This year’s ACC-Big Ten Challenge is now history. The Big Ten won the challenge for the third straight year, in its most convincing fashion yet (8-4).
Now, attention turns largely to the Big East-SEC Challenge, where 12 games will be played over three days, Thursday to Saturday. For the first time in the five-year history of the event, every SEC team will participate; however, four Big East teams will be left out.
The other two BCS Conferences, the Big 12 and Pac 12, began a series the same year as the Big East and SEC. However, the event was discontinued after last season.
Two years ago, two other conferences decided to get in on the conference-challenge craze: the Missouri Valley and Mountain West, arguably college basketball’s best two non-BCS conferences.
Now in its third year, the event opened last night with one of two marquee matchups: Creighton at San Diego State. Creighton managed to pull out a tough one-point win after coming back from 17 down, on one of the toughest home courts out west—if not the entire country. It was a great showcase between teams who should finish first or second in their respective conferences.
For Creighton, this game was the toughest non-conference game on their schedule. It might be the toughest team they play all season. For San Diego State, it was a chance to knock off a second Top-25 team (they beat Arizona last week), and perhaps crack the Top 25 themselves. This game had an aura of March around it, and played out that way.
This game was an example of how meaningful the opportunity provided by the MVC-MWC Challenge can be to the teams involved, even more than teams from the ACC, Big East, Big Ten or SEC.
Make no mistake, the ACC and Big Ten matchups, as a whole, still reign supreme in this recent run of conference-vs.-conference events. However, for most of the teams from these conferences, as well as the Big East and SEC, it is just one of many competitive games on their pre-conference schedule.
Look at Michigan State, for example. The Spartans faced Florida State at home on Wednesday night, and won. While it was a good win against a solid (if not great) Florida State team, this game wasn’t even the toughest ACC opponent Michigan State has faced already this year. In their opening two games, they lost to North Carolina and Duke. After playing those two teams, Michigan State must have felt a bit relieved to face the Seminoles.
Speaking of North Carolina, their Challenge matchup with Wisconsin—a top 10 team—wasn’t even the toughest game they’ll play this week. The Tar Heels will play No. 1 Kentucky on Saturday, in Lexington. Wisconsin certainly poses many unique challenges to any team, but the Badgers cannot quite stack up with what Kentucky will throw at UNC.
UNLV, still less than a week removed from their statement win over the same UNC team just mentioned, will travel to Wichita State in what will be the other marquee matchup in the MVC-MWC Challenge. After the win over UNC, UNLV is now a Top-20 team with the requisite target on their back.
Wichita State lost to Alabama and Temple in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, and will be very anxious to prove they can not only complete, but win against NCAA tournament-caliber competition. The Shockers do not have any other games remaining on their non-conference schedule that will provide the same opportunity as the one this Sunday.
Colorado State is a team who has gradually improved over the past three seasons, going from nine wins, to 16, to 19 last year. With any further improvement this season, they could easily be in the discussion for an NCAA Tournament bid. The Rams will have a chance to strengthen their case in such a discussion when they play at Northern Iowa on Saturday.
Northern Iowa is currently 6-1, with some quality wins of their own over Old Dominion and Iowa State. They are hoping to return to the NCAA Tournament after their 2010 Sweet 16 appearance. This could be the most interesting matchup outside of Creighton-San Diego State and UNLV-Wichita State.
Boise State, in their first season in the MWC, is off to a solid 5-1 start, losing only to Long Beach State. They will face Indiana State, last year’s MVC Tournament Champion and NCAA Tournament representative.
Indiana State appears to be on track to make another run at the league championship, after taking third place in the Old Spice Classic last weekend. The Sycamores could very well be the best team Boise State faces outside the MWC, including Long Beach. It may be their best opportunity to prove they can compete in the upper half of the MWC this season.
Teams from the MVC and MWC have different goals for this season. Creighton and UNLV want to be a fixture among the top 15 or 20 in the nation. Wichita State and San Diego State want league titles. Northern Iowa and New Mexico—who hosts Missouri State on Saturday—plan to fight for NCAA at-large bids. Boise State and Wyoming (off to a 7-1 start against a soft schedule) are playing for respectability in the MWC.
In each case, how they fare in this year’s MVC-MWC Challenge could go a long way to determining how successful each is in accomplishing their goals.