Big Ten Teams Ready For ACC Challenge

The fifth annual Big Ten/ACC Challenge tips off tonight as Northwestern visits Florida State. Four games will be contested each of the next two nights, including Ohio State (led by former Clemson guard Tony Stockman) hosting Preseason NIT champion Georgia Tech Wednesday night (7 p.m., ESPN). Click here for a preview of the Challenge.

Sometime early last week, ESPN basketball analyst Digger Phelps looked into the camera and sighed, "I think the Big Ten is a little bit down this year."

It was hard to dispute what Phelps was saying. Ohio State had opened the year with losses at San Francisco and another lopsided loss to San Diego State at the Maui Invitational. Indiana went on the road to Vanderbilt and dropped a double-digit decision. Minnesota fell at Utah in the Preseason NIT. Plus, fifth-ranked Michigan State dropped a game at No. 4 Kansas.

But as the week wore on, the Big Ten began to flex its muscle. Ohio State rallied with two wins in Maui, including a one-point triumph over Villanova. At the John Wooden Tradition in Indianapolis, Indiana rallied to defeat Xavier in overtime and Iowa did likewise in shocking Louisville. Illinois went on the road to Temple and won.

But the piece de resistance was happening late Saturday night/early Sunday morning in Alaska, where Gene Keady's Purdue Boilermakers knocked off Duke to win the Great Alaskan Shootout.

All of a sudden, Big Ten basketball was alive and kicking again.

The Big Ten hopes to ride this wave of momentum to its first-ever win in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. That fifth annual event tips off tonight as Northwestern visits Florida State. Four games will be contested over the next two nights. All of the action is on ESPN or ESPN2.

Ohio State hosts Preseason NIT champion Georgia Tech in its home opener Wednesday at Value City Arena (7 p.m., ESPN).

Two Big Ten teams, Iowa and Penn State, will not play in this year's Challenge.

The future of the Challenge is up in the air as the ACC will swell from nine to 12 teams next year with the addition of Miami (Fla.), Boston College and Virginia Tech.

In the first four years, the ACC has dominated the event. They have won five games to four in three of the first four years.

Here is a quick look at the games in this year's Challenge, with picks:

* Northwestern (2-2) at Florida State (4-0), tonight, 7 p.m. (ESPN2) -- The Wildcats lost at DePaul and at home to Colorado. FSU has four wins over small schools. Steve's Say: Florida State 68-59

* Indiana (2-1) at Wake Forest (3-0), Tuesday, 7 p.m. (ESPN) -- You always worry about IU going on the road, as evidenced by the 13-point loss at Vandy. Bracey Wright stood on his head against Xavier Saturday and Sean Kline is emerging for the Hoosiers. Wake's best win was over Memphis in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic. Steve's Say: Wake Forest 71-69

* N.C. State (3-0) at Michigan (3-0), Tuesday, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN2) -- N.C. State has not been tested in its three wins. UM was extended to overtime to beat Butler 61-60 Sunday in Indianapolis. Steve's Say: Michigan 74-70

* Illinois (3-0) vs. North Carolina (3-0) at Greensboro, N.C., Tuesday, 9 p.m. (ESPN) -- This may be the marquee match-up of the event. It is the only one on a neutral floor, although you can imagine there will be about 22,000 UNC faithful in that powder blue. Both teams have new coaches as Bruce Weber replaced Kansas-bound Bill Self at Illinois and Roy Williams came from Kansas to replace the fired Matt Doherty at UNC. The Illini won in impressive fashion 75-60 at Temple Saturday. UNC needed some late magic to beat Cleveland State 82-76 in a home game for Cleveland native Jawad Williams. Steve's Say: Illinois 78-77

* Wisconsin (3-0) at Maryland (3-0), Tuesday, 9:30 p.m. (ESPN2) -- This will be UW's toughest test with wins over Penn, Eastern Illinois and Rutgers. Similarly, Maryland has wins over Hofstra, George Mason and American. These two teams have a nice rivalry. UW won in OT in the 2000 Challenge, while Maryland prevailed in the second round of the 2002 NCAA Tournament. Steve's Say: Maryland 74-69

* Georgia Tech (5-0) at Ohio State (2-2), Wednesday, 7 p.m. (ESPN) -- Somebody has to cool off the Yellow Jackets at some point. But they do look good so far. They cruised to the Preseason NIT title, crushing top-ranked UConn 77-61 in the semis and then beating Bob Knight's Texas Tech team 85-65 in the finals. Tech has four players averaging 14 or better, led by B.J. Elder. Tech is averaging 81.2 points per game. OSU's record includes ugly losses to San Francisco and San Diego State and nail biters against Central Michigan and a depleted Villanova team. The pieces aren't quite together yet for OSU. Maybe a raucous crowd will help the Buckeyes pull off the upset. Steve's Say: Ohio State 73-70

* Clemson (3-0) at Purdue (4-0), Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN2) -- Clemson is untested with wins over three small schools at home. Purdue is battle tested after winning the Great Alaskan. The Boilers downed Seton Hall 75-63 in the semis, then beat Duke 78-68 in the finals. Kenneth Lowe leads Purdue at 18.5 points per game. Steve's Say: Purdue 75-68

* Duke (3-1) at Michigan State (3-1), Wednesday, 9 p.m. (ESPN) -- OK, this is the highlight game of the event. What can you say about these two great powerhouses that hasn't already been said 100 times? MSU rebounded from its respectable 81-74 loss at Kansas by defeating DePaul 89-81. MSU has great balance with five players in double figures. Want proof that Duke is a national program? This is one of 17 -- count 'em, 17 -- games the Dookies will play on ESPN or ESPN2 during the regular season. Plus, they will be on CBS twice and ABC once. Twenty national TV games? Are you kidding me? You know "Dukie V" will be at Breslin to call this one. Steve's Say: Michigan State 83-81

* Minnesota (2-1) at Virginia (3-0), Wednesday, 9:30 p.m. (ESPN2) -- Hard to get a read on the Gophers. They lost 66-54 at Utah in the Preseason NIT quarters, then needed OT to beat Furman 91-84 at home. Freshman Kris Humphries looks good at 24 points a game, though. Virginia's biggest win was an 80-65 win over rival Virginia Tech. Give the nod to the Cavs at home. Steve's Say: Virginia 77-72

* Summing Up -- That's five wins for the Big Ten and four for the ACC. I know, it can't possibly end like that because it never has before. The swing games, as I see them, are Illinois-UNC, Georgia Tech-OSU and Michigan State-Duke.

Enjoy the Challenge!

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