Three questions for the Iowa Caucus of hoops


He looks uncertain. That makes two of us. (AP/Charlie Niebergall)

The Big Ten/ACC Challenge happens very early in the season — perhaps even too early — and its results are hungrily overanalyzed by information-starved pundits who’ve just emerged from a very long no-hard-news period and are thus eager to pontificate on any morsel of actual substance. That being said, the Challenge is also a genuinely compelling competitive spectacle and people do tend to remember who won.

In other words it’s uncannily similar to an Iowa Caucus. These are my questions for the 2015 incarnation…

Whatever happened to home-court advantage in this thing?
In the first nine years of this event the home team won 70 percent of the time. In the last seven years, however, that percentage has dropped all the way down to 55. This is an oddly low figure in light of the fact that in each of the two competing conferences over the past 10-plus years the home teams can be counted upon to win 64 (ACC) or 65 (Big Ten) percent of the time in league play.

True, “home” should be in quotation marks when speaking of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. Since the event’s inception in 1999 there have been 11 games played away from either team’s actual home floor — 12, actually, if you include an infamous 2001 game in Richmond between Michigan State and Virginia that had to be stopped in the second half due to a slippery court.

That being said, the vogue for third-venue Challenge games was mostly an early-century thing. The last time a “home” team wasn’t really playing on its home floor was when renovations to Hank McCamish Pavilion forced Georgia Tech to host Northwestern at Philips Arena four years ago. Meaning the relatively low home-court success rate from the past seven years is indeed legit — and curious.

What happened to (most of) the Big Ten’s reliable top tier?
Michigan State will continue to look strong for as long as Denzel Valentine plays like the Wooden Award’s already been made out in his name, Maryland has extended the open cognitive warfare between laptops and human evaluators into a second season, and the bottom half of the Big Ten continues to look much the way we thought it would. The key word in all of the above is continuity.

But so far on the very young season there have been three discontinuous surprises in the Big Ten, and they all came near (what we thought would be) the top of the league….

  1. Indiana’s defense hasn’t improved as much as we were promised, and that whole business about freshman Thomas Bryant being the missing piece for the Hoosiers — or even “somewhat of a missing piece” — is now looking like far too much expectant freight to place on the shoulders of a single very promising big man who is nevertheless not Anthony Davis. Note that IU’s struggles on D are papering over what would otherwise be commonly recognized as a rather extraordinary start by James Blackmon, who’s connecting on twos and threes at an even higher rate than the aforementioned Valentine while personally accounting for an even larger share of his team’s shots.
  2. Ohio State lost at home to UT Arlington and Louisiana Tech, and now sits at 2-3. For the better part of a decade the Buckeyes’ “one overworked scorer, four overwhelming defensive pests” system reliably delivered Big Ten title pursuits and high NCAA tournament seeds. But even with D’Angelo Russell as last season’s scorer, the best OSU could manage was a sixth-place league finish and a No. 10 seed in the field of 68. This season, with scoring duties being shared somewhat equitably by Marc Loving, JaQuan Lyle, and Jae’Sean Tate, the Ohio State defense looks less formidable than it has in a very long time.
  3. Wisconsin has shot just 47 percent on its twos and 30 percent on its threes against a schedule that has included not only Oklahoma and Georgetown but also Prairie View A&M, North Dakota, and Western Illinois. The days when opposing defenses had to contend with two players as long and as skilled as Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker running a pick-and-roll are now officially long gone.

Indiana’s something of a special iambic case — really bad pre-Cody-Zeller, really great with Zeller, fairly bad again immediately-post-Zeller, increasingly respectable post-post-Zeller, etc. — but when speaking of the Buckeyes and the Badgers you’re looking at two programs that reliably lead the Big Ten’s assault on the NCAA tournament field each March. When Ohio State and Wisconsin sneeze, the entire Big Ten catches cold.

What’s going to happen to North Carolina?
My question regarding UNC is actually more of the 10,000-foot variety, for the Tar Heels will of course be very good this season. But, programmatically speaking, who are these guys?

Just a few years ago, say seven or eight, that was a really easy question to answer. In fact at that time you could make a case that Carolina was nothing less than the No. 1 program in the nation.

The Heels were coming off a national title in 2005 when Roy Williams brought in one of the defining four-year players of the one-and-done era in the person of Tyler Hansbrough. Then, the following season, the coach went out and signed this freshman class: Brandan Wright, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington, Alex Stepheson, Deon Thompson and Will Graves. To term that class “historically great” would most certainly be apt.

Best recruiting classes of one-and-done era
Kentucky        2013                46.9
North Carolina  2006                35.0
Kentucky        2011                33.1

Bear in mind that class was added to a roster that already had Hansbrough, Reyshawn Terry, Danny Green, and Marcus Ginyard. Meaning UNC was set for more or less an entire era.

Put simply, Williams was responsible for the first category 5 roster of the one-and-done era. At a time when John Calipari was still at Memphis, Williams was the first coach to figure out how talent acquisition and sequencing should be done in a brave new college hoops world created entirely by the NBA. That’s who North Carolina was a few years ago.

Today, of course, the program has an NCAA investigation looming over its head, but that’s for future recruits to consider. In the here and now Williams has an excellent roster, and the absence of any category 5 competition nationally in 2015-16 means UNC has as good a shot at a national title as any team.

Surely it must be mordant comfort for Tar Heel fans to see a certain arch-rival just down the road unapologetically implementing the Williams circa-2006 approach to a fault. But to me the interesting questions are: 1) when and why UNC itself abandoned that approach; and 2) what happens next.