The slate for the 2011 ACC-Big Ten Challenge was released yesterday, and instead of pairing two of the three overwhelming favorites to make the Final Four in Carolina and Ohio State, the Tar Heels will play Wisconsin in Chapel Hill while the Buckeyes face Duke in Columbus. So why aren't we seeing the Jared Sullinger vs. Harrison Barnes matchup people have been salivating about since the East Regional?
A couple of reasons, in fact. Whoever arranges the game – it's always been a little unclear how much input the conferences, coaches and ESPN have, but the coaches don't have much – has always shied away from the biggest possible game. Note that UNC and Illinois didn't meet in 2004, and Duke faced unranked Indiana and Wisconsin in their hyped years of 2005 and 2009. The 2008 game between the Heels and Michigan State was the rare game where the preseason picks for each conference were set against one another. It's better for all involved if the top teams don't meet, as it spreads the marquee teams around to more games, and keeps the odds of conference titans being upended comfortably low. So you see a lot of rematches from the previous tournament, but not so much the likely big games of next March.
Second, there's the alternating home-and-away system the challenge tries to adhere to, if not religiously. UNC and Ohio State were both on the road last season, while Duke and Wisconsin both had home games. So while this doesn't mean the Buckeyes and Carolina will never meet in November – Duke played the Badgers a mere two years ago – they weren't going to hit one of the big names with two road games in two years.
So UNC gets the excrutiatingly-slow Badgers, a team that will have lost most of its front court to graduation and will be heavily reliant on guards Jordan Taylor and Josh Gasser. It will, if nothing else, be good preparation for the ACC season, which looks outside of the Heels to be slower and more guard-focused next season. Wisconsin won't be the largest threat on Carolina's fall schedule, however, and UNC should be able to run them out of the Dean Dome handily. This will be only the fifth team UNC has faced in the thirteen years of the challenge, by the way. The previous twelve have been split among Michigan State (4 times), Illinois (4), Indiana (2) and Ohio State (2). That's the peril of so often being at the top; you see the same faces every year.