ACC-ya Later

In this, the ninth season of the ACC - Big Ten Challenge, it's been all ACC. The dominance has continued again this year, with the ACC holding a 5-1 lead heading into the final night later this evening. Can Ohio State stop the bleeding against No. 1 North Carolina? The conference hopes so. Kyle Lamb talks about the uneven annual classic between the two conferences.

Breaking news: the ACC-Big Ten Challenge is being renamed.

It's now being called the ACC Annual Invitational.

Surely, I jest. However, the truth is, there's simply not much "challenge" left in this yearly showcase for schools in and around Tobacco Road to exert their dominance over the helpless Big Ten. So why not find a new, more accurate name for this event?

After Tuesday's 4-1 power wash of the conference at the hands of the ACC superiority, three wins of which were in double-digits, the Big Ten is in jeopardy of losing its ninth consecutive "Challenge" on Wednesday. Down 5-1, the Big Ten would need to sweep all five games tonight to claim its first ever victory in the series.

Of the five games tonight, the bright side for Big Ten fans is that the conference hosts four of them: Michigan State against North Carolina State, Penn State against Virginia Tech, Michigan against Boston College and Ohio State against North Carolina. Only Illinois hits the road for a game against Maryland.

So it appears ESPN, the lead in forming the annual matchups, was kind enough of the Big Ten to get most of the road games out of the way on the first evening to rid of any lingering doubt as to which conference was likely to win (again).

After hearing the annual chest-thumping of the SEC in football, it's quite natural to understand the inferiority complex sensitive Big Ten fans have right now. The good news is that for all the hype and prominence of the SEC, their record (20-16) against the Big Ten the last 10 seasons in football doesn't justify the perceived greatness.

However, that's not the case of the ACC.

In basketball, there's been very little competitiveness between the two conferences. The ACC is 8-0 in this yearly event and about to make it 9-0. The event creators wanted to showcase the two conferences head-to-head, but now it seems it's only left intact for recruiting purposes and ratings - yes, viewers instinctively tune in to human tragedy at its ugly worst.

Oh sure, four times in the previous eight seasons the ACC has won by just a game - a fact you could dismiss on the surface as "favorable matchups." Perhaps in any given season, there's an element of truth to that statement. But overall, the ACC record (counting this season) now stands 53-28. If that's not lopsided enough, in that same time frame, the ACC is 14-8 against the Big Ten outside of the so-called challenge.

That's a total record of 67-36. Ouch.

And in case you're wondering, it's not as if the ACC's lower echelon beat up on the Big Ten bottom feeders. Considering Michigan State is the only Big Ten team with a winning record thus far in the Challenge (4-3), that's safely not the case. In fact, Michigan is the only other team (3-3) that doesn't have a losing record. Traditional N.I.T. contender Clemson is 7-2 against the Big Ten.

So that's where tonight's Ohio State - North Carolina game brings about importance for ulterior reasons.

The Buckeyes (4-1) host the No. 2-ranked Tar Heels (5-0) tonight at the Value City Arena in the Schottenstein Center, in a return game of last year's wild ACC-Big Ten feature in Chapel Hill, won by North Carolina 98-89. The game was said to be a possible Final Four or National Championship preview.

Ohio State did hold their end of the bargain, beating Georgetown in the Final Four before losing to Florida in the Championship. North Carolina, however, was upended by the Hoyas one step prior to a possible rematch in the Elite 8. In fact, if there's one consolation for the Big Ten since 1999, it's that the conference actually has more Final Four appearances (9) than does the ACC (8).

However, that statistic alone won't convince many of an even playing field, especially since the ACC has three National Championships in that same period, compared to just one for the Big Ten. So tonight, an important mission for Ohio State: restore some sort of dignity to your conference.

Right or wrong, strength is measured by a conference's best teams. Fairly or unfairly, how the conference elites perform against one another will dictate the perception of quality - or lack thereof.

It's a chance to impress the nation tonight for a young, Jekyl & Hyde Ohio State team. Last season, the Buckeyes were comprised of a one-of-a-kind freshmen class that was probably too talented, and yet too naive to be intimidated at the Dean Dome. Ohio State came out guns blazing before ultimately fading down the stretch in the heavyweight slugfest.

This year, however, Ohio State has the home crowd to its advantage but also has a new core of freshmen - not equally talented in relative terms, but talented nonetheless. However, this group is also a little less indestructable, as the 70-47 loss to Texas A&M would indicate.

"Coming in this year we have a whole new team," said OSU senior captain Jamar Butler. "We've only got three losses here in our gym, in the Schott.

"We don't want to add to that."

Beyond the revenge factor, the Buckeyes don't have much going for them in anticipation of this game. History hasn't been kind to Ohio State (2-4) in this conference-versus-conference series and the head-to-head against North Carolina hasn't been any more kind. The Tar Heels lead the all-time series 8-2, including the last three meetings.

But a win against No. 1 UNC (No. 2 in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches' Poll) would slightly dignify the conference. Beating No. 1 isn't without precedent for Ohio State.

The Buckeyes have beaten No. 1 in six out of their last seven meetings against the top team in the nation. In fact, Ohio State is 8-9 all-time against the top-ranked team. Overall against the ACC, Ohio State is 33-24 with one third of those losses coming to the Tar Heels.

"When you have an opportunity like this, to say it's another game, quite honestly it is," said Ohio State head coach Thad Matta, downplaying the importance of tonight's opponent. "The preparation is no different.

"The fact they're the No. 1 in the country, you're playing a great team and a great program," he added. "As I told our guys, I hope they are excited to play this game keeping in mind tomorrow is November 28th - it's still early."

Despite how early in the season this game falls, history has shown people still remember. The abysmal record conference-wide against the ACC sticks in the crawl of many fans nationwide.

Matta commented this week this game would be nothing more than a good gauge of where his team stands at this point of the season. For Ohio State, that's probably accurate. For the Big Ten, it's so much more.

Can the Buckeyes help rescue the Big Ten in 2007? Someone's got to. Because so far, it's been all ACC in their own invitational.



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