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November 29, 2010, 10:47 AM ET
Don’t tell the Big Ten it’s the favorite

by John Gasaway

I honestly don’t know what the conference’s reaction would be if it knew that it’s supposed to win this year’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge. This is the same conference, after all, that went 0-10 in the event’s first decade, before finally breaking through with a 6-5 win last year. And now they’re the big scary odds-on favorites? Well, yes, actually.

Allow me to restate some points made in a simply marvelous new book that you should have by now. The paradox of a conference vs. conference “Challenge” like this is that a game like tonight’s Virginia at Minnesota match-up actually matters. A lot. Sure, Michigan State at Duke should in theory be a lot more fun to watch, but then again the Blue Devils are highly likely to win that game. Intuitively we might suppose that the entertainment value of the 11 games, the outcome of the Challenge, and the respective might of the two conferences would be more or less related. In fact the Challenge proves that, at least lately, these have been three entirely separate entities. Last year the poor forlorn “down” ACC lost the Challenge for the first time ever…and went on to claim its second consecutive national championship.

I had a Nate Silver-style post all teed up along these lines, one that would purport to show that some of this year’s dullest games on paper are likely to have the most impact on which conference wins this thing. But my colleague Ken Pomeroy already beat me to it, so I’m in the happy position of having merely to point. Pace Ken and phrased in Silver terms, I think the following rather low-key match-ups will actually be the three key “swing” games of this year’s Challenge. In other words with the exception of Ohio State winning at Florida State I expect the home team to prevail in every other game.

Iowa at Wake Forest (Tuesday, ESPNU, 7 ET)
The Hawkeyes used to play at a really slow pace under former coach Todd Lickliter, but under new guy Fran McCaffery they’re averaging 73 possessions per 40 minutes. More importantly they were competitive against Xavier and beat Alabama on their way to a 3-3 mark. Meanwhile first-year Deacons coach Jeff Bzdelik has a somewhat unearned reputation for going slow, a reputation that will quickly melt if Wake continues to average 75 possessions per outing as they have thus far. Alas, the Deacons’ 3-3 looks a little more shaky than Iowa’s–Wake’s losses have come to Stetson, VCU, and Winthrop. Then again Bzdelik’s men will be playing at home.

Purdue at Virginia Tech (Wednesday, ESPN, 7:30 ET)
Two teams coming off losses. The Boilermakers looked seriously under-powered scoring 54 points in 64 possessions in their 11-point neutral-floor loss to Richmond on Saturday. The Hokies, on the other hand, looked surprisingly permissive in yielding 71 points in 60 trips in their 12-point neutral-floor loss to UNLV yesterday. Matt Painter’s team has the AP All-American (JaJuan Johnson) but Seth Greenberg’s team will be hosting.

Maryland at Penn State (Wednesday, ESPN2, 9:15 ET)
We here at Prospectus like Terrapin big man Jordan Williams, and thus far Maryland’s only losses have come to Pitt and Illinois–no shame there. But at the risk of being repetitive, there’s a home team in this here game and they’re known as the Nittany Lions. Not to mention Talor Battle seems to turn into Oscar Robertson every time he sees an ACC opponent. Last year against Virginia and Virginia Tech, Battle hit 10 of 20 threes and scored 64 points.

So, yeah, the ACC/Big Ten Challenge is an artificial contrivance that happens way too early and its outcome is overanalyzed with hungry zeal by overzealous pundits. It is also, however, a genuinely compelling competitive spectacle. Enjoy the Iowa Caucuses of hoops!      

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