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McFarling: Stakes soar in this version of ACC/Big Ten challenge
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McFarling: Stakes soar in this version of ACC/Big Ten challenge

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Virginia Tech’s Tyrece Radford drives to the basket between North Carolina’s Anthony Harris (bottom) and Armando Bacot (center) during UNC’s win in the ACC quarterfinals last week. The Tar Heels play in one of two potentially illuminating coin-flip games Friday between ACC and Big Ten teams.

Millions of fans are likely to tune in for Friday’s first-round NCAA Tournament game between No. 9 seed Wisconsin and No. 8 seed North Carolina — a battle of huge basketball brands.

You would assume far fewer will stick around for the game later that night between No. 10 seed Rutgers and No 7 seed Clemson.

But those two games actually have a lot in common: These Big Ten-ACC matchups are virtual coin flips in the oddsmakers’ eyes, and they could tell us a lot about how the rest of the tournament will unfold.

If Wisconsin and Rutgers both win, just go ahead and pencil at least three Big Ten teams into the Final Four. The conference is that good, that deep, that legitimate from top to bottom if Wisconsin can defeat one of the ACC’s hottest teams and Rutgers can upend the squad that earned the third-highest seed in the ACC.

And if UNC and Clemson should win? Well, every ACC team in the field should feel a lot better about its own chances of advancing. And all of us who picked Big Ten heavyweights to populate the Final Four might start getting a little nervous.

The ACC had a right to feel disrespected by the NCAA Tournament selection committee. The league champion, Georgia Tech, got a No. 9 seed despite entering the tournament on an eight-game winning streak. Virginia Tech was nationally ranked for months yet only reaped a No. 10 seed. Louisville was left out altogether.

But here’s the thing: The oddsmakers apparently don’t feel any better about the ACC than the selection committee did. Rutgers is a 1.5-point favorite against Clemson despite returning to the field for the first time in 30 years. Loyola-Chicago, which went 0-1 against ranked opponents this season, is a 3.5-point favorite over the Yellow Jackets in their 8/9 matchup. And Wisconsin is only a 1.5-point underdog against UNC.

Let’s look a little closer at Wisconsin’s resume, shall we? The Badgers (17-12) enter the tournament having lost four of their past five games, with their lone victory over that span being a one-point squeaker over lowly Penn State.

Eight of their 11 victories against Big Ten opponents (including the conference tournament) came against Northwestern, Nebraska, Minnesota, Indiana and Penn State — the five teams from that conference that missed the NCAA Tournament field.

So why is Wisconsin a No. 9 seed? Largely because the Badgers play in the nation’s best conference. Never mind that they lost most of their games against the beasts of that league — Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, Purdue and Ohio State. The simple fact that they played them meant something to the committee.

Same with Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights got nice December wins against Illinois and Purdue before opening January with a five-game losing streak. The luxury of playing in the Big Ten meant they got a crack at a top-10 opponent almost every other game.

Is Maryland any good? I don’t think so, and I graduated from there. The Terrapins (16-13) got into the bracket as a No. 10 seed primarily on the wings of wins over Illinois and Purdue and a strength of schedule that ranks 14th nationally. Again, the Big Ten has its benefits.

In fairness, the ACC long has been in the position the Big Ten holds now, with its lower-level teams getting a perception boost because of the heft at or near the top of the standings. It mattered more this season because teams had fewer opportunities to prove themselves in nonconference games. That led to more homogenous schedules, where league perception meant more than ever.

Now, though, it matters not. They’re about to tip off. And we’re left with an exciting mystery: Just how good are these teams when they leave their own home bases?

Friday’s quasi-ACC/Big Ten Challenge will begin to unravel it.

Contact sports columnist Aaron McFarling at 540-981-3423 or aaron.mcfarling@roanoke.com.

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