quasi-neutral sites like Greensboro, the Meadowlands and Hartford, Conn.
These round of 32 games at least meet the standard of barely neutral sites. While Butler and Providence both brought solid contingents for the weekend, North Carolina and Virginia – whose fanbases combined to take over the Verizon Center in Washington at last week’s ACC tournament – will probably enjoy a homecourt advantage Saturday.
The No. 1 seeds are favored, but challenges exist for both. North Carolina (29-6) enters with a six-game winning streak and 28 consecutive in-state NCAA tournament victories. But the Tar Heels must deal with a team with one of the most defined identities in the field.
Providence (24-10), which advanced to the second round for the first time since 1997, is built almost entirely around Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil. Dunn’s presence sets up a point guard matchup with North Carolina’s Marcus Paige that fans could have only dreamed of when the season started.
On the inside, Bentil is the Friars’ breakout star, averaging 21.1 points and 7.2 rebounds as a sophomore. Paired with sophomore Rodney Bullock, whose layup with 1.5 seconds sealed Thursday’s 70-69 defeat of Southern California, Providence is an unlikely candidate for North Carolina to completely bully even with Brice Johnson patrolling the paint.
Nonetheless, the difference in this one should be depth. The Tar Heels will happily push the pace, and Providence got itself into some trouble when the game sped up in the first round. Southern California ultimately imploded in that game; North Carolina will not.
Virginia is also unlikely to crumple in the tournament crucible, even against a feisty team like Butler. The Cavaliers (27-7) have won their last seven games in Raleigh, and stand a decent chance to extend that streak against an opponent similar to themselves – built on defense, but sneakily efficient at the offensive end.
This Virginia team is the best offensive bunch coach Tony Bennett has fielded in Charlottesville, ranking ninth nationally in KenPom.com’s offensive efficiency ratings. Butler (22-10), forever known for its miserly defense and plodding tempo, is playing at an average pace compared to the rest of the country and is more vulnerable than ever in recent memory on defense.
But it is on offense where the Bulldogs shine, from scoring machine Kelan Martin to veteran sharpshooter Kellen Dunham to the unique old-man game of senior Roosevelt Jones. All three average at least 13.7 points, though the 6-foot-4 Jones’ uncanny ability to get to the basket despite no outside game to speak of will be tested by Virginia’s pack-line defense.
Butler encountered a surprisingly sloppy showing from Texas Tech in the first round and, much like Providence, is unlikely to benefit from such a generous opponent Saturday. Virginia is not turnover-prone, and far more likely to decipher the Bulldogs’ defense than were the Red Raiders.
It should add up to a good night for the ACC on its home turf. But make no mistake: Both of the Big East’s entries have the ability to provide a second-round challenge.