A preface to the 15th Iowa Caucuses of hoops

The only thing more awkward than Maryland representing the conference it's leaving against the conference it's about to join is the ACC choosing the Terps over Clemson, Virginia Tech or Wake Forest.

The only thing more awkward than Maryland representing the conference it’s leaving against the conference it’s about to join is the ACC choosing the Terps to represent the league over Clemson, Virginia Tech or Wake Forest.

In the beginning the ACC dominated the Big Ten in the two leagues’  annual Challenge, winning the first 10 installments in the series (by razor-thin margins at first but soon rather handily — see below).

Then about the same time that people stopped laughing at the Big Ten’s fledgling new TV network, Jim Delany’s league stormed back and won three in a row. That’s where things still stand today — ACC 10, Big Ten 3 — because last year’s event ended in a draw. I still can’t believe that across the vast archipelago of impassioned fan sites no blog did a “[My Conference] BEATS [Other Conference] 6-6” headline, but apparently that really did not happen. I blame the poor historical instruction of our young people today. Somebody form a task force. 

For a while now I’ve referred to the Challenge as the Iowa Caucuses of hoops, because while it does happen too early and it most certainly occasions egregious over-analysis from eager event-starved pundits, it is still a genuinely compelling competitive spectacle. You know, kind of like sports.

This year I’ll carry my labored and tendentious political analogy even further. Just as there’s nothing intrinsically more interesting about a presidential election swing state like Ohio than there is about a solid red state like Texas or a blue one like California, the outcome of this season’s ACC-Big Ten Challenge could well ride on relative coin-flips like Illinois at Georgia Tech or Boston College at Purdue. Meaning ESPN2 may be where this thing is really decided. Also be warned that if things come down to the wire, as they did a year ago, the game you’ll be watching after everything else has wrapped up will be Miami at Nebraska.

Indiana at Syracuse (ESPN, 7:15)
Illinois at Georgia Tech (ESPN2, 7:15)
Penn State at Pittsburgh (ESPNU, 6:30)
Michigan at Duke (ESPN, 9:15)
Notre Dame at Iowa (ESPN2, 9:15)
Florida State at Minnesota (ESPNU, 9:30)

Maryland at Ohio State (ESPN, 7)
Wisconsin at Virginia (ESPN2, 7)
Northwestern at NC State (ESPNU, 7:30)
North Carolina at Michigan State (ESPN, 9)
Boston College at Purdue (ESPN2, 9)
Miami at Nebraska (ESPNU, 9:30)

If you’re looking to lay a wager on the first team ever to play on ESPNU in the Challenge and then go on to make a very deep NCAA tournament run, I recommend Pitt.

Once Maryland announced it was leaving for the Big Ten, the Terrapins’ chances of hosting a home game in this thing dropped somewhere below the probability of the NCAA disavowing the RPI before sunset this evening. Instead, Mark Turgeon’s team — which has already lost a home game to Oregon State — will face the unenviable task of playing Ohio State in Columbus. Nor will you see Duke or North Carolina in College Park this season. The ACC seems rather annoyed at Maryland for some reason. Can’t fathom why.

There have been 14 Challenges, and in just two of those did the two leagues face each other with an equal number of teams. As of this season, of course, we have again returned to an imbalanced collision, with the 15-team ACC facing a 12-team Big Ten.

Confronted with this round hole, the square-peg ACC has decided to let Clemson, Virginia Tech, and Wake Forest sit this one out. Speaking categorically, the ability to leave three of your weakest teams at home is quite naturally an advantage, one that will surface for the ACC sooner rather than later. Speaking particularly of this season, however, that advantage will likely be very small or even nonexistent. In December of 2013, at least, it’s probable that there’s not all that much difference between the outcasts and, say, NC State, Georgia Tech, and BC. The Big Ten should therefore save its cries of “Unfair!” for next year when Louisville will land in these proceedings with a thud.

That being said the ACC did catch at least one break this year due to pure chance. Of the 24 participating teams, North Carolina is the entrant that is most asterisk-worthy at the moment. The Heels are currently down two players, and if they were hosting a game they’d be at-risk for losing a contest that at full-strength they may have won. Since UNC’s playing a road game against the No. 1-ranked team in the country, however, Roy Williams’ men are instead facing long odds that would be only slightly less daunting with a full complement of players.

BONUS revisionist history! As luck would have it I was recently digging into some historical measures of conference strength, and one unintended byproduct of those labors was a “So that‘s why the Big Ten kept getting killed” reaction. Just about the time the two leagues started this thing up, the Big Ten, coincidentally enough, started not being very good at basketball.

In the first ACC-Big Ten Challenge in 1999-2000, there were three games decided by three points or less. The ACC swept all three and won the Challenge 5-4. The next year brought more of the same, as the only two games that came down to the final possession of regulation both went the ACC’s way, again giving the conference a 5-4 win in the Challenge.

While the Big Ten had no way of knowing it, the league’s best shot at a Challenge win for the better part of a decade had just come and gone. Starting in 2001-02 and going by the seeds earned in each year’s ensuing NCAA tournament, the Big Ten would be lacking in top-tier teams in fully seven of the next nine seasons.

           ACC-B1G     NCAAT seed points
          Challenge       ACC   B1G
1999-00    ACC 5-4         4     7
2000-01    ACC 5-4         9     9
2001-02    ACC 5-3         8     2
2002-03    ACC 5-4         5     1
2003-04    ACC 7-2        10     0
2004-05    ACC 7-2        11     4
2005-06    ACC 6-5         7     6
2006-07    ACC 8-3         6     7
2007-08    ACC 8-3         7     2
2008-09    ACC 6-5         8     3
2009-10    B1G 6-5         5     5
2010-11    B1G 6-5         7     7
2011-12    B1G 8-4         9    10
2012-13    Tie 6-6         6    10

("Seed points" sliding scale:
4 points for NCAAT 1-seed, 1 for a 4)

Sports are wacky, so in the ninth of the Big Ten’s nine seasons in the wilderness, 2009-10, the ACC was also “down” relatively speaking. The result was the Big Ten’s first ever Challenge win, even though Delany’s league was likely not as strong as it had been in the good old days when it was reliably losing 5-4 annually. This unforeseen end to the Big Ten’s run of futility was truly a surprise worthy of Mike Huckabee or Rick Santorum.