ACC set for basketball’s Big Ten Challenge

acarter@newsobserver.comNovember 26, 2012 

Six games into the season, North Carolina has experienced only one true road environment. And that game, a 78-63 victory at Long Beach State, did provide some challenges, Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said.

But it was nothing like what Williams expects to see on Tuesday night, when UNC plays at No. 1 Indiana.

“Long Beach, they came in from the beach to watch the game,” Williams said after his team’s 112-70 victory against Chaminade in the Maui Invitational. “Indiana, they’ve been camping out for three days, you know, that kind of thing. So the intensity level, the crowd, the emotion – everything will be different.”

The Tar Heels’ game at Indiana comes in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, which throughout its 13-year existence has always been a prominent event on the early college basketball schedule. This season, the Challenge will feature more games than ever between top teams.

For the first time, the ACC/Big Ten Challenge will feature three games between teams that on Sunday were ranked among the top 16 nationally in the Associated Press top 25. No. 16 N.C. State plays at No. 4 Michigan on Tuesday, the same night No. 9 UNC plays at top-ranked Indiana.

On Wednesday, No. 3 Ohio State visits No. 5 Duke, which is certain to ascend in the rankings after its 76-71 victory against Louisville in the championship game of the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas. The ACC/Big Ten Challenge has produce no shortage of compelling games, but the storylines of the marquee games have perhaps never been richer.

After losing against Oklahoma State and narrowly defeating UNC-Asheville, N.C. State can prove its legitimacy with a strong performance at Michigan. At Indiana, UNC will play against Cody Zeller, a player of the year candidate who is the little brother of Tyler Zeller, the Tar Heels’ former center who won ACC Player of the Year honors a season ago.

And Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium on Wednesday night could host two of the top three teams in the nation after the new polls come out Monday.

“It’s fun,” said Seth Davis, a college basketball analyst for CBS and a writer for Sports Illustrated. “College basketball has a hard time getting people’s attention in the regular season, getting a foothold in the regular season ... It’s kind of cool that, if a team loses one of those games, their season isn’t over, like in college football. So, it’s fun for the fans in a way that’s not torture. If you lose, you move on.”

Outside of the Blue Devils, the ACC has struggled early this season.

Florida State, which some thought would challenge Duke, UNC and N.C. State for first place in the ACC, suffered a season-opening loss against South Alabama. Miami, picked to finish fifth in the ACC, suffered an embarrassing loss against Florida Gulf Coast.

Two teams that entered the season among the favorites in the ACC weren’t immune, either. N.C. State suffered a humbling 76-56 defeat against Oklahoma State in Puerto Rico, and UNC trailed Butler by 29 in Maui before losing 82-71.

The ACC/Big Ten Challenge, then, will provide ACC teams – especially the Tar Heels and Wolfpack – with a chance to redeem themselves after some puzzling early-season performances.

“I don’t think the conference has anything to prove, but the teams do,” Davis said. “N.C. State is a great example. N.C. State, they’re not playing for the ACC. They’ve got problems. They got embarrassed by Oklahoma State, they were lucky to beat UNC-Asheville at home.”

Davis recalled a conversation he shared with Mark Gottfried, the N.C. State coach, before the season began. Gottfried said then, as he has many times in recent weeks and months, that the expectations that surrounded the Wolfpack would be neither a burden nor a distraction.

After a surprising run to the Sweet 16 a season ago, the return of C.J. Leslie and Lorenzo Brown and the addition of a highly-regarded recruiting class, the Wolfpack began the season surrounded by their grandest expectations since in more than two decades.

“I think it’s affecting them,” Davis said. “I think it’s more an individual team. I think that’s a big enough problem without having to carry the mantle for an entire league.”

Duke has clearly done that in the early going. Outside of the Blue Devils’ victories against Kentucky and Louisville, no ACC team has defeated a ranked opponent.

There will be plenty of chances to change that this week, when four ACC teams play ranked Big Ten opponents. In addition to the three games involving Duke, UNC and N.C. State, Miami hosts No. 15 Michigan State on Wednesday.

The ACC won the first 10 ACC/Big Ten Challenges, but the Big Ten has won the past three. Its 8-4 record a season ago was the most lopsided ever in favor of the Big Ten, and to some that suggested the ACC’s strength had decreased.

“Honestly, I think that fans and commentators talk about that, but I’m not a big conference guy,” Davis said. “I don’t think the conference has anything to prove, but the teams do.”

North Carolina is one of those teams. Four of the Tar Heels’ five victories have come against overmatched opponents and the other, at Long Beach State, came against a team that’s still finding its way amid significant personnel losses from a season ago.

The Heels lost against the best them they’ve played to this point, and go on the road to play an Indiana team that will represent the most challenging opponent for just about every team it plays this season.

“There’s no way we’re prepared for that,” Williams said. “Because until you’re there, you don’t know what you’re going to face.”

Staff writer Laura Keeley contributed to this report.

Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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