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The Challenge

Al Featherston weighs in on Tuesday's big event and more.

So how is that "greatest basketball conference ever" thing working out for the ACC so far?

After the first month of the season, the ACC is 80-27 against non-conference opposition, which doesn't look bad unless you note that the record is 17-16 against the other major conferences. Worse, going into December, the 15-team conference has just two teams ranked by the AP … UNC slips in at No. 25 to make it three teams in the coaches' poll.

Where are the landmark wins?

UNC did beat No. 3 (at the time) Louisville, but the fact that the Cards are an ACC team in waiting takes some of the luster off that one. Florida State did beat No. 10 Virginia Commonwealth and Syracuse beat No. 18 Baylor for the ACC's only other victories over ranked teams.

Balancing out those rare bright spots are a plethora of embarrassing losses. N.C. State managed to lose at home to North Carolina Central - the ACC's first-ever loss to a team from the MEAC. Defending ACC champion Miami opened the season with a homecourt loss to St. Francis (the one in New York, not the one in Pennsylvania). New member Notre Dame lost at home to Indiana State. North Carolina lost at home to Belmont. Virginia Tech opened the season with a homecourt loss to USC-Upstate.

Those aren't the only embarrassments. Virginia's loss to VCU wasn't bad in itself, but watching the Cavs choke away a big lead in the final two minutes was painful. Duke didn't lose to Vermont, but the one-point win might as well have been a loss. And Boston College, a team with high expectations, has almost played its way out of the NCAA Tournament in the first week.

Mike Krzyzewski's prediction that the new ACC might earn as many as 10 NCAA bids is looking shaky. If the league doesn't kick butt in non-conference play, then teams that finish at or near .500 in conference play won't get the benefit of the doubt from the selection committee (as Virginia and Maryland found out last season).

Fortunately, the ACC has a chance to change the negative perceptions this week in the 15th annual ACC/Big Ten Challenge.

The ACC won the first 10 challenges, followed by three straight Big Ten triumphs. Last year's challenge ended in a 6-6 tie.

On paper, the Big Ten is a huge favorite to take conference honors this week. The ACC would have to pull at least two and maybe three significant upsets to come out on top.

Let's quickly preview the event:

Game One

Tuesday 7:15 p.m. ESPN2

Illinois (7-0) at Georgia Tech (5-3)

Despite the perfect record, the Illinois have hardly looked overpowering. Six of the team's seven wins have come against patsies at home … the seventh was a two-point win on the road against a not-very-strong UNLV team (which is 3-3 with another home loss to US Santa Barbara).

On the other hand, Georgia Tech has hardly been impressive either. No bad losses, but the Jackets were taken out by a very good Dayton team (that knocked off Gonzaga in the next game) at home and by Ole Miss and St. John's - two so-so teams -- in Brooklyn.

Illinois is a slight favorite in Vegas (11/2 points), but with the home court, a Georgia Tech win would not be a shocker.

Game Two

Tuesday 7:15 p.m. ESPN

Indiana (6-1) at No. 4 Syracuse (7-0)

The ACC's top ranked team has been far less impressive than its ranking - at least before knocking off No. 18 Baylor in Maui. Senior C.J. Fair finally played like the guy we picked as preseason ACC player of the year and freshman point guard Tyler Ennis was good enough to beat out Jabari Parker for rookie of the week in the ACC. The Orange's homecourt struggles with the likes of St. Francis appear to be in a rear view mirror.

Indiana (which ranked No. 23 in the coaches' poll) is rebuilding after losing four starters off last year's 29-win team. So far, Tom Crean appears to have put together a decent group, but five of their wins are meaningless and even the best win was over so-so Washington. The best showing was probably the team's one-point loss to UConn in Madison Square Garden.

On paper, this is one of the ACC's best bets, although Syracuse is merely a 51/2-point favorite, according to Vegas.

Game 3

Tuesday 7:30 p.m. ESPNU

Penn State (6-2) at Pitt (7-0)

In a way, Pitt is a lot like Illinois - a gaudy record against a bunch of second-rate opponents. A win over Stanford in Brooklyn is the most impressive victory over this team, although Ken Pomeroy is obviously impressed - he ranks Pitt No. 3 nationally

Penn State is not very imposing. The Lions have a homecourt loss to Bucknell and a neutral court loss to Ole Miss. They do have an overtime victory over St. John's.

Still, Vegas has Pitt as the biggest ACC favorite - 15 ½ points.

Game 4

Tuesday 9:15 p.m. ESPN

No. 22 Michigan (5-2) at No. 10 Duke (6-2)

Neither team has been as good as expected. We all know about Duke's defensive struggles - and sophomore Mitch McGary ought to test Duke's interior defense.

But McGary has struggled with back problems. How healthy will he be?

Michigan has a road loss at Iowa State and a neutral court loss to UNC Charlotte. They beat Florida State in overtime on a neutral court.

Vegas favors Duke by 51/2 points, but after Vermont, it's hard to count on Duke as a lock at home.

Game 5

Tuesday 9:15 p.m. ESPN2

Notre Dame (5-1) at No. 23 Iowa (7-1)

The Irish are the ACC's most balanced, most experienced team. But so far, the Irish have not beaten anybody worth mentioning and have not played away from home.

