The Big East is probably the nation’s deepest college basketball conference, at least for one more year before Syracuse and Pittsburgh head to the ACC. However, most would agree the Big East is a bit down this season outside of the Orange and Louisville.
Thus the question is: Has the Big Ten surpassed the ACC as the No. 2 conference in the land (and thus as the best in 2012-13)? One could make an argument. It’s true that no Big Ten team has won the national championship since Michigan State in 2000. Since then, the ACC has won five: two by Duke, two by North Carolina and one by soon-to-be Big Ten member Maryland.
However, no ACC teams have reached the Final Four since Duke won the conference’s last title in 2010. In last season’s NCAA Tournament, the ACC was just 6-5, with Duke getting stunned in the Round of 64 by No. 15 Lehigh. Only two ACC teams out of the five in the Big Dance reached the Sweet 16. The Big Ten’s six teams, meanwhile, went 11-6. It had four teams in the Sweet 16 and Ohio State reached the Final Four.
Most would agree that the college basketball regular season doesn’t mean a whole lot, but the ACC-Big Ten Challenge also has shown the Big Ten’s recent dominance over the ACC. The ACC won the first 10 Challenges, but the Big Ten captured the Commissioner Cup for the third consecutive year last season, beating the ACC eight wins to four — and four of the Big Ten’s wins came on the road, a Challenge record.
The final Challenge before Syracuse and Pitt’s move tips off Tuesday and the polls would suggest the Big Ten will win the Cup a fourth straight year. The Big Ten has three teams in the USA Today coaches poll’s top five — Indiana (No. 1), Michigan (No. 3) and Ohio State (No. 4) — and five teams in total. Duke is the lone ACC team in the top five in the No. 2 spot and are joined by North Carolina (No. 13) and N.C. State (No. 18).
The Wolfpack were the preseason ACC favorites to win their first conference title since the Jim Valvano days. But they were already rocked 76-56 by Oklahoma State this season. North Carolina, which is semi-rebuilding after losing four NBA first-round draft picks off last year’s Elite Eight team, was upset in Hawaii by Butler, 82-71. The young Heels looked the part by falling behind by as many as 29 point, and UNC’s 18 first-half points were its lowest total since 1996. The normally up-tempo Tar Heels had just six fast-break points.
Yet all that will be forgiven if North Carolina can upset No. 1 Indiana in Bloomington on Tuesday in one of the showcase games of this year’s ACC-Big Ten Challenge. It’s the first meeting between two of the sport’s most storied programs since the 2004 Challenge. The schools have combined for 10 national titles, each winning five. The book will have live betting on the game.
Last year’s Heels were led by ACC Player of the Year Tyler Zeller. This year’s Hoosiers are led by his younger brother, preseason national player of the year favorite Cody Zeller. Last year in the Challenge, Cody had 19 points and nine rebounds in a win at NC State. IU has been tested already this year, needing overtime to beat Georgetown in the Legends Classic in Brooklyn.
Another top matchup Tuesday features Michigan and NC State — they last met in the Challenge in 2006. The Wolfpack have dropped four straight in this event, while Michigan lost last season at Virginia. Michigan just beat two good teams, Pittsburgh and Kansas State, to win the NIT Season Tip-Off in New York. It was the Wolverines’ first title in a major preseason tournament since the 1997-98 season.
The best Big Ten teams of late in the Challenge have been Ohio State and Northwestern, which have each won four games in a row. At 6-5, the Buckeyes are the only conference team with a record above .500 in the event (Michigan State is at .500). OSU plays Wednesday at Duke. Last year in Columbus, the Buckeyes crushed the Blue Devils 85-63.
However, Duke is the best team in the Challenge’s history with an 11-2 mark overall and 4-0 at home. In addition, Duke has won a school-record 96 straight non-conference games at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Blue Devils haven’t lost a non-conference game there since 2000.
Four of the Challenge matchups will be firsts: Virginia at Wisconsin, Maryland at Northwestern, Michigan State at Miami (the first-ever meeting between the schools overall) and Georgia Tech at Illinois. If you are looking for which team to bet against, consider Iowa, which visits Virginia Tech on Tuesday. The Hawkeyes have lost a Challenge-high six straight games and are just 2-9 overall. The worst ACC team has been Miami, which is 1-4, although Florida State and Georgia Tech have each lost four in a row along with NC State.
Tuesday (all times Eastern)
Minnesota at Florida State, 7:15 p.m.
Iowa at Virginia Tech, 7:15
NC State at Michigan, 7:30
Maryland at Northwestern, 9:15
Nebraska at Wake Forest, 9:15
North Carolina at Indiana, 9:30
Virginia at Wisconsin, 7 p.m.
Purdue at Clemson, 7:15
Michigan State at Miami, 7:30
Georgia Tech at Illinois, 9
Boston College at Penn State, 9:15
Ohio State at Duke, 9:30