Nobody minds talking about Michigan basketball these days. When a big-name opponent appears on the schedule, there’s no cringing, no contemplation of the upside-down grocery bag as headgear.
Bring it on.
The B1G/ACC Challenge did just that, sending Juwan Howard’s Wolverines to Chapel Hill for a Dec. 1 match-up on the final day of this year’s Challenge. While the Tar Heels didn’t exactly experience a vintage UNC year in Roy Williams’ last season as head coach — 18-11, and a first-round NCAA Tournament ouster by Wisconsin — they remain elite in college basketball.
They also bring no lack of intrigue into 2021-22. Hubert Davis takes over for the Tar Heels, yet another alum promotion in the wake of Juwan Howard’s considerable success in Ann Arbor.
Davis will be looking to make a statement early in his first season as the boss. Howard will look for a road win that jumps out to the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee when it sits down to divvy up the spots and seeds.
The Wolverines could plant a big win to harvest later, while witnessing how much a young roster has grown in the early going. The outcome notwithstanding, this one will serve as a compelling measuring stick.
Brian Boesch — Michigan radio’s play-by-play man for basketball — can’t wait.
“It’s a marquee match-up,” Boesch assured. “Looking at the pairings, really the only two options were North Carolina or Virginia. Either of them would have been great selections.
“There’s something to highlighting the fact that you have two former players, two black head coaches, at their alma maters. That is an awesome storyline, in and of itself. Then you talk about the basketball tradition, what those two teams should be able to do this coming season.
“Michigan, you figure, will be a top-10 pre-season team. North Carolina, I don’t think will be that high. But they’re a team that should, on paper, get back to the NCAA Tournament. It’s at one of the best places to watch a college basketball game.”
Of course, the Challenge wasn’t one of the best places to watch a basketball game if you’re a Big Ten fan, at least for the first decade. The ACC rolled off 10 straight wins, from 1999-2009, and basically sat back with the smug smile while basketball fans debated the value of the one-sided affair.
Then the Big Ten didn’t lose another over the next seven years, winning five times and tying twice. The teams have split the last five, two wins and a tie each.
The Big Ten captured the last two, and the ACC has won twice in the last dozen Challenges. If the football brethren of the basketball Wolverines could affect that sort of flip in The Game, the celebration would be nonstop.
It’s a matter of getting better, and the Big Ten has.
“The ACC, right now, is at where the Big Ten was a few years back,” Boesch said. “Remember the year that Michigan went to the national championship game a second time and lost to Villanova?
“That year, only four teams got in. Michigan was the team that blew out Nebraska, that kind of ended their large hopes, and Nebraska got a double bye in the Big Ten Tournament. Now if you get a double bye in the Big Ten Tournament, you’re probably a top-four seed in the NCAA Tournament.
“Three years ago, the ACC was arguably the best conference in college basketball. Now, who knows? They had a down year, they had some teams lose surprisingly early in the NCAA Tournament. North Carolina got blown out by Wisconsin … this is a league that’s in some flux.
“I know the NCAA Tournament didn’t go very well, but the Big Ten has proven, depth-wise, there’s no comparison in college basketball. There just is no comparison, which is why the Big Ten will go in as the favorite in the Challenge coming up this season.”
Boesch points to the ACC being the Roy Williams/Mike Krzyzewski Conference for decades. Now the former is gone, the latter on his last year.
That in itself makes what’s ahead compelling.
“it’s fascinating,” Boesch said. “Is this a Tony Bennett league now? Will Jim Boeheim coach until he’s 100? Who knows?”
It’s not likely the first concern of Michigan fans, either. They want to know how good Howard’s third Michigan team will be, and how fast they’ll get there. Once past the NBA Draft hurdle, those ponderings will surge into overdrive.
That makes the offseason even more fun, for those pining to get back into Crisler.