As a fan, the joy of watching Indiana close out a very impressive win over North Carolina last night came with a surprising tinge of melancholy.
Not the real kind, to be clear, there are no real stakes in play. But knowing it was the last game ever in the decades-long run of the men’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge brought up some surprising feelings of nostalgia. Once the Big Ten bolted for Fox, CBS, and NBC in a move driven almost entirely by football rights, this event had zero chance of survival. Sure, ESPN is touting a replacement featuring conferences they’ll still have rights to going forward, but it’s not going to mean the same thing to anyone.
Here’s where it’s very fair for any of you reading this to be thinking, perhaps even mockingly shouting at your screen that it’s all a giant corporate ratings grab and feeling any amount of sentiment or nostalgia for it makes me a mark or an idiot.
Sure, fine, whatever. I’ll wear that, because there remained something charming to me about this event lasting as long as it did. It debuted in 1999, which is about 100 years ago in sports and media terms, emerging before streaming and megaconferences and Maryland defecting from one side to the other.
It was an ESPN brainstorm that lasted long enough to be a dinosaur; even if they’d maintained their current Big Ten rights, it would have been a pretty big departure from the original vision if a future version saw Notre Dame taking on USC in Los Angeles.
That said: what a run! So many silly things from the late ’90s are gone now, even just in the world of sports, that it’s incredible this one last long enough to give fans a proper example of why it was created in the first place. Getting top power conference teams playing head-to-head in late November/early December, a time when football usually dominates the calendar, and making a week of it?
A lot of the old preseason tournaments are gone. We still have Maui, thankfully, but staples like the preseason NIT and quirky second-tier events like the Great Alaska Shootout are no longer a thing. (On the men’s side, anyway.) Instead we have corporate-branded runs like the Phil Knight Invitational. (A fun event, sure, but limited to Nike schools and played without any tradition whatsoever in small neutral gyms.)
It’s actually more impressive that it lasted this long, though. Other made-for-TV college basketball ideas have come and gone (RIP BracketBusters, which was legitimately awesome and would be a tremendous thing to bring back if somehow feasible) in the interim, but every fall we were treated to the kinds of big games that could actually move the proverbial needle.
Even just for my own fandom, I’m not sure Assembly Hall has ever been louder than when Marco Killingsworth dunked against Duke in 2005, a sports moment I remember vividly and one that wouldn’t have happened without all the corporate bullshit that both brought the ACC/Big Ten Challenge into existence and then kept it going as long as it did.