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This Year's ACC/Big Ten Challenge

It's fun but March is when it counts.

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Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

The 17th ACC/Big Ten Challenge starts tonight with a whimper, but will end Wednesday night with a bang.

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The ACC/Big Ten event is the successor to the original challenge between the ACC and Big East – a wonderful matchup killed by Big East coaches who didn’t want to give up control of even one of their non-conference games – chief among them John Thompson of Georgetown and Jim Boeheim of Syracuse.

Maybe that attitude is one reason why the old Big East died a painful death and seven former Big East teams are now members of the ACC.

The ACC replaced the Big East with the Big Ten, which actually makes sense, since over the course of basketball history, the two leagues (the ACC and Big Ten) have been the most successful conferences in NCAA Tournament play.

The ACC holds a 10-4-2 lead in the Big Ten Challenge – but those numbers are a bit misleading. The ACC won the first 10 challenges in a row. The Big Ten won the next three. Two ties followed, then the Big Ten won again last December.

Although the results are often used to tout the relative merits of the two leagues, the Challenge really doesn’t do that.

Take last year. The Big Ten won the Challenge, 8-6. But the ACC actually won the season series with the Big Ten, 15-11. That’s because the Challenge results are determined by matchups and even though those are supposed to roughly match the relative projections of the teams in the two leagues, that doesn’t always happen – for instance, this year, Virginia – projected second in the ACC – is matched against Ohio State – projected seventh in the Big Ten.

No, the best measure of a league’s strength is postseason performance. Last year’s 8-6 loss to the Big Ten in the Challenge meant nothing when compared to the ACC’s 17-5 record in NCAA play – with five Sweet 16 teams, three Elite Eight teams and the national champion.

The ACC proved it was the strongest league last season when it really counted.

But the Challenge does offer an interesting early season snapshot of the two leagues. It’s better than the vast majority of November and December mismatches.

Before looking at this year’s Challenge, just a few notes about the history of the event.

-- Duke has the best record in the event – by a wide margin. The Devils are 14-2 in Challenge play. The next best record belongs to (surprise!) Wake Forest, which is 10-4. Maryland is 10-6 (10-5 as a member of the ACC; 0-1 as a member of the Big Ten). Virginia and Clemson are 9-6. Purdue at 8-6 has the best Big Ten record. BTW, UNC is at 8-8, along with Minnesota (and virtually the same as Ohio State at 7-7).

-- Since Duke’s rivals like to claim that Duke always gets home games in the Challenge, I should point out that this year’s game with Indiana in Cameron will be Duke’s seventh home game. That’s less than UNC, N.C. State, Clemson and Wake Forest, which have had (or will have after this year’s Challenge) eight home games. Michigan State, Ohio State, Purdue and Northwestern also have (or will have) eight.

But guess the school with the most homecourt games? When Clemson plays at Minnesota tonight, it will be the ninth home game for the Gophers in the Challenge.

Frankly, I don’t understand the scheduling of the Challenge any more than I understand the philosophy behind the matchups – except that I know that everything is arranged to suit ESPN.

Still, it’s hard to understand why the network – and the two leagues, of course – want to open the event in such a limp manner. Just look at tonight’s two games:

Wake Forest (4-2) at Rutgers (3-3), 7 p.m.

The Deacons, picked 11th in the ACC, meet the team picked No. 14 in the Big Ten.

Wake Forest is returning from Hawaii, where the Deacs won two of three, including upsets of No. 13 Indiana and UCLA. Wake is still playing without senior guard Codi-Miller-McIntyre, but senior big man Devin Thomas has been outstanding, while freshman guard Bryan Crawford has been a pleasant surprise.

Rutgers is the lowest ranked team (according to Pomeroy) in either league and is coming off back to back losses to Creighton and Clemson.

Clemson (4-1) at Minnesota (4-2), 9 p.m.

The Tigers, picked 12th in the ACC, have not really been tested by anybody so far this season – losing to a UMass team that Pomeroy does not rate in the top 100. Minnesota, picked 11th in the Big Ten, has lost a five-point game to a solid Temple team and was dominated by Texas Tech.

This appears to be a fairly even matchup, tipped in Minnesota’s favor by one of the most significant homecourt advantages in the Big Ten.

The competition gets much better on Tuesday night:

Michigan (4-2) at N.C. State (4-2), 7 p.m.

The Wolverines, picked fourth in the Big Ten, are off to a solid start. Their two losses were to Xavier and UConn. They also have a solid win over Texas. N.C. State, projected No. 8 in the ACC, has had a few mores ups and downs, losing at home to William & Mary and in Brooklyn to a rebuilding Arizona State team. They do have a nice win in OT over a talented, but poorly coached LSU team.

This one probably depends on Cat Barber, who can be great (as he was against Winthrop when he scored 36 points) or awful (as he was in the William & Mary loss). State is at home, but the Pack has not demonstrated a particularly impressive homecourt edge this season – so far.

Northwestern (5-1) at Virginia Tech (4-2), 7 p.m.

Chris Collins’ third Northwestern team couldn’t cope with North Carolina, but has otherwise played well – especially in a neutral court win over Missouri. The Wildcats were picked ninth in the Big Ten.

The Hokies, picked 14th in the ACC, have actually been pretty competitive after a disastrous opening home game loss to Alabama State. South Florida transfer Zack LeDay has been a double-double machine.

Virginia (5-1) at Ohio State (2-3), 7:30 p.m.

The oddest mismatch of the Challenge. Virginia, coming off two straight ACC regular season titles and picked to finish second in the ACC, is paired against the team picked to finish seventh in the Big Ten.

The Buckeyes haven’t looked that even that good, losing at home to UT Arlington and Louisiana Tech before losing in overtime to Memphis. Virginia struggled on the road in a loss to George Washington, but has bounced back to win four straight by lopsided margins.

