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 Tuesday, March 14
Big Ten basketball proves it belongs
By Andy Katz

 The Big Ten made the first move by starting a conference tournament. The second step came when it agreed to the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.

Suddenly, the Big Ten is being proactive about basketball, instead of hunkering down in the Midwest and ignoring the rest of the nation.

A year ago, two Big Ten teams made it to the Final Four (Michigan State and Ohio State), perhaps putting to rest the idea that the Big Ten was saving itself wear and tear by not having a conference tournament before 1998.

Jerry Dunn
Penn State coach Jerry Dunn knows the ACC/Big Ten Challenge greatly helps his team's visibility.
Two weeks into the season, Big Ten teams already have reaped the benefits of playing stronger non-conference games.

Purdue reached the Maui Invitational final. Illinois won a tough road game at Bradley. Iowa shocked Connecticut. Wisconsin beat Missouri. Michigan escaped with a win against likely NCAA-bound Detroit. Michigan State took one on the chin against Texas in the Puerto Rico Shootout final, and still must face North Carolina, Kansas, Arizona and Kentucky before the end of December.

Some of those games were set up by tournaments. A few were scheduled by the schools. But the ACC/Big Ten Challenge locks in a high-profile non-conference series for two years.

Penn State is far from being a marquee team, but getting Clemson (which is hurting after losing to Wofford) in a home-and-home series over the next two years gives the Nittany Lions a name school on their non-conference schedule.

"This really increases our visibility in the East as opposed to harboring it in the Midwest," Penn State coach Jerry Dunn said. "While you try not to overschedule, this gives you games to gauge your team."

The ACC has done it before, with a challenge against the Big East from 1989-91. But Big Ten wasn't taking advantage of those sorts of opportunities -- or perhaps never even were offered them.

The conference reached out for it when ESPN broached the concept a year ago. Ohio State, which isn't part of the challenge this season because of a scheduling conflict, will work into the rotation in 2001. Indiana stayed isolated by claiming it had enough high-profile games. The Hoosiers, albeit not a team player in this one, are right. They annually play against teams like Kentucky and Temple.

"(Big Ten commissioner) Jim Delany was really in favor of this," Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett said. "He's eager to showcase whatever he can. Wisconsin doesn't get on TV that much other than regionally. This is a great chance for us to play a quality opponent (Wake Forest) even if it's on the road."

The Big Ten has the inside track to the title of top conference in the nation, with Michigan State, Ohio State, Illinois, Purdue, Indiana, Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan looking like they'll contend for NCAA Tournament bids.

Playing against the ACC, even if it's not as strong, should give the Big Ten even more power-rating points come Selection Sunday. Playing this series does even more to convince the college basketball world that the Big Ten has joined the rest of the nation in seeking out high-profile, made-for-TV non-conference games.

Now if only the Pac-10 could work out a similar arrangement, too.


Other conferences exploring challenge options