ESPN Insider (and former College Basketball Prospectus scribe) John Gasaway has a wonderful way to describe the yearly ACC/Big Ten Challenge, which begins tonight: It's college basketball's version of the Iowa Caucuses. It takes place too early in the process to tell you all that much, it has random eccentricities that make it both unique and uniquely unhelpful in any long-term determination and it's such a small sliver of the larger picture that you feel like it's more important than it is. All that said: It is important, and more than anything else, it's fun: It gives everybody a quick-and-dirty idea of the direction matters are pointing. Plus, there are butter sculptures. (Note: There are not actually butter sculptures in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.)
For an event as randomly scheduled as the Challenge seems to be -- this year Maryland is playing at Ohio State simply because the ACC is so mad at the Terrapins, who will be on the other side of this business next year -- it's impressive how seriously fanbases in both conferences take the event's results. Indiana fans and Purdue fans despise each other, but for these two days, they're best friends, and they act like they've been hating Syracuse and Boston College their whole lives. The ACC somewhat famously won the first 10 Challenges, the Big Ten won the next three, and they tied last year. Fans obsess over certain games in the Challenge: Illinois fans will never forget the 2004 game, in which the Illini blasted then-No. 1 Wake Forest (and started a theoretical Deron Williams-Chris Paul rivalry that never materialized) and kicked off the most thrilling season in Illini basketball history. The Challenge matters, and it doesn't.
Duke, typically, dominates this thing: The Blue Devils are 12-2 lifetime. In the Big Ten, only three teams are even at .500 (Illinois, Ohio State and Purdue). These are stats long remembered. These are the two best college basketball conferences in the country: This is the yearly opportunity to prove it. Even if it involves getting far too invested in Miami at Nebraska.
Tip-off is at 7:15 ET tonight, on ESPN: This is an ESPN-created event, and you know someone out there, somewhere, is watching three games at once on ESPN3. If I weren't attending one of the games in person tonight, it would probably be me.
Let's go game-by-game, shall we?
Indiana Hoosiers (6-1, 30 KenPom) at Syracuse Orange (7-0, 13 KenPom), 7:15 ET, ESPN
This is the Orange's first taste of the Challenge -- their only experience is the long-aborted ripoff Big East-SEC Challenge -- but mostly it's an opportunity to see another classic franchise play at the Carrier Dome this year. It's a terrific year to have season tickets to Syracuse games: The Orange host Indiana, North Carolina and Duke in their first ACC slate. This is a rematch of the Sweet 16 game last year, but neither team is as good as it was then. Here's thinking the Hoosiers don't have enough offense and rebounding to beat the Orange.
Prediction: Syracuse (1-0 ACC)
Illinois Fighting Illini (7-0, 46 KenPom) at Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (5-3, 106 KenPom), 7:15 ET, ESPN2
I'll be in the stands for this one -- look for two puffs of orange surrounded by white and old gold at McCamish on your television -- and I will confess this Illinois alum who just moved to Athens doesn't mind that his Illini are playing in Atlanta twice in five days. (They play Auburn at Philips Arena on Sunday afternoon, obviously the most important event for War Eagle fans in the city this weekend.) Illinois, with an almost entirely new roster, scored an impressive road win at UNLV but has had trouble generating much offense; Georgia Tech lost to St. John's, which lost to Penn State, a vastly inferior team to Illinois. Allowing for my general bad luck when I see Illinois play on the road, Illinois is a potential NCAA tourney team and Tech isn't.
Prediction: Illinois (1-1)
Penn State Nittany Lions (6-2, 73 KenPom) at Pittsburgh Panthers (7-0, 3 KenPom), 7:30 ET, ESPNU
Penn State always draws the ESPNU card in the Challenge, but usually they're facing Miami or Boston College or somebody. This year, they get a Pittsburgh squad advance analysts consider a sleeper for the Final Four. This is not a particularly difficult indoctrination into the Challenge for the Panthers.
Prediction: Pittsburgh (2-1 ACC)
Michigan Wolverines (5-2, 18 KenPom) at Duke Blue Devils (6-2, 28 KenPom), 9:15 ET, ESPN
Michigan has looked extremely shaky without Tim Hardaway Jr. and Trey Burke, but Duke, for all the Jabari Parker joy, nearly lost at home to Vermont. (Coach K looked ready to cry after that game.) Both teams have guard problems, which is more of a problem for Michigan, considering how lunatic the Blue Devils fans are going to be. (Cheapest ticket for this game on StubHub: $295.) Michigan will be a lot better by the end of the season, but it's not there yet.
