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An Ode to the Big Ten-ACC Challenge

All Good Things Must Come to an End

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-East Regional-North Carolina vs Indiana Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Indiana has managed to put together a competitive non-conference schedule for the 2023-24 season, but there will be one noticeable absence: The Big-Ten ACC Challenge.

In the midst of losing its Big Ten TV rights, ESPN announced last year that it would be discontinuing the annual event in favor of a new ACC-SEC challenge, slated to begin this year. With the future of the ACC somewhat up in the air, it’s hard to say how long this new event will last.

Losing one basketball game from the yearly schedule isn’t the biggest deal in the broader context of the college athletics landscape, where conferences with decades of history are being dissolved for slightly bigger TV deals. That doesn’t mean I can’t mourn it though.

Beginning in 1999, the Showdown was the longest-running interconference event, regularly featuring some of the biggest matchups of the non-conference schedule. The Hoosiers lost their matchup with Syracuse in that inaugural matchup, setting the stage for what would be a 10-year ACC winning streak.

As a fan, I was never as interested in which conference won as I was in the individual matchups. Even in the down years, Indiana’s national brand meant that it was often paired with teams like Duke, North Carolina, and Syracuse.

1999-2022 was a particularly tumultuous period in Indiana’s history, featuring the end of the Knight era, some brief success under Mike Davis, the Kelvin Sampson fiasco, and then Crean, Archie, and Woodson in short order. This chaos is reflected in Indiana’s 9-13 record in the event for the 22 years it participated.

Some of those 13 losses stung. Losing to Duke in back to back years during the Archie era only served to cement the fact that Indiana was not playing like an elite college basketball program. Looking back, it’s also regrettable that Indiana lost its last opportunity to beat Jim Boeheim in the 2021 double-overtime thriller in the Carrier Dome.

However disappointing those games were, the Challenge also gave Indiana some of its most memorable wins in the last decade or so. After dominating the eventual champion Tar Heels in 2016, the Hoosiers shot up to no. 3 nationally, briefly erasing the sting of its earlier loss to Fort Wayne.

That game was the loudest, best atmosphere I’ve ever experienced personally at Assembly Hall and I’ll never forget the reaction in the building when OG Anunoby threw down this absurd alley oop to put the Hoosiers up 12 early.

Walking home from Assembly Hall that night, everyone was confident that Indiana was Back. People were lighting off fireworks across Bloomington like a national title was already a foregone conclusion.

Of course, the wheels ended up falling off that year when Anunoby got hurt and the ensuing free fall cost Tom Crean his job. Even having watched every game religiously, it’s hard to reconcile that the team I saw that November would have its season end with a road loss to Georgia Tech in the NIT.

The beauty of the Challenge, though, is precisely the way it energized the fanbase, no matter how bleak things looked. In year one of Archie’s tenure, a packed Assembly Hall kept Indiana competitive against a Duke team with a clear talent advantage. And there was another highlight reel oop that nearly brought down the house.

Last year’s 77-65 win over North Carolina was another example of everything good about the event. It wasn’t important to the fans that the Heels had lost two in a row entering the event; it was still a chance to go out and make a statement against another massive basketball brand and Assembly Hall acted accordingly.

Without the Challenge, it’ll probably be tough for Indiana to convince these teams to travel to Assembly Hall in the absence of a multi-year series like the Hoosiers have had against Kansas the last two years. That’s not to say it won’t happen, but it will probably be a little harder, logistically speaking.

The real shame is that the event had to end right as Indiana appears to have gotten some program momentum and stability under Mike Woodson, while Duke, North Carolina, and now Syracuse are left dealing with the retirement of their great coaches.

Though it’s far from the biggest tradition to be lost in the last few years of college sports, I could not let an event that’s brought me so much joy over the years fall through the cracks. College basketball is worse off without it and it will be hard to recreate the energy on campus that the event could inspire so early in the season.