First things first. (I’ll get into the history of the BigTen/ACC Challenge soon enough.) But, first, I want to take a little time and enjoy the flavor of Tuesday’s 71-66 victory over #1 Duke and their ageless leader, Mike Krzyzewski. Let’s face it: this win washed some of the bitter football taste away and allowed us to turn our attention happily to the basketball court. What a second half! C.J. who? TreVeyon who? I’m now tuned in to E.J. Liddell, Zed Key, and Cedric Russell. The game was the showcase of the Challenge this year and underscores the Big Ten’s supremacy as a basketball conference.
With the conclusion of Wednesday’s night’s games, another year of the Big Ten/ACC (it’s supposed to alternate order every year, but the pattern is largely ignored) Challenge is behind us. This year the Big Ten prevailed, as its teams won eight of the 14 games. And, in fact, three of the six Big Ten losses occurred in overtime.
Started in 1999 by ESPN as a kind of gimmick, the Challenge has gained in popularity and has expanded as new teams have been added to the two conferences. While other conferences have imitated the Challenge with challenges of their own, the Big Ten/ACC version remains the grandaddy of them all.
And, it’s become important to the teams in the two leagues. The Challenge provides an early test of the state of the team against reliably strong competition, often in a hostile arena where fans care deeply about the outcome.
The ACC, long the self-proclaimed basketball powerhouse conference, dominated the series early on, winning the first ten of them. Since 2009, however, the Big Ten has taken the Commissioner’s Cup eight times (including this year), and there have been three ties. The ACC still leads the series 12-8-3 and has won 144 games and lost 121.
With unbalanced numbers of conference members, Ohio State sat out the first two years that the Challenge took place. The Bucks finally made their series debut in 2001, beating the North Carolina State Wolfpack, 64-50. Overall, the Buckeyes are 10-11: 6-5 at home, 4-5 away, and 0-1 on a “neutral” court – as if there’s anything neutral about playing Duke in Greensboro, NC.
Certainly, Ohio State was tested this year. After Duke beat Gonzaga over the weekend, the Blue Devils moved into the #1 slot. What better gauge with which to evaluate your team than tackling #1?
It wasn’t the first time that the Buckeyes have found themselves paired in The Challenge against the #1 team in the country. In 2007, the Bucks lost by 10 (65-55) to #1 North Carolina. When it comes to matchups with top-10 ACC teams, there have been a bunch. OSU lost to # 4 Duke in 2002, lost to #7 UNC in 2006, beat #3 Duke in 2011, lost to #2 Duke in 2012, lost to #5 Louisville in 2014, lost to #10 Virginia in 2015, lost to #6 Virginia in 2016, and beat #7 UNC in 2019. The Buckeyes themselves were ranked in the top-10 in 2006, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2019.
This year’s Buckeyes, who just dropped out of the top 25, passed this big, early test with flying colors and, suddenly, the basketball future in Columbus is rosy again.
I admit that, after watching the Buckeyes so far this season, I wasn’t optimistic going into the Duke game. Shorthanded, with a number of key players out for the short or the long term, Ohio State has struggled. Generally, they’ve shot the ball pretty well (if we exclude the 37.7% floor shooting in the loss to Xavier). And, despite being somewhat undersized, the Bucks have held their own on the boards; rebounds are about even. On the negative side, the guard play has been spotty. Not much scoring from the backcourt and way too many turnovers. Additionally, the guards often are indecisive about initiating plays in the half-court offense. And the scoring, going into Tuesday’s game, was lopsided, to say the least. Liddell was averaging 22.5 points per game and was the only player on the team averaging in double figures.
Duke is loaded with size, speed, and talent. The Bucks’ sloppy play – turnovers, missed free throws – let the Blue Devils take charge, and they led 43-30 at the half. I thought that it was over.
But Justin Ahrens’s three-pointer cut the Devil lead to six at the 12:31 mark, and strong play by Liddell, Key, and grad transfer Cedric Russell put the Bucks up with just over a minute left. Liddell, with 14 rebounds, and Key, with a career-high 20 points, were able to outplay Duke’s bigs and negate the size disadvantage.
Russell, with his standout performance, may have answered two crucial questions facing the Buckeyes in this early part of the season: 1.) who, besides Liddell, is going to provide the points? and 2.) can any of the guards step up and help to replace the departed Duane Washington, C.J. Walker, and Musa Jallow? Russell scored 12 against Duke, and, although he was touted as a scorer at Louisiana when he transferred, he’d scored only three points in previous action this year. I’m guessing that we’ll see more of him.
Yes, things are looking up for the Buckeye hoopsters, as they start Big Ten play at Penn State on Sunday. Let’s forget about football for a while and cheer these guys on.