Prediction: Duke (3-1 ACC)
Notre Dame Fighting Irish (5-1, 66 KenPom) at Iowa Hawkeyes (7-1, 10 KenPom), 9:15 ET, ESPN2
Iowa's a lot better than people realize; this is a team that probably should have made the NCAA tournament last year and brought back everybody. Notre Dame lost at home to Indiana State. The only hesitation here: The Hawkeyes are terrible in the Challenge, 2-10 lifetime, with seven losses in a row. Still: This might be the Challenge's first blowout.
Prediction: Iowa (3-2 ACC)
Florida State Seminoles (5-2, 35 KenPom) at Minnesota Golden Gophers (6-2, 43 KenPom), 9:30 ET, ESPNU
New Minnesota coach Richard Pitino -- who is 31 freaking years old -- has attempted to glom a pressure defense on a Tubby Smith roster, and it's not working out that well so far. Florida State wasn't highly regarded coming into the season but wiped out VCU on a neutral court and almost beat both Michigan and Florida. This might be the pivotal game of the whole challenge. The Gophers just might not be there yet. Maybe because their coach is freaking 31.
Prediction: Florida State (4-2 ACC)
Maryland Terrapins (5-2, 45 KenPom) at Ohio State Buckeyes (6-0, KenPom 2), 7 pm ET, ESPN
If the ACC could have fed Maryland to the Miami Heat in this game, they would have. I sort of love that the ACC is actively sacrificing a game in this Challenge, just because they're angry.
Prediction: Ohio State (4-3 ACC)
Wisconsin Badgers (8-0, 17 KenPom) at Virginia Cavaliers (7-1, 14 KenPom), 7 pm ET, ESPN2
Two notoriously slow-moving, efficient, possession-cautious teams face off right at the exact moment each of them is starting to move a little faster. Wisconsin is the hot story early on, but Virginia, the Wisconsin of the ACC, is perpetually underrated. Still: This might be one of the better Badgers teams and definitely one of the most fun to watch.
Prediction: Wisconsin (4-4)
Northwestern Wildcats (4-4, 120 KenPom) at North Carolina State Wolfpack (4-2, 84 KenPom), 7:30 ET, ESPNU
The UGH game of the Challenge. NC State lost at home to North Carolina Central. Northwestern lost at home to Illinois State. Drew Crawford is back for the Wildcats, but this isn't going to be the year they finally break through to the NCAA tournament. Then again: NC State isn't going to sniff it either.
Prediction: NC State (5-4 ACC)
North Carolina Tar Heels (4-2, 19 KenPom) at Michigan State Spartans (7-0, 4 KenPom), 9 pm ET, ESPN
The Heels have been mostly confusing this year, losing to Belmont and UAB but hammering Louisville, while Michigan State is in that early season, drive-Izzo-nuts mode of playing to the level of their competition. They'll be up for UNC, though.
Prediction: Michigan State (5-5)
Boston College Eagles (3-4, 85 KenPom) at Purdue Boilermakers (6-2, 113 KenPom), 9 pm ET, ESPN2
All four of BC's losses have been to quality teams; Purdue lost to an iffy Washington State team and barely sneaked past opponents like Siena, Northern Kentucky and Rider. Still: At home, against a BC team that's wobbly, I'm giving them the tossup. Though it's worth noting: It's sort of strange that there was a Matt Painter bidding war not that long ago, isn't it?
Prediction: Purdue (6-5 Big Ten)
Miami Hurricanes (5-3, 108 KenPom) at Nebraska Cornhuskers (5-2, 115 KenPom), 9:30 ET, ESPNU
And, as was foretold in Revelations, the Challenge comes down to Miami-Nebraska. If you would like, you can now take this opportunity to watch the 2002 BCS National Championship Game between these two schools.
LARRY COKER FOREVER.
All right, maybe the 1995 Orange Bowl might be more fun.
(It's funny hearing Bob Costas talk about college football.)
Nebraska has a fancy new stadium and a new emphasis on basketball, amusingly. And they're a little better than Miami, I suspect. Which means we avoid a tie, and the Big Ten has bragging rights, which will come in handy at all those ACC-Big Ten mixers over the holidays and into February. Those can get rowdy.