That's right, folks: The matchups have arrived for the 2011-12 Big Ten/ACC Challenge (not to be confused with the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, last year's always-alternating title). And they are every bit as appetizing as you'd expect.
First things first, of course. Here's the list:
Tuesday, Nov. 29
Miami at Purdue
Northwestern at Georgia Tech
Illinois at Maryland
Michigan at Virginia
Clemson at Iowa
Duke at Ohio State
Wednesday, Nov. 30
Indiana at North Carolina State
Penn State at Boston College
Florida State at Michigan State
Virginia Tech at Minnesota
Wake Forest at Nebraska
Wisconsin at North Carolina
Naturally, two games immediately stand out. The first is Duke at Ohio State, a likely top-five matchup of Jared Sullinger, William Buford and Aaron Craft against a reloaded Duke team featuring arguably the No. 1 recruit in the country in versatile guard Austin Rivers. Is Rivers ready for the big stage? Is Craft the best on-ball point-guard defender in the country? Have the Plumlees improved enough to halt Sully's interior dominance? Is Deshaun Thomas going to be as big a contributor as yours truly expects? And just how good is this Duke team anyway?
I'm practically writing a preview already, and the game is still -- sigh -- more than six months away.
Meanwhile, let's not forget that other big-time matchup: Wisconsin at North Carolina. Not only does that game pit two conference title contenders and highly ranked teams. Not only does it give us Jordan Taylor vs. North Carolina's star-studded starting five. It will also be a fascinating test of stylistic wills: The grind-it-out Bo Ryan Badgers (adjusted 2011 tempo: 58.0 possessions per game) against the high-flying, outlet-chucking, secondary-breaking Roy Williams Tar Heels (adjusted 2011 tempo: 71.7 possessions per game). I can't wait.
Besides the elite games, the biggest ongoing storyline surrounding the Challenge is the competition itself. Beginning in 1999, the Big Ten lost the first 10 Challenges to the ACC. Two years ago, it won its first. In 2010, it followed up with a second. Does the Big Ten maintain that momentum? Is the conference considerably better than the seemingly down ACC? It's a little too early to start breaking down matchups, but at first glance, the Big Ten would seem to hold the advantage in most, if not all, of the Tuesday games. In a general sense, Wednesday's games appear more evenly matched, but as always, home-court advantage will play a major role in deciding the title.
And, of course, this year features a new wrinkle: the inclusion of new Big Ten (or B1G, I guess) member Nebraska. The Cornhuskers' realignment means the ACC no longer has to keep one of its teams home (or since that's always the last-place team from the year before, gets to keep one of its teams home). Now everyone gets to participate. Really, it's just more fun that way, no?
Anyway, mark your calendars. Thanks to the addition of the Champions Classic, as well as the planned Michigan State-North Carolina aircraft carrier game -- yes, we're getting college hoops from aboard a U.S. aircraft carrier -- the 2011-12 season will feature more high-quality early-season basketball than ever before.
Still, I'd contend that the college season doesn't quite start to feel like the college season until the Big Ten and the ACC wage their yearly two-day joust. That's when it hits you. By late November, we're full speed ahead.
Now, if it was only late November.
Tom Petty was right: The waiting is the hardest part.