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August 24, 2010

Bragging rights on line in league showdowns

Thanks to conference realignment this summer, league bragging rights are getting a little more difficult to track.

How should Colorado feel if the Big 12 loses the Big 12/Pac-10 Hardwood Series? Will Nebraska keep an eye on the ACC/Big Ten Challenge? And exactly who will represent the Mountain West in the MWC/Missouri Valley Challenge?

Realignment also will create an interesting numbers game for schedule-makers next season, particularly in the league-vs.-league showdowns.

The ACC/Big Ten Challenge may have the easiest road when both conferences have 12 teams next season. Since ACC expansion, one ACC team has had to sit out the challenge each year (this season, it's Miami).

Choices won't be so simple in the rest of the leagues. The departures of Colorado and Nebraska will flip the tables for Big 12 and Pac-10 in scheduling. Washington and USC volunteered to play two games this season to ensure every Big 12 team participates in the event. Next season, the tables will be turned, with 10 teams in the Big 12 facing a dozen Pac-12 teams.

And despite plenty of potential for intriguing matchups between the leagues' 28 teams, the SEC/Big East Invitational continues to field a mere four games. This season's participants include NCAA tournament absentees Auburn, Arkansas, Rutgers and Seton Hall. With matchups like that, the event may not last another season.

Meanwhile, the second-year challenge between the Missouri Valley and Mountain West conferences has the MVC wondering just who it will face next season. Utah is gone from the Mountain West (to the Pac-12). Boise State, Fresno State and Nevada are in. BYU may be out.

But those are decisions for another day. Here's a look at the storylines and matchups for this season's conference challenges.

Big 12/Pac-10 Hardwood Series

Schedule
Nov. 27: USC at Nebraska
Dec. 2: Missouri at Oregon, UCLA at Kansas, Arizona State at Baylor
Dec. 3: Kansas State at Washington State
Dec. 4: Oregon State at Colorado, California at Iowa State, Texas Tech at Washington
Dec. 5: Texas at USC, Oklahoma at Arizona
Dec. 11: Washington at Texas A&M
Dec. 21: Stanford at Oklahoma State


Best game: Washington at Texas A&M. In a dozen games between these power conferences, only one features two NCAA tournament teams from last season. (That's what happens when the Pac-10 only has two teams in the field.) Texas A&M loses Bryan Davis and Donald Sloan, and Washington loses Quincy Pondexter. Despite those departures, both teams will stick to their bread-and-butter - Washington with its up-tempo, pressing style and Texas A&M with its defense-first approach. The Aggies will be motivated to win the game for Derrick Roland, who suffered a horrific broken leg in this game last season.
The next-best: UCLA at Kansas, Arizona State at Baylor
Upset alert: USC over Texas
Predicted winner: Big 12, 8-4 (Last season: Big 12, 9-3)
The buzz: If the pairings look familiar, they should. The entire challenge is a series of home-and-home games. The series is identical to last season other than last season's home teams are playing on the road and vice versa. A major reason Kansas could be a top-five team and UCLA remains in rebuilding mode is the 2008 signing class. UCLA had the top class, while Kansas' was ranked second. But the Bruins have only two players and one starter (Malcolm Lee) remaining from that class. On the other hand, Kansas' class included an All-America candidate (Marcus Morris) and a two-year starter (Tyshawn Taylor). How will Oregon's crowd, one of the rowdiest in the Pac-10, welcome Missouri coach Mike Anderson to McArthur Court (Matthew Knight Arena is not scheduled to open until Jan. 13)? Before hiring Dana Altman, Oregon attempted to hire Anderson from Mizzou before the Tigers' coach declined the offer. Anderson, unlike Tom Izzo, Billy Donovan or Jamie Dixon, appeared to be one of Oregon's more realistic candidates. Coming off a 7-10 late-season collapse last season, Texas will face better non-conference competition than USC in the 2K Sports Classic. But the road trip to USC could be a good opportunity for the Longhorns (and freshman point guard Cory Joseph) to build chemistry and confidence on the road. Texas will need it before facing North Carolina in Greensboro, N.C., on Dec. 18 and Michigan State in East Lansing, Mich., on Dec. 22. The meeting between Arizona State and Baylor could feature plenty of 3-pointers. The Bears' LaceDarius Dunn hit 116 3s last season, and the Sun Devils' Rihards Kuksiks hit 81. That's about the only similarities between Baylor's up-tempo game and Arizona State's halfcourt game. Arizona State controlled the pace but lost the game 64-61 at home last season. First-year Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg gets a favorable draw at home against California. The Bears are the Pac-10 regular-season champions in name only. Guard Jorge Gutierrez is the team's returning leader in scoring (5.5), rebounding (3) and assists (2.7). Washington State guard Klay Thompson will try to answer for a poor performance last season against Kansas State. He scored 22 points, but he went 5-of-15 from the field and turned the ball over nine times. The Texas Tech-Washington game will be a rematch of the most exciting Big 12/Pac-10 game a year ago. The Red Raiders upset No. 10 Washington 99-92 in overtime last season. Texas Tech guard John Roberson had 25 points and seven assists against the Huskies last season. If this were football, Oklahoma at Arizona would be brother (Bob Stoops) vs. brother (Mike Stoops).

