These days, college basketball has a flurry of early season events; it's not just Maui anymore. There are aircraft carriers and U.S. Army bases and the Champions Classic and the ESPN Tip-Off Marathon and the Battle 4 Atlantis and whatever else Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis dreams up next. Much of this did not exist even five years ago. In 1999, when the Big Ten/ACC Challenge was born, much of it would have been laughable.
The Big Ten/ACC is still my favorite early-season event. It isn't the most consistently entertaining (that's usually Maui) or most densely populated with great teams (the Champions Classic's one-night, four-elites event gets right to the point), but there is something about it that remains fundamentally fun.
Maybe it's the idea of finally settling all of our silly best-conference arguments on the floor. Maybe it's because the ACC went 10-0 in the first decade of the event, giving birth to one whopping Big Ten inferiority complex. Maybe it's because the Big Ten bounced back with three wins in a row. Maybe it's because the Challenge isn't actually about the "best" league, but because it pits good and bad teams together in the same quest, able to accomplish the same thing -- one win -- and no more.
Anyway: Whatever the reasons, the Big Ten-ACC Challenge is great, and this year won't be any different. Just look:
Tuesday, Dec. 3
Florida State at Minnesota
Illinois at Georgia Tech
Indiana at Syracuse
Michigan at Duke
Notre Dame at Iowa
Penn State at Pittsburgh
Wednesday, Dec. 4
Boston College at Purdue
Maryland at Ohio State
Miami, FL at Nebraska
North Carolina at Michigan State
Northwestern at North Carolina State
Wisconsin at Virginia
Pretty great, huh? It helps, of course, that the ACC added Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame this offseason, which made the ACC not only better in the long term, but considerably better right away. It also makes the ACC three teams bigger than the Big Ten, which, as you'll notice, means Wake Forest, Clemson, and Virginia Tech will not be participating in this year's challenge. (That's the program equivalent of getting picked last to join a team during recess dodgeball. It hurts.)
It also helps that seven of the 12 matchups (Indiana-Syracuse, Michigan-Duke, Notre Dame-Iowa, Penn State-Pittsburgh, Boston College-Purdue, Maryland-Ohio State, Miami-Nebraska) are first-time ordeals in the Challenge. It also helps that there are three rematches from last season, including Wisconsin-Virginia. If there is a culturally "Wisconsin" way to play basketball, it is some combination of Bo Ryan's slow-paced swing offense and Tony Bennett's Pack-Line defense, which he inherited from his father, former Green Bay coach Dick Bennett. It ain't always pretty, but it's a great matchup all the same.
As a kicker, it's not bad, though it must be said that Tuesday night's slate is obviously better than Wednesday's. Indiana's trip to Syracuse is a great and fascinating game (IU will be young but talented; Syracuse just talented) and a rematch of this spring's Sweet 16 upset. Iowa will have a chance to make a statement of purpose. Penn State-Pitt is a great little in-state rivalry thing. Michigan-Duke is hands down the game of the event, full stop. Oh, and there's a chance Andrew Wiggins will be kicking us off Tuesday night, just so you know.
Wednesday isn't quite as good, but North Carolina-Michigan State is a marquee game that would be awesome were it scheduled apart on a random Saturday. That it is nestled snugly between rebuilding Miami/Nebraska and Northwestern/NC State on the second night of the Challenge is, dare I say, what makes the Challenge great.
And it'll be here in … just seven more months!