Will Big Ten finally be up to Challenge?
Big Ten basketball coaches know there's a trophy out there, this thing called the Commissioners Cup. It's supposed to be a traveling trophy, one that goes to the winner of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
But so far, the trophy hasn't really moved. Instead, it's taken up permanent residence at the ACC offices in Greensboro, N.C.
While the Big Ten fancies itself as something of a basketball power -- the league has produced six Final Four teams over the past five seasons -- it has gone an underwhelming oh-for-four against the ACC.
On one hand, it's easy for Big Ten coaches to rationalize away the losses to the ACC as insignificant. After all, the games have been played in late November and early December. The Big Ten has to have two schools sit out each year because of a (currently) larger membership. And, frankly, coaches are much more concerned about their own teams than they are worried about the rest of the conference.
"There are a lot of good games," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "But I'm not sure anybody is really ready for these kind of games this early."
Said Indiana coach Mike Davis: "You always want to be in the best conference and the ACC is one of the best conferences. But our first concern is our game."
But, at the same time, the made-for-TV event does at least impact the court of popular opinion. And after Tuesday night's action, the ACC is on its way to another year of bragging rights, winning three of four games to take a 4-1 lead into Wednesday's action.
While not every Big Ten coach is concerned about the outcome, Minnesota coach Dan Monson will be paying attention when the event begins tonight.
|A look at how teams have fared in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge:|
|Wake Forest Demon Deacons||5-0|
|Duke Blue Devils||4-0|
|Michigan State Spartans||3-0|
|Minnesota Golden Gophers||3-1|
|N.C. State Wolpack||3-2|
|Florida State Seminoles||3-2|
|Ohio State Buckeyes||1-1|
|Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets||1-3|
|Penn State Nittany Lions||1-3|
|Illinois Fighting Illini||1-4|
|North Carolina Tar Heels||1-4|
"Absolutely I'm pulling for everybody," said Monson, who has had his team on the bubble of the NCAA Tournament each of the past two seasons. "Because this is when you start formulating for NCAA bids. This is a good league, this league is down this year. Those opinions begin to be formulated and, unfortunately, those opinions seem to be reality when it comes to March."
It isn't as if the Big Ten has been crushed by the ACC in the event. The ACC has won the event by 5-4 counts on three occasions. In 2001, the ACC won 5-3 because the Michigan State-Virginia game couldn't be completed because of wet floor conditions at the Richmond (Va.) Coliseum.
Could that change this year? Can the Big Ten win the majority of the nine games over the next three nights? Well, the Big Ten certainly was in better position than in previous seasons for at least a couple of reasons.
The right teams are playing: In the first two years of the event, the Big Ten left Ohio State and Indiana on the sidelines The past two years saw Michigan and Purdue out of the event. This season, the Big Ten's preseason top three -- Michigan State, Illinois and Wisconsin -- will all be in the field.
The Badgers and lllini, however, lost Tuesday night. Oops ...
Just as important is the fact that Penn State isn't in the field. While the Nittany Lions hope to be improved under first-year coach Ed DeChellis, Penn State is 1-3 in the Challenge. The Nittany Lions, a combined 14-42 the past two seasons, have lost three consecutive games in the Challenge -- including back-to-back games to ACC bottom-dweller Clemson.
Duke's on the road: This is one of the topics Big Ten coaches don't like to discuss, but nobody was disappointed to see Mike Krzyzewski's team play a true road game in the event. After playing -- and winning -- neutral-site games in the first four years of the event, the Blue Devils will play at Michigan State on Wednesday night. With the white T-shirt Izzone crowd, the Breslin Center has become one of the most difficult (if not the most difficult) place to play in the conference.
If the event comes down to Wednesday's final game, the Minnesota at Virginia contest will determine the winner. The Gophers have actually been one of the Big Ten's best teams in the event, going 3-1.
"I'm not really worried about it," Monson said. "Whether go first or last, we still have a game to play and we have to play well to win it. We're on the road."
Last season, the ACC won the challenge when Wake Forest won at Wisconsin.
"We didn't feel the pressure of the ACC," Demon Deacons coach Skip Prosser said. "We wanted to be the only road team to win."
When this season began, Purdue coach Gene Keady talked with optimism about his group of Boilermakers. Thing is, nobody really listened.
Yes, Purdue tied for third in the conference last season and reached the NCAA Tournament. But the preseason buzz in the Big Ten was about Michigan State, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State. The Boilermakers were projected to be a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team.
If last weekend's Great Alaska Shootout was any indication, those projections can be crumpled into a ball and tossed into the garbage.
Playing hard-nosed defense and executing well offensively, Purdue defeated Seton Hall in the tournament semifinals and then downed Duke in a championship game worth staying up for.
The sometimes grumpy Keady has only good things to say about this team.
"I like them a lot," he said. "They're coachable and they leave their egos at home. They take criticism well and they don't let it bother them ... and they play hard."
|Games to Watch|
Kansas vs. Stanford, Saturday
A candidate to become the nation's new No. 1, Kansas has an interesting game against the Cardinal. While Kansas has more talent, Stanford is more experienced and fundamentally sound.
Colorado vs. California, Saturday
For two teams that already have a bad loss, this game is important. Colorado, which lost at Pepperdine, is tough to beat in Boulder, however.
Missouri at Indiana, Saturday
Indiana guard Bracey Wright has been very good this season. He'll have to be again because Tigers big man Arthur Johnson is bigger and stronger than any of the Hoosiers interior players.
Oklahoma vs. Michigan State, Saturday
First one to 50 wins. This could be a football game before it's over. Can Oklahoma's young guards handle a pro-Spartans crowd at the Palace? Can Michigan State contain the Sooner frontcourt better than they did Kansas' Wayne Simien?
Oklahoma State vs. BYU, Saturday
The Cowboys are quietly playing pretty good basketball. This game against one of the Mountain West favorites will be a good test. While it's not at BYU, this game in Salt Lake City is essentially a road game for the Cowboys.
Northern Illinois at Illinois-Chicago, Friday
This might be the mid-major game of the week. Northern Illinois is one of the MAC favorites, while Illinois-Chicago is picked to win the Horizon League. Both Huskies coach Rob Judson and Flames coach Jimmy Collins are former Illinois assistants.
Maybe the biggest thing that the Boilermakers showed in the victory over the Blue Devils was that they can get production inside -- a huge question entering the season. Purdue certainly doesn't have a star inside, but Chris Booker, Brett Buscher and Ivan Kartelo combined for 27 points and 16 rebounds in 71 minutes.
"In the second half of the Duke game they started playing like I thought they could," Keady said.
Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (www.startribune.com) is a regular contributor to ESPN.com
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