Commentary

Why the Big Ten/ACC Challenge matters

Originally Published: December 1, 2009
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

If the Big Ten/ACC Challenge was such a horrible idea, if it meant so little to each conference and to the college basketball landscape, why is everyone else trying to copy it?

This is not some company shill. Sure, ESPN's family of networks has been a major player in the event over the past 10 years, helping coordinate matchups with the respective conferences.

But the concept dominates the sport early this week because it creates interest at every school in two high-profile conferences.

If it were no big deal, why would the fact that the Big Ten has never won more games than the ACC in 10 seasons bother the league office and the member schools so much?

[+] EnlargeClemson
AP Photo/Darrell HoemannIllinois hosted Clemson last year and lost a two-point heartbreaker. The rematch is Wednesday night.

Why would the SEC and Big East go through an arduous process each year of trying to match up teams in an invitational? Why have the Big 12 and the Pac-10 done the same thing? Why did the Mountain West and the Missouri Valley, two somewhat strange partners, pair up this season? Why are commissioners in the West Coast Conference and the Atlantic 10 about to lock in on a challenge for 2010 and beyond?

Why?

Well, it works.

"The games mean a lot because they are competitive games that come so early in the season," Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said. "I'm very much in favor of playing in the event and I think it's good for college basketball."

Think about what is going on this week. After tournaments concluded all over the mainland U.S., Alaska, Hawaii and the Caribbean, several teams are returning home to play a major opponent instead of a soft primer. Minnesota leaves Anaheim to go to Miami. Clemson races home from Anaheim to host Illinois. Michigan has to get back from Orlando to play Boston College.

"It's a great concept, and I agree with it and think it's a great idea for both schools," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "But I don't think people should look too deeply into the 'they won' or 'we won.' It's all about the matchups -- who was at home, who had injuries and other factors."

Yes, as much as the Big Ten coaches and administrators are in favor of the event, they get a bit salty when it comes to that 10-0 series score.

"It does bother me, as it does our players, coaches and fans," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said. Delany praised the ACC and its member schools, the competition the Challenge provides, and the importance it has for each school and fan base.

"It's one of the few regular-season events in men's basketball that breaks through the clutter," Delaney said. "If I take one thing away, it is that the ACC coaches have their teams extremely well prepared out of the gate and Big Ten teams tend to develop their playing personality as the season unfolds. Certainly, the NCAA tournament results and commitment to fair competition would indicate these are two conferences that should be playing each other."

Duke is a perfect 10-0 in the event, and nine of the 12 ACC schools have a record of .500 or better. Michigan State (5-4) is the only Big Ten team that is over .500 in the Challenge. Home games are a factor, of course. Since the event expanded to 11 games in 2005, the home teams have gone 30-13 in the event.

"I don't overly concern myself with it, other than it's like anything else since I was little -- if I'm in something, I'm trying to be on the left-hand side [of the column]," Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said.

"It matters because the two leagues are constantly compared against each other," Clemson's Oliver Purnell said. "So you're interested in doing your part, and you do pay attention to the scores. I know last year was real close."

So close (6-5) that at Big Ten media day, Purdue coach Matt Painter was well aware that the Boilermakers' poor showing against Duke was one of the things that cost the Big Ten the chance to win the Challenge.

"But the results of 11 games played in November shouldn't have as much weight as they are given in March, especially in many of these years when the results are decided by one game," Izzo said.

Northwestern's Bill Carmody continued that point, saying that it's not telling the whole story of the Big Ten's depth if it is only compared to the ACC and is not praised for seven teams in the NCAA tournament and one in the championship game.

[+] EnlargeBill Carmody
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhBill Carmody, in his quest to lead Northwestern to its first-ever NCAA tournament, is seeking an ACC road win at NC State to help the cause.

"So I think too much emphasis is placed on who wins the Challenge," Carmody said. "But I think it's a great opportunity to show off the strength of our leagues. It's a great barometer for your team, but at the same time it's only as significant as us beating Iowa State or Notre Dame."

Northwestern, coming off those wins to claim the Chicago Invitational, travels to play 5-0 NC State. Is that such a horrible thing? Clearly, getting Michigan State at North Carolina is a headline game, and having Duke go to Wisconsin will be a quality game for the Badgers in their quest to get back to the NCAA tournament. Florida State is coming off an Old Spice Classic title and goes to Ohio State next, continuing quite a stretch of quality games (starting with last week's loss at Florida).

Wake Forest is following up a loss to William & Mary by going to No. 6 Purdue before heading to No. 16 Gonzaga over the weekend. What's the problem with these games? Nothing. Putting too much weight on the results of the Challenge can be a bit silly when all that really matters is how each conference fares in the NCAA tournament. But every coach ESPN.com contacted admitted that he scoreboard-watches to see how the league does for those few days in early December.

Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg said any win over a Big Ten team would likely be deemed a quality win, especially when it's on the road. The same is true for a Big Ten team going to an ACC school.

Does anyone remember the results come March on Selection Sunday?

"I'll tell you what helped us come March," Ryan said, "was going to Virginia Tech [in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge] and winning last year."

He's right. The win in Blacksburg was a significant get for Wisconsin in its quest for an at-large berth.

Look, the sport will speed forward Thursday with more big games on a weekly basis, starting Saturday when North Carolina goes to Kentucky. But the quality wins that are racked up this week in the Challenge will have shelf life come March.

The Big Ten was rated higher by most prognosticators in the preseason, but has stumbled somewhat out of the gate. Can the league rally to end the drought? If not, the conference will have to deal with the stigma of 11 straight losses -- or at least until Selection Sunday, when the only thing that will matter are the three weeks in March.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com