ACC/Big Ten Challenge

Schedule
Nov. 29: Virginia at Minnesota
Nov. 30: Iowa at Wake Forest, Georgia Tech at Northwestern, Ohio State at Florida State, Michigan at Clemson, North Carolina at Illinois
Dec. 1: Indiana at Boston College, N.C. State at Wisconsin, Purdue at Virginia Tech, Michigan State at Duke, Maryland at Penn State


Best game: Michigan State at Duke. This isn't just the best matchup of the conference challenges, but it could be the best game before conference play begins. Only Butler stood between a Michigan State-Duke title game last season. The Blue Devils and Spartans may be No. 1 and No. 2 in the polls when the season begins. The point guard duel between Duke freshman Kyrie Irving and Michigan State senior Kalin Lucas may not be the juiciest matchup. Other contenders: Nolan Smith vs. Durrell Summers or Kyle Singler vs. Delvon Roe.
The next-best: Ohio State at Florida State, North Carolina at Illinois, Purdue at Virginia Tech
Upset alert: Virginia Tech over Purdue
Predicted winner: Big Ten, 6-5 (Last season: Big Ten, 6-5)
The buzz: Last season, the Big Ten won the challenge for the first time since the event started in 1999. Wisconsin defeated Duke last season for the Blue Devils' first loss in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. North Carolina and Illinois are playing for only the second time since the 2005 national championship game and the first time since the Illini's 68-64 win in the 2005 ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The Tar Heels and Illini can relate this season. Both are coming off disappointing seasons that ended in the NIT. Both expect to have a strong frontcourt (John Henson and Harrison Barnes for North Carolina, Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale for Illinois) while seeking consistency at point guard. Ohio State and Florida State have supporting casts that must step into a void left by star players (Evan Turner and Solomon Alabi). Between the Seminoles' Chris Singleton, Michael Snaer and Derwin Kitchen and the Buckeyes' William Buford, David Lighty and Jared Sullinger, this game will feature the most talent in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge outside of Michigan State-Duke. The game against Wisconsin will be an important barometer for North Carolina State freshmen C.J. Leslie, Lorenzo Brown and Ryan Harrow. They are expected to carry the Wolfpack this season, but they will face an experienced Badgers team that doesn't lose often in Madison. Virginia Tech missed out on the NCAA tournament in each of the past two seasons in part because of a soft non-conference schedule. The Hokies at least play somebody before ACC schedule begins when they play host to Purdue, a likely top-five team. First-year coaches will meet when Iowa (Fran McCaffery) visits Wake Forest (Jeff Bzdelik). If only the ACC/Big Ten Challenge counted for an NCAA tournament berth. Northwestern has won three of its past four games in the event - over NC State last season, Florida State in 2008 and Miami in 2006. This season, Northwestern and its opponent are dealing with untimely departures. Kevin Coble left the Wildcats to focus on academics, while Georgia Tech big men Derrick Favors and Gani Lawal left for the draft.

