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November 30, 2007

Does the ACC need a bigger challenge?

Andrew Skwara is a national college basketball writer for Rivals.com.
Previous mailbags
Nov. 23: Pac-10 pride
Nov. 13: Rank the frontcourts
Nov. 7: Sampson at it again

Every year, ACC fans seem to ask the same questions at this point of the season: Why do we keep playing in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge? Wouldn't another conference be more competitive?

It's no different this season. The ACC rolled to another easy victory in the event, winning eight of the 11 matchups (games were played Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday) that pit teams from the respective leagues. The ACC has won the event every season since it started in 1999.

That begs this question: Will the Big Ten ever win? We answer that in this week's mailbag, along with inquiries about Purdue (which lost to Clemson 61-58 in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge), how Indiana's Eric Gordon compares to great freshmen guards from the past, what kind of start Duke freshman Kyle Singler has had and whether UNC or UCLA should be ranked No. 1.


Reason for hope?

Will the Big Ten ever get the best of the ACC in the annual challenge?

-- Chris from Marietta, Ga.

Yes. It may not happen until 2010 or '11 – provided the series lasts that long – but the Big Ten eventually will get the best of the ACC.

I probably would have said otherwise at this time last season, but thanks to a major coaching upgrade in the offseason, three of the teams in the bottom half of the Big Ten are about to get a lot better.

Michigan (hired John Beilein), Minnesota (Tubby Smith) and Iowa (Todd Lickliter) are going to improve. Those three schools lost their ACC-Big Ten matchups this season.

With that trio of coaches added to the mix, I believe the Big Ten has the best coaches of any conference. Michigan State's Tom Izzo, Indiana's Kelvin Sampson and Wisconsin's Bo Ryan are among the best in the nation. Ohio State's Thad Matta and Illinois' Bruce Weber have been in two of the past three national title games.

In addition, while the ACC has dominated the past two challenges, winning eight of the 11 matchups in 2006 and '07, it's not as if the Big Ten hasn't been close. Four times (1999, 2000, 2002 and 2005), the Challenge been decided by one game.

View on Purdue

What did you think of Purdue so far? The Boilermakers played pretty well against Clemson. Do you think now they could challenge for the Big Ten title with Indiana struggling?

-- Luke from Columbus, Ind.

I'm still not a believer in the Boilermakers– at least not for the short term. The narrow loss at Clemson (61-58) was encouraging, but the Tigers were playing without James Mays (arguably their best player) and had a horrible night from the free throw line (10 of 26).

Purdue has a couple of easy victories over pushovers (Bethune-Cookman and Loyola of Chicago), but had to come from behind to edge a 2-5 Lipscomb team that has lost to the likes of Centenary and Winston-Salem State.

I think the Boilermakers are a season away from contending in the Big Ten. There's no doubt coach Matt Painter has done a great job recruiting, landing four top-100 prospects from the 2007 class. But few teams are trying to replace more. David Teague and Carl Landry were one of the top outside-inside tandems in the nation last season, and Chris Lutz (who transferred to Marshall) led the Big Ten in 3-point field-goal percentage.

Painter is starting three freshmen, and another one plays heavy minutes. While each looks promising, I'm not sure any are ready to carry the offense. I think when Big Ten play begins, the Boilermakers' youth will be exploited, and an inability to score will be a problem.

As far as Indiana, I wouldn't get my hopes up about the Hoosiers sliding down the league standings. Their loss at Xavier (80-65) last week was more of a bump in the road than a sign of things to come. It's already clear that guard Eric Gordon is a special player. A freshman doesn't score 33 points in his first college game or get off to the start he has (he's averaging 27.3 points per game) because he is facing weak competition. Gordon's good enough to carry the Hoosiers to the Big Ten title and on a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.

New Kidd on the block?

(Former UCLA coach and ESPN analyst) Steve Lavin recently said Indiana's Eric Gordon is the best freshman guard since Jason Kidd at California. Do you agree?

-- Mike from Toledo, Ohio

I think Lavin normally provides a lot of insight, but comparing Gordon to Kidd is a mistake. You are taking about entirely different guards. Gordon was born to score. Kidd was made to set up scorers.

Also, I looked at the stats and Kidd wasn't remarkably productive as a freshman in 1992-93 (he left college after his sophomore season). He was a great distributor, averaging 7.6 assists a game, but averaged 13.0 points and shot just 28.6 percent from 3-point range.

To find a similar guard who got off to as good a start as Gordon, I think you have to go back to 1989-90, with former LSU star Chris Jackson. He set an NCAA-freshman record by averaging 30.2 points per game.

Gordon is good enough to make a run at that record.

Scouting Singler

Is Duke's Kyle Singler living up to the hype?

-- Jacquez from Warrenton, Ga.

Yes. You have to look past the stats with Singler. Unlike Kansas State's Michael Beasley or Indiana's Gordon (Rivals.com's No. 1- and No. 2-ranked players in the 2007 class), Singler is on a deep and experienced team. He isn't being asked to take a ton of shots every game.

But Singler has given Duke a new dimension with his ability to hit mid-range jumpers and knock down 3-pointers. Singler's work on the glass (he's averaging 6.3 rebounds) also has played a key role in the undersized Blue Devils' 7-0 start.

Look for Singler to create matchup problems and keep improving all season.

Rankings ramblings

Here's something I don't get. Why is UNC still No. 1 in The Associated Press poll? UCLA also is undefeated and has won its games by an average of 23 points despite missing three scholarship players. Plus, UCLA has beaten a top-15 team (No. 10 Michigan State). Is this just East Coast favoritism?

-- Doug from Los Angeles

Your logic makes sense to the voters in the USA Today coaches' poll. The Bruins moved ahead of the Tar Heels in that top 25 by four points this week. In the AP poll, the teams are separated by nine points.

I think a lot of voters don't want to replace a No. 1 team until it loses – regardless of what coast they live on.

Plus, it's not as if UNC has played poorly. Last week, the Tar Heels put together a convincing win over Old Dominion (which landed an at-large bid to the 2006 NCAA Tournament), then – like UCLA – proved it could beat a quality opponent without its starting point guard, coming from behind to beat BYU. Remember, the Cougars were coming off an upset of No. 12 Louisville. Ty Lawson injured his ankle two minutes into the game and never returned. Both those wins came on a neutral court in Las Vegas.

Andrew Skwara is the national college basketball writer for Rivals.com. Click here to send him a question or comment for his Mailbag.

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