Iowa has been much better tested. The Hawkeyes have solid wins over Xavier and UTEP on neutral courts and were strong in an overtime loss to Villanova.

Playing at home, Iowa is a 91/2-point favorite. I'm hoping Notre Dame's experience will be able to prevail on the road.

Game 6

Tuesday 9:30 p.m. ESPNU

Florida State (5-2) at Minnesota (6-2)

Florida State has been one of the few ACC teams to play better than projected. The two losses are a one-point loss at Florida and an overtime loss to Michigan on a neutral court. The 'Noles also ran favored VCU off the court.

Minnesota has beaten a bunch of lightweights at home, plus a narrow road win at Richmond. In Maui, the Gophers lost to Syracuse and Arkansas before beating Chaminade to win 7th place.

Minnesota does have a great home court, which is why I guess the bookies favor the Gophers by 31/2-points. But I definitely like FSU in this one.

Note: If the ACC doesn't have a solid edge after the first night, the conference is doomed. The bookies favor the ACC in just three of these six games, but I really like FSU's chances as a road dog and Georgia Tech's chance as a home dog. And a Notre Dame win on the road would not be a huge upset.

Unfortunately, the second night is MUCH more unfavorable to the ACC. If the ACC doesn't lead by at least 4-2 after the first night, it's going to be another Big Ten win.

Game 7

Wednesday 7 p.m. ESPN

Maryland (5-2) at No. 5 Ohio State (6-0)

Who cares? Maryland is all but in the Big Ten already in my eyes.

Still, a vital game for the Terps' NCAA chances. Maryland missed the NCAA Tournament a year ago because of a lackluster non-ACC performance. So far there is nothing on the Terp resume to change that - a homecourt loss to so-so Oregon State? A split with Providence? No, Maryland needs this one MUCH more than the ACC.

Ohio State, Pomeroy's No. 2 team, has an impressive road beatdown of Marquette. At home, this should be no problem for the Buckeyes.

(Note: I can't find posted odds for the Dec. 4 games).

Game 8

Wednesday 7 p.m. ESPN2

No. 8 Wisconsin (8-0) at Virginia (7-1)

Wisconsin is formidable, but as usual, the team's best wins are at home - for instance, this year's victory over Florida.

Virginia has been disappointing and they have lost at home - blowing a late lead against VCU. Still, this is a team we thought would be an ACC contender. This game is vital to Tony Bennett's team. Like Maryland, Virginia missed the ACC last year because of a weak non-ACC resume.

This is a vital game for the Cavs and - playing at home - I could see them pulling the upset.

Game 9

Wednesday 7:30 p.m. ESPNU

Northwestern (4-4) at N.C. State (4-2)

We all know N.C. State lost to NCCU at home, so anything is possible. But the Pack has won its other five home games by 15-plus points.

Northwestern is not where it needs to be in Chris Collins' first season. The Wildcats have beaten four mid-majors - three at home and one in Chicago. Maybe the coach's familiarity with the arena and the opponent will help the Wildcats …. but I doubt it.

Game 10

Wednesday 9 p.m. ESPN

North Carolina (4-2) at No. 10 Michigan State (7-0)

After Belmont and UAB can anybody think UNC has a chance in East Lansing?

Well, that's what we thought before the Louisville game.

Anything's possible - heck, P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald may even get out of NCAA purgatory - but it's hard to see the Spartans blowing this one. MSU has wins over Kentucky and Oklahoma, which are much better teams at this point than UNC.

Game 11

Wednesday 9 p.m. ESPN2

Boston College (3-4) at Purdue (6-2)

Perhaps the ACC's most disappointing team - but I did warn that without 7-footer Dennis Clifford, the Eagles would struggle to be an NCAA team. Clifford hasn't been able to play.

The opening trio of close losses to so-so teams - overtime to Providence, a late collapse against Toledo at home - has hurt. Still, since 3-point specialist Lonnie Jackson has returned from injury, BC has been better - a two-point loss to UConn and a win over Washington (although, to be fair, the latter was followed by an overtime win at home over Sacred Heart).

Rebuilding Purdue has done nothing notable so far. The neutral court losses to Oklahoma State and Washington State aren't bad … maybe the two narrow wins over Siena are curious.

On a neutral court, I might pick the Eagles in an upset. But hard to see that happening in West Lafayette.

Game 12

Wednesday 9:30 p.m. ESPN

Miami (5-3) at Nebraska (5-2)

How crazy would it be if the 12-team challenge would come down to this stinker of a game?

Neither team is very good, although you have to admire how well Jim Larranaga has managed to put together a somewhat competitive team after losing everything off last year's ACC champs.

Nebraska's best win is the same Georgia team that Georgia Tech beat in Athens. They also lost to the same UMass team that hammered BC and the UAB team that just beat UNC.

My rule of thumb is that when two bad teams meet, favor the home game.

Can the ACC win seven of 12 games, take back the title crown, and start repairing its recently tarnished image? It certainly could happen. I think Duke, Syracuse, Pitt and N.C .State should win. I really like Florida State and Virginia, even though both are underdogs. If Georgia Tech could win at home or Notre Dame on the road, that would be enough for the title.

But the margin is very, very slim.

And even if the ACC does manage to find a way to win the challenge, the league has a long way to go to get 10 NCAA bids or to justify its boast as the greatest basketball conference ever."