To date, the ACC/Big 10 Challenge has been a non-challenge. The Big Ten has kept it close a couple of seasons, but for the most part it has been an ACC dance party. The ACC has won all seven challenges and is 40-24 in ACC/Big Ten Challenge matchups. Duke is 7-0 in those games, and they showed their mettle again last night by withstanding a Herculean effort by Indiana's Marco Killingsworth. The Auburn transfer combusted for 34 points and 10 boards, but went just 3-9 from the free throw line. Many of the misses were critical down the stretch. It was symbolic of this whole ACC/Big Ten Challenge affair. The Big Ten is a good conference year in and year out, but they always come up short in the Challenge.
The "conference challenge" idea offers great opportunities to watch some meaningful basketball. While most contenders are blowing out Prairie View or Campbell, the Challenge pits opponents of relatively equal power from conferences in games that tell us something about the individual teams. For example, we learned that Ohio State is going to be a tough out at home. We learned that NC State and Iowa may be good, but they are going to look ugly at times. We learned that Indiana is a Big Ten contender. We learned that Northwestern is not very good (again). We learned that North Carolina may be a shell of last year's team, but their youngsters are talented and play very hard. Can we expand this conference challenge idea a bit further? I think that there is potential.
Big XII/SEC Challenge or "The Pre-Bowl Game Hoops Challenge"
The two power conferences in the South should vie for the title of "Best Southern Conference." While the SEC scores higher on the "sweet tea" test as the more "southern" conference, the Big XII has enough Texas and Oklahoma schools to qualify. There are twelve teams in each conference, so the matchups work out perfectly. In the event of a tie, representatives from Texas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Kentucky will engage in a barbecue cook-off to determine the winner. The matchups this year might look something like this:
Texas at Kentucky - The preseason favorites tip it up in a sold out Rupp Arena.
Alabama at Oklahoma - Two of the best frontcourts in America slugging it out toe-to-toe. Kevin Bookout, Taj Gray, Chuck Davis, and Jermareo Davidson all on the same court? Who would not want to see that?
Florida at Kansas - Battle of the Babies. Both teams rely on so many youngsters, it would benefit both teams to gain some experience in a big-time atmosphere.
Iowa State at LSU - Battle of the Enigmas. Who knows about these two teams? They could both be 4/5 seeds at season's end or miss the tourney completely. I have no feel for these two.
Oklahoma State at Arkansas - Eddie Sutton returns to one of his former schools.
Vanderbilt at Texas Tech - This game would most likely have major NCAA bubble implications come March.
Nebraska at Georgia - Do you like defense?
South Carolina at Colorado - Two teams that are dark horse picks to make some noise.
Kansas State at Tennessee - Two programs looking to build.
Mississippi State at Missouri - The former is rebuilding and the latter cannot build.
Texas A&M at Ole Miss. Late night on ESPNU.
Auburn at Baylor - Battle of Sanctions. (Actually, it could not happen this year due to Baylor's non-conference ban.)
The Missouri Valley/MAC Challenge or "Multiple Bid Madness"
These two conferences often have at least two or more NCAA-quality teams on Selection Sunday. The MVC has been better at garnering multiple bids (they received three bids last year) lately, and the MAC usually has a team that feels utterly shafted by the selection committee. Last year, it was Buffalo, and to a lesser extent Miami (Ohio). So, why not match up these two to give the contenders an extra quality game early? For example:
Northern Iowa at Ohio - Two teams with real at-large NCAA hopes in a very meaningful game.
Akron at Creighton - Two teams that could be on the bubble come March.
Southern Illinois at Western Michigan - High expectations for both coming in, but disappointing starts to the season for both.
Toledo at Missouri State - This Challenge's Dark Horse Game.
Bradley at Northern Illinois - Marcellus Sommerville (BU) and Cory Sims (NIU) are big-time players.
Miami (Ohio) at Wichita State - Battle of Last Year.
Indiana State at Kent State - Battle of Several Years Ago.
Ball State at Drake
Evansville at Buffalo
Bowling Green at Illinois State
Wild West Shootout or "The 'Hey, We Play Hoops, Too!' Challenge"
The Pac-10 would probably overpower any other western conference, and the Big East's 73 teams does not fit well with anyone, so maybe the Pac-10 could host a Wild West Shootout consisting of other good teams from the West.
Arizona vs. Gonzaga - A Top Ten Matchup to headline the bill.
Stanford vs. Utah - Two of the country's top programs over the last fifteen years.
UCLA vs. Nevada - Another Top 25 matchup.
Washington vs. New Mexico - Battle of the Down But Not Outs. Actually, the Huskies may not be as down as many think.
Oregon vs. Hawaii - Battle of the Enigmas II.
California vs. Air Force - Powe vs. Slow.
Washington State vs. San Diego State
Oregon State vs. UTEP
Arizona State vs. Utah State
Southern Cal vs. Denver - A chance to watch the one of hoops best-kept secrets: Denver center Yemi Nicholson.
This idea might be a stretch, but I am just trying to conjure ways to get more meaningful games into November basketball. We had a great Maui Classic and we have seen a few nice early season matchups, but too many power conference teams are filling up on cream puffs (Paging Rick Pitino, Mr. Rick Pitino). These conference challenges might be a way to do that.
Of course, the ESPN Bracket Buster (in late February) portends to help non-power conference teams get exposure and strengthen their NCAA tourney profile. The jury is still out on whether it helps teams get bids, but it certainly does help some non-TV contract teams get some national exposure. Of course, the Bracket Buster has bloated to 100 teams this year, so there will be about 40 meaningless games in regards to TV time or NCAA impact, which seems a little unnecessary. However, with 100 teams involved, it nearly guarantees that important basketball will be played in the top five or six matchups and those games will be nationally televised. It cannot be all bad.Last season, the NCAA Selection Committee adjusted the RPI to weight road wins more heavily than home wins. Road wins are worth 1.4 adjusted wins, while home triumphs are worth 0.6. The committee hoped that this would encourage teams to schedule more road games in the non-conference. However, stat king Ken Pomeroy recently informed us that power conference teams scheduled more home games this season than the last two seasons. Power conference teams are loath to give up that scheduling advantage and it makes for a lot of bad November hoops. Pomeroy also stated,
"We can only speculate on the reason for the lack of change in scheduling practices, but to me it's clear. Teams with the big budgets are not willing to trade two or three spots in the RPI for the money that home dates bring in. This may come back to haunt one or two teams each season, thereby costing them revenue they would get from the NCAA Tournament, but most schools are willing to take that risk."
That is truly all that the non-power conference teams need. There are rarely more than one or two MVC, MAC, or other non-power conference schools that get the shaft. If this new road weight does open up one slot for last year's Buffalo or 2004's Utah State in place of a 7-9 power conference team, then this adjustment to the formula betters the tourney. This much is sure: the big boys will not change their scheduling ways until it impacts the NCAA selection or seeding.