Virginia is No. 3 in the Pomeroy ratings.

Purdue (6-0) at Pittsburgh (4-0), 9 p.m.

The battle of unbeatens – although neither team has really played anybody.

Purdue’s best win came over rebuilding Florida, while Pitt’s best showing was in a game that was never decided – the Panthers were up two on Gonzaga (No. 10 at the time) when the game was called at the half. Purdue was projected fifth in the Big Ten; Pitt picked 10th in the ACC.

This is a huge RPI game for Pitt. Due to the cancellation of the Gonzaga game, this could be the only top 100 RPI opponent on their non-conference schedule (depends on whether Davidson, easily the next toughest team left for the Panthers, stays in the top 100).

Miami (5-1) at Nebraska (5-2) 9 p.m.

For a few days at least, Miami looked like an ACC title contender after beating Mississippi State, Utah and Butler to win the Puerto Rico Tipoff. Then the ‘Canes came home and lost to Northeastern.

The Huskers are also tough to figure. They played well in losses to Villanova and Cincinnati – two pretty strong teams – but their five wins don’t amount to much.

Nebraska was picked 12th in the Big Ten; Miami was projected fifth in the ACC.

Maryland (6-0) at North Carolina (5-1), 9:30 p.m.

By all rights, this should be the headliner – the battle of the two preseason league favorites. Why it’s ending the second night and not the third, I have no idea.

The Terps have been coming along slowly, despite the unbeaten record – they barely survived homecourt games against Georgetown and Rider and were less than impressive against Illinois State on a neutral court. But they did look much better in wins over Rhode Island and Cleveland State, so maybe they are coming together.

UNC, of course, has been without Marcus Paige and without him, the preseason No. 1 team has lost at Northern Iowa and barely edged Kansas State in Kansas City. There are some hints that Paige may try and play against the Terps, but no definitive word yet.

That leads into the final six games Wednesday night:

Louisville (5-0) at Michigan State (7-0), 7:15 p.m.

Nobody in college basketball has a better resume than No. 3 Michigan State, which has beaten Kansas and Providence on neutral courts. The Spartans were picked third in the preseason Big Ten polls, but look to be better than that.

Louisville went into the season as the ACC’s mystery team, built around transfers and several excellent freshmen. The Cards, picked seventh in the ACC poll, also looked to be better than that, although Rick Pinto’s team hasn’t faced anybody nearly as good as Michigan State.

Wisconsin (4-3) at Syracuse (6-0), 7:15 p.m.

The defending national runner-ups have stumbled out of the gate, losing three times. Two of the losses weren’t bad (Georgetown and Oklahoma), but what about that homecourt loss to Western Illinois? The Badgers, picked sixth in the Big Ten, did scrape out a quality one-point victory over VCU.

Syracuse, picked ninth in the ACC, beat back-to-back ranked teams (UConn and Texas A&M) to win the Battle 4 Atlantis.

Penn State (3-2) at Boston College (3-2), 7:15 p.m.

Hmm, three games on at the same time Wednesday … which to miss?

Hard to imagine more of a stinker. The ACC’s projected 15th team vs. the Big Ten’s 13th team.

BC has been slightly better than expected – beating Harvard, even in a down year for the Crimson, is a rare thing for the Eagles. Penn State did beat the Bucknell team that beat Wake, but they also lost at home to Radford.

Notre Dame (4-2) at Illinois (3-4), 9:15 p.m.

A disappointing Notre Dame team, picked fourth in the ACC, takes on an even more disappointing Illinois team, picked 10th in the Big Ten.

Two of the Illini losses aren’t bad (Providence and Iowa State), but they have also lost in Chicago to North Florida and Chattanooga. That makes Notre Dame’s struggles look almost impressive.

Florida State (4-1) at Iowa (4-2), 9:15 p.m.

A year ago, Iowa provided the winning margin for the Big Ten in the Challenge by stunning UNC in Chapel Hill. The Hawkeyes return four starters from that 22-win team and have been playing well (not great) with victories over Wichita State and Marquette and close losses to Notre Dame and Dayton.

Iowa was picked eighth in the Big Ten; FSU picked sixth in the ACC.

Florida State, heavily relying on a pair of freshmen scoring wizards, has also been playing fairly well, despite losing a game they should have won versus Hofstra.

Indiana (4-2) at Duke (6-1), 9:15 p.m.

The Hoosiers, picked second in the Big Ten, suffered some growing pains in Maui as they tried to work freshman big man Thomas Bryant into the lineup. He’s had some very good games, but he was abused by Wake Forest’s Devin Thomas. Indiana also lost the sixth place game to UNLV.

Oddly, the Hoosiers will play a home game with Alcorn State tonight before heading for Durham.

I’ll have more on this game Wednesday morning.

Well, that’s the lineup.

And while I warn you that prognostication is not my strong suit, allow me to guess that the ACC will get wins from Wake Forest, Virginia, Syracuse, Florida State and Duke; the Big Ten will get wins from Minnesota and Michigan State.

That sounds like a big edge for the ACC – 5-2.

But I also think Michigan, Northwestern, Iowa and Purdue are slight favorites for the Big Ten and only Miami and Notre Dame rank as a slight favorites from the ACC in my eyes.

That leaves two games that I rate as absolute tossups – Penn State at Boston College and Maryland at UNC. If I knew Paige was healthy and at full speed, I’d give UNC the edge at home. If he doesn’t play or – worse – tries to play and is subpar, then I favor the Terps on the road.

For what it’s worth, Pomeroy projects the ACC with an 8-6 win, favoring Duke, Virginia, Notre Dame, Miami, N.C. State, Syracuse, Wake Forest and Boston College.

But in the long run, none of it matters. The real conference test will come in March.