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The Challenge

Al gets to brass tacks

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University of Florida v Duke University
PORTLAND, OR - NOVEMBER 26: Co-founder of Nike, Phil Knight presents the Duke Blue Devils the championship trophy for the 'Motion Bracket' of the PK80-Phil Knight Invitational presented by State Farm at the Moda Center on November 26, 2017 in Portland, Oregon. Duke won the game 87-84.
Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

I find it very hard to get excited about the 2017 ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m very interested in how the ACC is perceived by the national media. I think it helps Duke if the talking heads on ESPN and CBS all think the ACC is the nation’s strongest conference.

But over the years, I’ve come to believe that the results of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge play little role in those perceptions. It didn’t matter between 1999 and 2008 – when the ACC won 10 straight challenges – and it didn’t matter between 2009-2015 -- when the Big Ten won five and tied two challenges.

The ACC was perceived as the nation’s best conference in 2016-17 – but that was not because of the league’s 9-5 win in the challenge as much as it was the ACC’s historic two-year run in the NCAA Tournament.

The 2017 ACC-Big Ten Challenge will be a major talking point on ESPN and similar outlets … until the weekend, when it will be forgotten. The individual games could have an impact when the selection committee meets in March, but it’s not going to matter which conference wins the challenge – not in the long run.

It doesn’t help that the team (ESPN and the two conference leaderships) that put the matchups together did such a lousy job.

Just start at the top – Duke at Indiana.

Okay, Duke was due a road game. Indiana gets a home game for the second straight year, but no problem there.

But go back to last spring when the matchups were made.

Duke didn’t have Marvin Bagley at that point, but the Devils had added Wendell Carter, Trevon Duval and Gary Trent as well as veteran Grayson Allen. That team might not have been the no-brainer No. 1 team in the nation, but it was clearly top 5.

Indiana, on the other hand, was decimated by graduation and defections. The Hoosiers also had a coaching change with Archie Miller replacing Tom Crean.

Indiana was picked ninth in the Big Ten’s official preseason poll.

So how did we end up with a Duke-Indiana matchup?

Well, Big Ten favorite Michigan State had a November matchup with Duke in the Champions’ Classic. But Purdue and Minnesota – picked No. 2 and No. 3 in the Big Ten respectively, were both due home games in the challenge.

A Duke-Purdue or a Duke-Minnesota matchup would have been fine … instead we get a mediocre Hoosier team that will be lucky to play in the NIT.

That doesn’t mean Duke can’t lose on Thursday night. A year ago, Duke lost at home to an N.C. State team that failed to make the NIT. A year ago, a much better Indiana team knocked off eventual national champion UNC in Bloomington in front of an extremely hostile crowd.

Still, that’s history and if you look at current events – this year – 8-0 Duke, ranked No. 1 nationally, has to be a prohibitive favorite over 4-2 Indiana, which opened the season with a 21-homecourt loss to Indiana State. They’ve played better since, but not that much better.

That matchup probably helps the Big Ten’s chances of winning the 2017 Challenge, since the ACC has to waste its strongest team against an Indiana team that most mid-level ACC teams would beat. That allows Big Ten contenders Purdue and Minnesota to take on strong ACC teams from Louisville and Miami – both at home.

Oh well, the matchup should help Duke improve its challenge record to 17-2, which is far and away the best of any team in either league. In fact, no other team has more than 12 wins (Virginia; Wake Forest has 11, while Clemson and Maryland have 10 wins each … no Big Ten team has 10 challenge wins).

BTW: The traitorous Terps are an interesting case. Maryland was 10-5 as an ACC member, but is now 0-4 as a Big Ten school after losing to Syracuse Monday night. It’s kind of fitting – Benedict Arnold was a brilliant commander for the Rebels during the revolution, but after switching sides, he made a hash of things as a British general.

A few notes:

-- With 15 ACC teams and 14 Big Ten teams, one ACC team has to sit the challenge out. This year it’s Pitt, which is looking like the weakest ACC team. The Panthers do get a home game with High Point Tuesday night, but that’s not part of the challenge.

-- As of Monday morning, there were 29 unbeatens left – 21 from the Power Six conferences. The ACC has seven unbeatens, the most of any conference.

-- Duke just won the PK80 by staging three come from behind rallies. Well, the Portland State rally wasn’t much – down eight early in that one. But the Devils erased a 16-point second half deficit against Texas, then topped that with a 17-point rally on the final 11 minutes against Florida.

I wrote a story a few years ago about the greatest comebacks in Duke history. Both the Texas and the Florida comebacks would have made a top 20 list, but I’m not sure that either would be in the top five. But I’m pretty sure of this – Duke has never had two comebacks of that quality in back-to-back games … especially in a three-day period.

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