For the seventh consecutive year, the Big Ten emerged victorious from the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, going 8-6 against what many consider to be the best conference in college basketball.

Though the ACC technically lost the series, its marquee programs still shined. North Carolina, Duke and Virginia all looked good, but the league’s ‘best depth in the nation’ argument certainly took a hit. Schools like Syracuse and North Carolina State dropped tough decisions while Miami barely escaped from a Nebraska squad projected to finish near the bottom of the Big Ten.

 
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Telling trends have been developing for some of these teams since mid-November, and many proved true in the past two nights. Here are five things we learned from the 2015 Big Ten/ACC Challenge.

When every player in a team's rotation is a threat to score, they become almost impossible to guard. Case in point, North Carolina:

Marcus Paige is remarkable, but we already knew that. He scored 20 points and dished out five assists in his first game back from a broken hand, and his performance helped justify North Carolina’s No. 1 overall preseason ranking.

What’s really impressive about the Tar Heels, though, is that virtually every player in the rotation has the ability to hurt a defense. That sounds fundamental, but do a quick scan of other rosters in America, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a team with no weak links on either side of the floor.

Perhaps Paige’s injury will actually behoove North Carolina in the long run, because it allowed relative preseason unknowns Joel Berry and Nate Britt to find their footing in the six games the Heels’ stalwart missed. Berry and Britt are averaging 20.2 points per game combined this season on 39.6 percent from 3-point range.

Going into 2015-16, North Carolina’s biggest question mark was outside shooting beyond Paige. Berry and Britt are emerging as solid complements in that regard, and whichever of them plays alongside Paige, Kennedy Meeks, Justin Jackson and Brice Johnson is probably going to be significantly better than the fifth starter on the other side of the floor.

The lesson is simple: sag off of Britt or Berry, and Carolina will punish you. Try to guard Paige, Jackson or Johnson one-on-one, and, well, good luck with that. Defenses must pick their poison against the Tar Heels.

Right now, the same thing can’t be said for Maryland

Melo Trimble's 23 points and 12 assists weren't enough to take down the Tar Heels.
Bob Donnan | USA Today Sports Images
Melo Trimble's 23 points and 12 assists weren't enough to take down the Tar Heels.

Folks (myself included) were super high on Maryland coming into the season, and it’s easy to see why. A starting lineup of Melo Trimble, Rasheed Sulaimon, Jake Layman, Robert Carter and Diamond Stone looked as formidable as any in the country on paper, and Mark Turgeon always had the option to flip the script in a second and whip out a devastating small-ball lineup featuring Layman at power forward.

The Terrapins only have one loss this season, but they didn’t exactly overwhelm in their first six games, and the Tar Heels exposed them on Tuesday. A few reasons why:

Stone was pegged as one of the top freshmen in the country coming into the season, but that just hasn’t proved to be true in the early part of 2015-16. North Carolina was ruthless in having Stone’s man set ball-screens for Paige, Britt or Berry, and Stone was usually incapable of providing much resistance. He’s also using a team-leading 29.3 percent of Maryland’s possessions, per KenPom – for comparison, one-man offensive juggernaut Melo Trimble uses just 26.3 percent.

The Terps are outscoring opponents by 16.6 points per 100 possessions this season – that number plummets to 2.1 with Stone on the floor. Michal Cekovsky has been similarly ineffective, and while Damonte Dodd’s on/off-court splits are favorable, he also struggled to provide rim protection or contain pick-and-rolls against UNC. Which brings up another issue:

Maryland refused to play small for the majority of Tuesday night, and it’s kind of baffling as to why. Turgeon shifted Layman to power forward and Carter to center with 2:47 left in the game, but by then, Maryland was already down by 11 points. It was a desperation act.

Carolina’s size is intimidating, so downsizing against the Heels is a scary proposition. No coach wants his team to get slaughtered on the defensive glass, but consider this simple question: who were Maryland’s two leading rebounders on Tuesday?

Layman and Carter! Stone and Dodd combined to gather seven rebounds in 42 minutes of action, and the Layman/Carter combination is clearly Maryland’s hardest lineup to guard offensively. 

