The preseason Associated Press poll had just been released, and six teams from the conference were tabbed on the list. Expectations were high after the league sent nine teams on to postseason play a season ago, with Michigan State advancing to the national championship game and Penn State capturing the NIT championship.
All of this came in what was initially pegged as a down year for Big Ten basketball. Now charged with living up to higher preseason expectations for the 2009-10 season, Painter pointed to an annual showdown as a measuring test for the league.
"So much is made of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge," he said. "You've got to win it. You've got to start building. You have to be able to do your part. Last year we didn't do our part in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. We had Duke in a home game and got beat. Hopefully this year we can do a better job."
With tonight serving as the last night of games in the annual challenge, Painter's No. 4 Boilermakers did their part by holding off upstart Wake Forest by a 69-58 final. Six games in, the two conferences are deadlocked at three apiece despite the fact that the Big Ten jumped out to a 3-0 lead with victories by Penn State, Northwestern and Purdue.
Now in the 11th season of the challenge, the Big Ten has never emerged victorious. It came close last year, however, going 5-6.
According to Illinois head coach Bruce Weber, winning matchups like these before going into what is expected to be a brutal conference slate could go a long way toward helping the Big Ten land teams in the NCAA Tournament.
"I think the biggest key for us as a league is we won big non-conference games last year," he said. "We have to do that again. You've got to develop a resume so when we do get in the league if we do beat each other up, it's not a killer. The league is probably better than last year overall, but if we don't win the big non-conference games, if Michigan doesn't beat a Duke or whatever, now you've got 9-9 teams (in conference play) and the committee might take somebody else.
"The ACC-Big Ten Challenge is not the be-all, but obviously that would be nice too for our league to continue to get some national attention."
Michigan hosts Boston College tonight at 7:30 on ESPN2, while Duke – which split two games with the Wolverines a year ago but did not face them in the Challenge, hits the road to face Wisconsin at 9:15 on ESPN.
Ohio State plays the final game of the Challenge, hosting Florida State at 9:30 p.m. on ESPN2. Although the pressure is there to win for the conference, the Buckeyes are more focused on winning for themselves.
"My thing is I just want to be Florida State and whatever happens, happens for everyone else," head coach Thad Matta said.
OSU holds a 3-5 overall record in the Challenge and earned a 73-68 victory against Miami (Fla.) last season. The team's 64-50 victory against North Carolina State during the 2001-02 season has since been vacated by the NCAA.
By and large, however, the conference's plight against the ACC has not had much of an effect on the current Buckeyes. Junior center Dallas Lauderdale was talking about how the Big Ten had not won it in some time when classmate Evan Turner corrected him.
"At all," Turner said.
"We haven't won it at all?" Lauderdale said. "Really?
"Regardless, we want to come out with a win. Whether it has any effect with the Big Ten and ACC or not, we want to win. That's our thing."
Both Turner and Matta said that the Challenge is often more about individual matchups than it is about how strong one conference truly is compared to another.
"Obviously I think people try to make judgments off that how we compare up against the ACC and definitely not ever winning it people can say the ACC is better than the Big Ten but at the end of the day it's about matchups," Turner said. "I think right now the only thing we can worry about is Ohio State. It would be cool to get the win and everything like that and win the series right now we're just worried about Ohio State and trying to win and keep our momentum going."
In other words, OSU will not be keeping track of how the standings are shaking out. If the Buckeyes bring home the clinching victory for their conference, however, Turner has a few ideas on how to celebrate.
"I guess if it was 5-5 it would be like a championship or something (and) they could drop some confetti, cut the nets down and send them to the Big Ten offices," he said. "It would be all right to know, but it's not going to change our mind set."