North Carolina’s Kenny Williams, middle, tries to recover a loose ball between Michigan’s Zavier Simpson, left, and Mortiz Wagner, right, during the Big Ten-ACC Challenge on Nov. 29. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com
North Carolina’s Kenny Williams, middle, tries to recover a loose ball between Michigan’s Zavier Simpson, left, and Mortiz Wagner, right, during the Big Ten-ACC Challenge on Nov. 29. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

ACC

Is the Big Ten-ACC Challenge really a challenge at all?

By Barry Jacobs

Columnist

December 04, 2017 12:49 PM

We now return to our regularly scheduled programming, already in progress.

The games and days rush on, the Big Ten-ACC Challenge already a faded memory. The four-day interlude, which involved about a third of the power conference opponents ACC teams will face until the 2018 NCAA tournament, could be viewed as a season highlight. But with the overlapping games and midweek dates, the series seemed to pass with relatively little notice.

Maybe the Challenge’s low profile traces to the longevity of the series. The ACC-Big Ten Challenge just completed its 19th year and is more or less taken for granted as part of a very crowded men’s basketball schedule. This year, with an 11-3 record (struggling Pitt sat out because the Big Ten has 14 members), the ACC won the series for the 12th time. The Big Ten led in overall wins five times, with two ties. This go-round the ACC had a record number of victories and a winning percentage (.756) just shy of the best ever – .778, set by the ACC in 2003 and matched in 2004. The ACC’s cumulative edge is now 120-91 (.569).

Don’t look for overarching predictive value in the annual Challenge results. The ACC won the first 10 editions of the Challenge, a period in which the league sent 10 teams to the Final Four. Three won NCAA titles. In seasons when the Big Ten held the upper hand, the ACC had three Final Four entrants, all NCAA championship winners.

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Perhaps the Big Ten-ACC Challenge is a bit too amicable to stir casual fans, what with the first conference cited in the title alternating from season to season to accent the equality of the participants. Lessening the potential for friction, the leagues hardly rub geographical elbows, or didn’t until Maryland turned west and Louisville, Notre Dame and Pitt looked south. Win or lose, the stakes just don’t seem that high.

“An average conference game is a lot harder than a real good non-conference game,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said after easily handling Notre Dame last Thursday to run his Spartans’ Challenge record to 9-10. “I don’t know why that is, but it’s just the way it is.”

The ACC’s relationship with the Big Ten is in distinct contrast with a similar, short-lived series involving the ACC and Big East that riveted national attention. That Challenge, which lasted only three seasons (1990-92), was marked by close games, sizzling competitive animosity, and barely disguised resentment by some Big East coaches opposed to participation in the series. “I didn’t like the effect it had on us emotionally during the first semester,” said Georgetown coach John Thompson. “It’s a high price to pay.”

Duke’s Wendell Carter Jr., right, looks to pass the ball while defended by Indiana’s Juwan Morgan, middle, during the Big Ten-ACC Challenge on Nov. 29.
Joe Robbins Getty Images

The ACC rallied in the third year to conclude the Big East series in a 12-12 tie in games won. Both leagues were all about proving they were the nation’s best in basketball, so the balanced ledger offered scant satisfaction. Displeased Big East coaches decided to duck out of the Challenge contract a year early, citing as a factor a new NCAA rule that moved the start of the 1992-93 season back to Dec. 1. Continuing the high-level clashes was too much of a good thing too early, went the thinking.

In contrast, the current season began on Nov. 10. The season’s first intra-ACC game is Saturday – still early December – when Duke visits Boston College.

Having the present season start on a Friday meant basketball got a minimal foothold in national consciousness before media attention reverted to football. The timing lent fuel to arguments for launching the basketball season earlier, perhaps with an attention-getter such as the recent PK80 event in Portland, Oregon. Extending the period when competition is allowed, like adding 20 hours per week in preparation time for football bowls, is known in some quarters as mission creep. The goals may be good, and logical within a certain context, but the results only heap pressure on those athletes who look at attending college as more than pre-professional sports training.

Most coaches don’t want to start the season against high-level competition, anyway. By and large, ACC teams begin the year at home and avoid debuting against a power conference opponent. (Georgia Tech, one of three ACC teams that started the 2017-18 season with a road game, did face UCLA in Shanghai, China, the ultimate neutral court.) Even the NIT Season Tip-Off, won by Virginia, didn’t unfold until four games into the season.

The Cavaliers were among five ACC squads that came out of this year’s Big Ten-ACC Challenge with their early undefeated records intact. So did Duke, Florida State, Miami and Syracuse. Eight out of 15 ACC squads have a winning record across the years in the Challenge, led by Duke (17-2), UVa (12-6) and, surprisingly, Wake Forest (12-5). Clemson at 11-7 and UNC at 10-9 are the only other ACC teams with double-figure wins.

If you wondered at odd matchups in this year’s Challenge, they’re ESPN’s doing. The network apparently tries to avoid having the same teams play on the road too often, and to sidestep repeat engagements. Presumably that kind of jiggering kept Duke and Michigan State, the top preseason picks in their respective leagues, from facing off in the Challenge. They’d met two weeks earlier in Chicago’s Champions Classic.

Some pairings made more sense than others. Carolina easily handled Michigan in a battle of presumptive No. 2’s. Notre Dame, picked third in the ACC, was pummeled by Michigan State. Other matchups were weighted to benefit a visiting team. Miami, a candidate for fourth place according to ACC media handicappers, beat Minnesota, picked far lower in its league. Florida State, the ACC’s No. 8 in preseason, topped Rutgers, the predicted Big Ten bottom-dweller.

Having top-ranked Duke travel to Indiana – the only game coach Mike Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils attempted in two years on a clearly hostile non-ACC court – struck a reasonable competitive balance. Outside the compulsory Challenge, in which Duke played at Wisconsin in 2015-16, Krzyzewski otherwise has the luxury of commanding nationally televised contests on neutral floors against high-profile foes. And ESPN has the luxury of televising the college game’s most polarizing program as well as arguably its two best basketball conferences going head-to-head.

Too bad few people recognize – or care – that the winning conference assumes control of something called the Commissioner’s Cup, emblematic of a sliver of supremacy for at least one season.