It's time for the second installment of everyone's favorite made-for-television college basketball miniseries, the ACC-Big LTC East Challenge, and just as with last year's premiere edition, the reviews on its worth are mixed from the conferences' coaches.
The ESPN-generated series, which matches the top eight seeds in the Big East against their opposite numbers in the Atlantic Coast Conference, was designed to put to rest the controversy over which conference is the best.
Since last year's series ended in a flat-footed 4-4 tie, with many of the games played in half-empty arenas, very little was settled, including whether there is any benefit to playing the games at all.
The 16 coaches who will participate in next week's four doubleheaders at Richmond, Va., Syracuse, N.Y., the Capital Centre and Chapel Hill, N.C., came together electronically yesterday for a telephone news conference to plug the series. Their only unity was in their disagreement over whether there is a purpose to the Challenge -- besides the money, of course.
The breakdown seemed to fall along the predictable class lines, as the have-nots of the two leagues lobbied for the merit of the series.
"I think it's a great idea," said new Virginia coach Jeff Jones, who will meet Pittsburgh in the Challenge opener Monday night at Richmond Coliseum. "Initially, I wasn't in favor of it, but based on the success, I think it's a good thing and it should continue."
"I liked it last year until Connecticut beat us by 30," said Maryland's Gary Williams, who will meet Boston College at Richmond Monday. "The fans talk about the game. The players love the idea. It's good."
"You have two particular leagues who get national attention and now they're getting more," said St. John's Lou Carnesecca, who will face Georgia Tech Wednesday at the Capital Centre.
On the other side are those who have traditionally had the wealth of talent. They complained about the intrusion that having to play tough early-season contenders makes on their plans to roll into conference play in January undefeated.
"We traditionally play a difficult schedule and this is something that really doesn't help us," said North Carolina's Dean Smith, whose Tar Heels will take on Connecticut in the closing game Thursday on their home floor.
Even among coaches from the same conference, there was no thread of agreement. Connecticut's Jim Calhoun suggested that since the series was in prime time on the nation's top sports cable network, the coaches and teams could derive only benefits from the games.
"I'm a hoops junkie and when I turn on the television, I'm going to tune in and watch whoever's on. It's a week that you have ACC-Big East basketball and you dominate the media. Anytime you can dominate the media -- at least, in terms of the kids -- it's great, especially for recruiting," said Calhoun.
When appraised of that view, Georgetown's John Thompson, who has been the most vocal opponent of the Challenge, snapped, "I think that's a bunch of bull, to be frank."
With prices scaled down to the $20-$25 range, the ticket-buying public seems to have an improved opinion of the series from last year, when tickets were $30 and vast numbers of empty seats were seen in Greensboro, the site of two doubleheaders.
This year, early ticket sales have been promising for all sites. ACC and Big East officials said The Smith Center in Chapel Hill, where Villanova and Wake Forest will play in Thursday's opener, is within 400 seats of a sellout.
The Capital Centre sold out the day tickets were made available, thanks to the twin attractions of Georgia Tech's Kenny Anderson and a showdown between Duke and Georgetown, on the Hoyas' home court.
The news isn't quite so rosy at Syracuse and Richmond. The Carrier Dome, which will host the games between North Carolina State and the Orangemen and Clemson and Seton Hall, has sold 26,000 of the possible 33,000 seats, while the Richmond Coliseum is about 2,300 tickets shy of the 10,000 capacity.