MOUNTAIN WEST/MISSOURI VALLEY CHALLENGE

Schedule
Dec. 1: BYU at Creighton, Drake at Colorado State, New Mexico at Southern Illinois, UNLV at Illinois State
Dec. 4: Indiana State at Wyoming, Northern Iowa at TCU, Utah at Bradley, Wichita State at San Diego State
Dec. 5: Evansville at Air Force


Best game: Wichita State at San Diego State. This is mid-major gold. The Shockers and Aztecs likely go into the season as favorites in their respective leagues. Wichita State lost only one key player (Clevin Hannah) off a 25-10 team last season. A key for the Shockers this season is playing better n the road; they went 17-1 at home and 5-7 in true road games last season. San Diego State returns the top five scorers from a team that won the MWC tournament. Kawhi Leonard nearly averaged a double-double as a freshman.
The next-best: BYU at Creighton, UNLV at Illinois State
Upset alert: TCU over Northern Iowa
Predicted winner: Mountain West, 6-3 (Last season: Missouri Valley, 5-4)
The buzz: The conference preseason players of the year could face off in the BYU-Creighton game. Cougars guard Jimmer Fredette led the Mountain West in scoring last season (22.1 points per game). Bluejays center Kenny Lawson Jr. led the MVC in blocks (50) while averaging 13.1 points and 6.8 rebounds. Without Ali Farokhmanesh, Adam Koch and Jordan Eglseder, Northern Iowa is rebuilding around guard Kwadzo Ahelegbe and Lucas O'Rear. The Panthers will be tested on the road. TCU may not threaten for a postseason berth, but the Horned Frogs are well-coached under Jim Christian and have a standout point guard in Ronnie Moss. The Mountain West sent four teams to the NCAA tournament last season. Two of those - New Mexico and UNLV - face important road tests. The Lobos must replace Darington Hobson, while the Rebels still are deciding the fate of leading scorer Tre'von Willis, who faces two felony charges. UNLV and New Mexico are playing mid-level MVC teams in Illinois State and Southern Illinois, respectively. The MVC's Missouri State, projected to be a league title contender, is not in the field.

SEC/Big East Invitational

Schedule
Dec. 8 in Louisville: Arkansas vs. Seton Hall, Kentucky vs. Notre Dame
Dec. 11 in Pittsburgh: Rutgers vs. Auburn, Tennessee at Pittsburgh


Best game: Tennessee at Pittsburgh. Jamie Dixon and Bruce Pearl did two of the better coaching jobs in the country last season. Dixon led Pittsburgh to 25 wins despite the loss of DeJuan Blair, Sam Young and Levance Fields. Pearl adjusted his philosophy to abandon the press when the Volunteers dismissed star forward Tyler Smith and suspended three others in early January. The Vols are rebuilding around junior guard Scotty Hopson, who was a five-star prospect out of high school. Pittsburgh is waiting for a McDonald's All-American of its own to develop in sophomore forward Dante Taylor.
The next-best: Kentucky vs. Notre Dame
Upset alert: Arkansas over Seton Hall
Predicted winner: None, 2-2 tie (Last season: Tied, 2-2).
The buzz: The future of this event is in doubt, and it's not hard to figure out the reason. The leagues have a combined 28 teams, but there are just four games. The Kentucky-Notre Dame game features new faces all around. John Calipari continues to cycle through one-and-done players with freshmen Enes Kanter, Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones stepping in for five UK draftees. Tim Abromaitis and Ben Hansbrough are back for Notre Dame, but the Irish are without star big man Luke Harangody. Two new coaches will face each other when Rutgers' Mike Rice and Auburn's Tony Barbee meet in Pittsburgh. The game will be a homecoming of sorts for Rice, who led Robert Morris - located in suburban Pittsburgh - to NCAA tournament appearances in each of the past two seasons. Arkansas-Seton Hall will feature two guards not shy about shooting the 3-pointer. The Pirates' Jeremy Hazell attempted the most 3s in the nation last season with 290, making 98. The Razorbacks' Rotnei Clarke was more efficient, connecting on 100 of his 234 attempts.

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.



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