RIP: ACC-Big East Challenge -- it was a lot of fun while it lasted

December 08, 1991|By Ron Green | Ron Green,Knight-Ridder News Service

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- We've seen Duke's Grant Hill run up air stairs, take a lob pass from Bobby Hurley and slam it down so hard the cords smoked.

We've seen St. John's coach Louie Carnesecca on the sidelines, an elf wearing a sweater that looks like his drapes, writhe to the rhythm of the game like a man with a squirrel in his britches.

We've seen basketball-as-art the way Duke's Blue Devils play it when they're cooking. And basketball-as-martial-art the way Virginia and Georgetown went at each other so intensely before the Cavaliers took it, 76-66, in overtime.

Good stuff. But it's all best when it happens in a game that matters a lot, when power meets power, as it happened Thursday night in the Greensboro Coliseum where No. 1 Duke beat No. 7 St. John's, 91-81, in the last game of the ACC-Big East Challenge. Not when the loser is Monmouth or Eckerd or some other lamb.

Duke's victory over the Redmen was flat out a blowout of the sort you see when the Blue Devils play, say, East Carolina. It just didn't look like it. The score will fool you. St. John's was never in it, trailing by 31 at one time before Duke lost momentum and couldn't get it back.

But it was different. Duke knew it had hammered a good team, the team picked to win the Big East title this season, and St. John's knew it had lost to the deluxe model, the team favored to repeat as national champion this season.

Carnesecca said: "In every phase of the game, they dominated us. It would be my wish that we could play the way Duke does."

Good vs. good. That's why it's too bad the Challenge has ended.

The Challenge was a series that would make you turn your TV on and stay up late, four nights in a row. It was a players' and fans' delight, a feast of some of the best college basketball played.

But the Big East coaches didn't like it. ACC coaches voted unanimously in favor of it for three years running, but enough Big East coaches were against it to get it killed.

"We're not excited about continuing the Challenge," is the way it was put by the Big East, according to Tom Mickle, an ACC assistant commissioner. The ACC said, "OK, we're not anxious to continue if you're not all for it."

The NCAA has lopped one game off everybody's schedule, leaving 27 in the regular season, and has decreed that nobody can play before Dec. 1. The Big East used those changes as reasons for ducking out. Pardon this skeptic, but a more believable reason is that the Big East coaches simply don't want these big games in early season. And they especially don't want anyone telling them whom they have to play.

Georgetown's John Thompson, who owned wins over Duke and North Carolina in this series before losing Thursday to Virginia, pointed out that he has said from the start he didn't want to play the Challenge.

"I said I was not for this, but I also said if the majority of coaches wanted it, I'd participate and cooperate. I'm one man, one vote.

"Everybody jumps around and says it's me. Haven't we shown up and played hard? Somebody else changed their mind, didn't they? Ask some of those hypocrites [other Big East coaches] what they think?

"We're not afraid to play anybody, and we're not afraid not to play anybody."

The ACC is looking into a similar series with the Big Ten, but it doesn't look promising.

After three years, these two killer conferences wound up dead even, 12 wins apiece. The ACC won six of eight games this year.

"I loved this Challenge," Virginia's Bryant Stith said. "All the players really loved it. It was a chance to showcase our talents against some of the best. It's something we can look back on and really cherish."

D8 He speaks for all of us who like our basketball hot.

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