Name the only pre-season college basketball tournament where the national media begins the countdown and build up to it in May.
I’ll wait while you type your guess in the comments. Don’t forget to click “submit.”
Okay, give up? It’s the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, and it is – without question – the best college basketball pre-season tournament. In fact, it has been for the entire 12 years of its existence.
Each conference lays claim to national powerhouse college basketball programs. For the Big Ten, Michigan State and Ohio State are routinely ranked in the top ten to start – and usually to end – the season. The ACC, of course, boasts Duke and North Carolina. Each conference also has a number of excellent middle tier teams. The Big Ten enjoys the yearly stability of Wisconsin, Purdue, and Illinois, while the ACC lays claim to North Carolina State, Maryland, and Georgia Tech.
Aside from the quality of the teams in this tournament, and the yearly anticipation from media and fans across the country, the Big Ten/ACC Challenge has for several consecutive years been designed to showcase early season national championship and Final Four favorites.
This pre-season tournament began in 1999. In that time it has highlighted some of the great programs before the regular season kicks into high gear, and forecasted some of the best teams for season’s end. Here is a helpful chart to better showcase the quality of the teams that play against each other in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge every year:
- 1999: The Final Four included Ohio State, Michigan State, and Duke.
- 2000: The Final Four included North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Michigan State. The national champion was Michigan State.
- 2001: The Final Four included Maryland, Michigan State, and Duke. The national champion was Duke.
- 2002: The Final Four included Indiana and Maryland. The national champion was Maryland.
- 2003: The Final Four did not include and ACC or Big Ten team this season. They needed a breather.
- 2004: The Final Four included Duke and Georgia Tech.
- 2005: The Final Four included Michigan State, Illinois, and North Carolina. The national champion was North Carolina.
- 2006: Another year off.
- 2007: The Final Four included Ohio State.
- 2008: The Final Four included North Carolina.
- 2009: The Final Four included Michigan State and North Carolina. The national champion was North Carolina.
- 2010: The Final Four included Michigan State and Duke The national champion was Duke.
Of the 48 possible Final Four teams in the past 12 years since this pre-season tournament began, 20 of those teams have come from the ACC or the Big Ten. That’s 42 percent of all Final Four teams. That is an outstanding record that no other pre-season tournament can come close to.
College sports has changed a lot in the past 20 years. Where individual teams used to rule the roost, conference affiliations are now important. Sure, programs have plenty of financial reasons for that, but fans have also jumped on board with the concept and now have a special affinity for a conference. If you don’t believe me, leave another comment and I will tell one of the thousands of stories I have compiled over the years from bearing witness to heated, intense arguments between Big Ten and SEC football proponents. Punches have been thrown, and mommas have been insulted. And the arguments have nothing to do with specific teams, it all about “my conference is better than your conference.” People care, and these conferences are right to create a product that plays into that passion.
In recognition of this new college sports reality, the minds within the Big Ten and ACC – arguably the country’s two best college basketball conferences – branded a conference battle that routinely pits teams ranked nationally in the top ten against one another.
This tournament also does an excellent job or playing to the strengths of each conference. For example, the tournament does not believe in playing games at a neutral site. Home court advantage is one of the many bonuses to this tournament that no other tournament shares. Sure, the pre-season NIT – though connotatively associated with the runner up tournament at the season’s end – plays in Madison Square Garden. But, that arena is not what it used to be. And the idea of removing home court advantage – one of the great traits of college basketball – from the equation is rather silly.
College basketball is at its best when fans are at their collective loudest. The Big Ten/ACC challenge leverages the value in home court advantage while the others ignore it. It features the best teams in the sport and the toughest competition. It is without question the best pre-season college basketball tournament.