It started in 1999 as a challenge between two of the six premier conferences in college basketball. For 10 consecutive seasons, it looked like the Atlantic Coast Conference was the best basketball conference in the country while it won the annual Challenge over the Big Ten.
After tasting defeat too many times, the Big Ten has won the Challenge two seasons in a row, winning the 11-game matchup, 6-5, with the ACC during three days, Nov. 29—Dec. 1. With marquee games, the conference was able to further solidify itself as the best in collegiate basketball.
On the first night of the Challenge, the ACC looked like it would get the upper hand this season when the University of Virginia Cavaliers upset the then-ranked 13th University of Minnesota Golden Gophers 87-79 on the road. Minnesota was riding high after starting the season at 6-0 and being ranked 13th after not being ranked in any preseason polls.
By Dec. 1, the Big Ten took control of the challenge with victories from the Northwestern University Wildcats, the Ohio State University Buckeyes, the University of Michigan Wolverines and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Fighting Illini.
The Wildcats defeated the Georgia Tech University Yellow Jackets 91-71 on Nov. 30 by shooting lights out from the field and the arc. At halftime, the Wildcats shot 10-12 from 3-point range, 83.3 percent and 75.9 percent overall.
“They made some tough shots,” said Yellow Jackets Head Coach Paul Hewitt. “It’s one thing to be open for 3’s and [it’s another to] knock down 10 out of 12.”
The Wildcats were playing their second game in three nights and were able to put pressure on the Yellow Jackets, known for forcing turnovers, according to Wildcats Head Coach Bill Carmody.
Carmody said he was less worried about his team turning the ball over to the Yellow Jackets, a strong defensive team, and more about making tough shots.
On Dec. 2, the Big Ten and ACC won two games each, but the victory from the Purdue University Boilermakers sealed the deal for the conference winning the challenge consecutively for the first time. The Buckeyes, Illini, University of Wisconsin-Madison Badgers and the Wildcats all won their games by a margin of no less than 14 points.
The Michigan State University Spartans couldn’t beat the top-ranked Duke University Blue Devils in Durham, N.C., on Dec. 2. The Indiana University Hoosiers, University of Iowa Hawkeyes and Penn State University Nittany Lions were the other Big Ten teams to lose in this challenge.
Given that the Wildcats don’t have another game until Dec. 13, when they face the Long Island University Blackbirds at home, their win over the Yellow Jackets was enormous, according to Carmody. He said it’s much easier for a team to relax after a win and a long delay because they won’t be concentrating on what went wrong before their next game.
“We can get better,” Carmody said. “We still need work. For us, [it’s] just trying to get better and build momentum.”
With the Wildcats retaining their core players from last season, Hewitt, coach of the opposing team, acknowledged what a strong team the Wildcats have become since last season. Hewitt said with the
Wildcats having the Big Ten’s leading scorers from last season in John Shurna, guard Drew Crawford and senior point guard Michael “Juice” Thompson, people know they’re going to take care of the basketball and get great looks at making good shots.
The Wildcats shot a season-high 64.6 percent from the court against the Yellow Jackets after scoring a season-low 65 points against the Creighton University Bluejays on Nov. 28.
Two players, who had bad games against the Bluejays on Nov. 28, were able to follow-up with a outstanding performances against Georgia Tech on Nov. 30. Guard Drew Crawford scored seven points against Creighton. On a fastbreak, he passed the ball out of bounds as if he were passing to an invisible man.
Against Georgia Tech, Crawford was nearly unstoppable scoring 19 points and shooting 8-for-11 from the court. After Carmody referenced the “invisible man” joke, Crawford acknowledged how important it was for him to have a good game and how the team was excited to play the
“It was a huge team victory for us,” Crawford said. “We were all pumped for this game because we knew Georgia Tech was going to challenge us defensively and we came out and were able to get stops.”
Wildcats center Luka Mirkovic, however, noted his increased maturity as a reason why he was able to bounce back from an awful game against the Bluejays when he didn’t have a good first half of play. Mirkovic said he now understands how to have a better approach in the second half of games because he is now a junior.
When asked if this was a better team than last season’s, given the Wildcats have started 5-0 for the first time since 1993, Crawford spoke about cohesion between the players and being able to insert a freshman into the mix.
“We’re more experienced,” Crawford said. “A lot of us have been playing together for a few years now aside from [freshman guard] JerShon [Cobb], and he’s definitely come in big and fit in with program.”