Layman spent virtually all of 2014-15 at power forward or center, per KenPom. With him on the floor, Maryland scored about six more points per 100 possessions than its team average and saw no drop off defensively.

Layman shot just 1-for-5 from the field against North Carolina, but perhaps more time at the 4 will create mismatches that made him so valuable last season. There’s reason for optimism in College Park – Sulaimon looks superb, and Trimble has been unguardable. Turgeon just needs to find the right puzzle pieces before Big Ten play rolls around.

Deyonta Davis and Bryn Forbes are Michigan State’s second and third best players, and it’s not terribly close.

Tom Izzo knows November and December are about finding the right combination of players for February and March, but when Denzel Valentine, Forbes and Davis share the floor, Michigan State is absurdly efficient.

Of those that trio, Forbes has the 'worst' net rating. The Spartans are outscoring teams by a comical 30.7 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor.

He was magnificent last night, shooting 7-for-11 from the field and 5-for-9 from 3. Davis had a solid game as well, and on the season, the explosive freshman is averaging a casual 21.6 points, 11.4 rebounds and 4.9 blocks per 40 minutes.

As the NCAA tournament rolls around, expect Forbes and Davis to see a bump in minutes (they’re averaging 25 and 19.3 per game thus far, respectively). The Valentine-Davis pick-and-roll with Forbes spotting up in the corner is absolute torture for defenses, and expect Izzo to use that as a pet play in crucial moments for Michigan State. Get used to seeing a whole lot of this:

Indiana’s defense wasn't good, but contesting a Brandon Ingram shot it impossible

It must be nice to have a 7-3 wing span, a 9-2 standing reach and a silky shooting stroke. All of those things are true for Ingram, who torched Indiana to the tune of 24 points on 15 shot attempts.

The Hoosiers are catching a ton of flack for their poor defensive performance, and rightfully so. It wasn’t even a lack of effort; Indiana just didn’t look like it knew what defense it was in for the majority of the game.

Anyway, back to the point -- Ingram had his fair share of uncontested looks, but even on the shots Indiana contested, it didn’t stand a chance.

Check out the 0:30 mark of this Ingram highlight reel, and Collin Hartman is right in Ingram’s grill yet comes nowhere close to interrupting Ingram’s release. The same goes for Nick Zeisloft at the 1:30 mark:

Ingram had struggled going into Wednesday night, but this should be proof that he has no reason to rush anything on the offensive end. His combination of pure mechanics and freakish length is what had Duke fans so excited coming into the season, and perhaps this was his coming out party.

Small-ball usually beats big-ball, unless the big-ball team is coached by Bo Ryan.

Syracuse had looked outstanding heading into its home clash against Wisconsin on Wednesday night. The Orange rode a small lineup featuring super freshman Tyler Lydon at center to the Battle 4 Atlantis championship against tough competition. Lydon is only listed at 6-8, 205 pounds, but his length, wiry strength and quick-twitch jumping ability has enabled him to hold his own in the middle of the Syracuse zone.

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Syracuse reaps the benefits of living with Lydon as a defensive center on offense, as the freshman phenom is hitting half of his 3s this season and can fly by defenses that are overzealous in closing out on him.

And you know what? None of that mattered against the Badgers. Bo Ryan used at least three bigs throughout the entire game to wear down Syracuse’s zone (sometimes four, when Bronson Koenig or Zak Showalter took a breather. That’s unheard of these days). Wisconsin outrebounded Syracuse 51-25, and its transition defense/communication on that end in general was superb.

Vitto Brown has a solid game by traditional metrics – he scored 14 points and nabbed eight rebounds – but he was versatile in switching out on Michael Gbinije on ball screens and seamless in recovering to his man when Showalter would fight through picks. Granted, Syracuse’s 2-3 zone definitely helped mask the fact that the Badgers are severely lacking in guard depth.

But even in 2015, big-ball (perhaps more aptly called volleyball, considering the rebounding discrepancy) is still capable of beating small-ball in the right situation.

That 'right situation' just requires having Bo Ryan roaming the sidelines.