Elevate, Simba: Geopolitics, Economic Warfare and the Big Ten/ACC Challenge

On conference rivalries, huge amounts of money, made-for-TV spectacle, and other jests of varying length.
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The War Room consisted of one jet black, 52-inch, high-definition Samsung television, its cable receiver, subwoofer, and stereo sound system—whose two-tiny-boxes-upon-poles, positioned as they are so that noises they emit creep in from your peripherals, at first listening put your war correspondent on such edge that one would have thought they were heads on a pike rather than pretty benign pieces of quality home entertainment equipment—paired in conjunction with twin blonde pine fold out TV tray tables, one of which bore an embarrassingly new MacBook Air1 while the other played host to your correspondent’s loose leaf array of notes and official, custom made Big Ten/ACC Challenge schedule/score card, which prominently featured a rendering of dueling squids, your correspondent’s semi-adroit allegory (the dueling cephalopod’s possession of eight arms apiece2 rather than the perfect-game mirroring five, which would have put my fathoms-deep struggle amongst Trailblazers logo-like levels of quasi-abstract hoops inspired art works3) for the basketball struggles being taken in, on both the large and small screens, from a rocking chair roughly twice as old as your correspondent.

All this was situated in the far eastern reaches of Big Ten country as we currently know it, halfway between Philadelphia and Reading in some kind of highway-cradling hinterland, the bleeding edge of the demilitarized zone before the Big Ten makes a second, harder push east next season, all the way to the sea. The conference, whose foundations as the Western Conference in 1896 makes it the nation’s oldest4, and whose Chicago home and thoroughly Midwestern/North Coast/Rust Belt consolidation of geographic power and stable—some might say stagnant—nature makes it among the most comforting, if roundly maligned from sexier climes, entities in American sport, had secured a beachhead in the extremely lucrative eastern seaboard with the admittance of Penn State in 1990. Even taking into consideration the recent acquisition of Nebraska, which could be considered a modest expansion at best—after all, only Notre Dame would fit better, academically, geographically, spiritually, and aesthetically, with the conference—the acquisition of legitimately eastern programs Rutgers and the University of Maryland is easily the most dramatic maneuver yet by the Big Ten to finally extend its sphere of influence from coast to coast, i.e., from Pasadena to Piscataway. 

The move outflanks the ACC, which had added unto its fold of predominantly Mid-Atlantic institutions Pittsburgh, which lays decidedly in Big Ten territory, and perennial desire Notre Dame (not in football). Rather than leaving the Lions stranded atop Mt. Nittany with two unaffiliated program to the west—programs, one must add, which had not had their hamstrings slashed by a power-drunk cartel5 spraying sanctions out of Indianapolis like an Uzi from the back of a dirt bike for infractions far beyond its scope, and into the hands of the State of Pennsylvania—the Big Ten secured schools to the east, providing the Lions with a mini-fiefdom which may one day generate the healthy partisanship the conference’s older, more entrenched rivalries have achieved. A kind of Big Ten East, so to speak. 

Of course, Pittsburgh and the Fighting Irish were not the only adds: With the Panthers came Syracuse and, in one more year, Louisville, finally completing the ACC’s slaughtering of the leviathan that was the Big East, its main rival for basketball supremacy on the Atlantic Seaboard, a dismantling which began with the annexations of Miami and Virginia Tech in 2004 and Boston College in 2005.6 Although it probably did not play a major role—instant access to the aforementioned East Coast media markets is the major role—your correspondent likes to think that the Maryland grab, in particular, was retaliatory on the Big Ten’s part; Notre Dame, sitting within Willis Tower sky deck view of Chicago, was an embarrassing loss, and the lifting of a Terps team that had been a founding member and ACC mainstay since 1953 was, in effect, the Big Ten pulling out its surprisingly massive dick and battering the upstart Atlantic side with it.

Despite the popular conception that the Big Ten is an aging lion akin to the ones guarding the Art Institute on Michigan Avenue, the conference is—as far as the business side of college athletics, i.e., the only side that matters, goes—more akin to, say, a rampaging elephant or a Bugatti Veyron with a cow catcher. In a January 2013 piece in Forbes, for example, the Big Ten conference had a total income of $310 million, in comparison to the ACC’s $293M or the much vaunted SEC’s paltry $270M7. Even with the SEC’s inevitable ascension (see footnote), the Big Ten still finds itself economically superior to the ACC, and with the geopolitical and economic moves solidified and the suits happy, it is time to appease the students. And so we have the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.

***

The Big Ten/ACC Challenge is perhaps the most famed direct attempt at answering, with blood and statistics, what fans of the college gridiron can only extrapolate from a smattering of games and bowl season: Which conference is the most powerful in the land? The Challenge is a proxy war, sound and fury and feats of athletics and aesthetics played out for victories over ideals held far closer to the chest of the public consciousness or loyal student/alumnus/fan than anyone one in the conference’s power structure of the NCAA itself. Survive and advance means nothing in economics; in economics, one must thrive.

Nevertheless, with the utter and increasingly obvious negligence from Top End College Athletics and the Cartel for the student-athletes under their aegis, a fluffing of the back end must be made for compensation; few things could be better suited to both diversion, true, proper, health competition, and just plain fucking entertainment than having arguably the nation’s two most powerful basketball conferences—seven of the then currently top 25 ranked teams played in the Challenge, and the conferences represented a full 50% of the top ten, including then-number one Michigan State—tilting vis-a-vis across primetime for hardwood supremacy. 

The 2013 iteration of the Challenge was its 15th; the ACC held the Commissioner’s Cup for the first 10 years of play, followed by a brief three-win streak by the Big Ten, with last year’s Challenge split (in the event of a tie, the Cup remains with the last victorious conference, making the Big Ten 2013’s de facto defending champs, if one considers the Cup’s current confines as the ultimate condition of victory). Most intriguing from a political standpoint was the inclusion of Maryland in the lineup, who would be competing against their soon-to-be brethren; the draw for the narrow minded sorts who cared only for the athletic side of things could be drawn in by a top 25 match-up pitting Duke against Michigan and then-top-ranked Spartans against wildly erratic North Carolina. 

These two marquee match ups were split smartly across the format, which ran thusly: The 12 games were split across two days, with each day featuring two flights of three games apiece; the games in the early flights on ESPN and ESPN2 would begin at 7:15, with a staggered 7:30 start time on ESPNU for the other; the late triad would tip at 9:15 and 9:30. The congruent nature of the schedule was why the War Room was armed with two screens; one game, the most interesting, would run on the Samsung, while the other was streamed online (your correspondent could have acquired another device for simultaneous consumption of all three contests, but was, quite frankly, already feeling rather ridiculous keeping track of two at once, never mind being even able to manage three; thankfully, the 15 minute staggered start often lined up near perfectly with the first two game’s halftimes, leaving a nice little hole, gifted from the scheduler, into which to nestle some more extensive third game observation).

***

Indiana’s trip to the Carrier Dome to take on Syracuse—whose sideline reads NEW YORK’S COLLEGE TEAM, even if they did want to kill their holy cathedral in NEW YORK’S MEDIA MARKET—was the first to grace the big screen; Penn State and Pittsburgh, by virtue of representing a once torrid but now predominantly dormant rivalry, assumed the second slot; Georgia Tech and Illinois were relegated to commercial check-ins and occasional drop-ins.

It was obvious that the Orange simply had too much firepower for Indiana to contend with; even their miscues were spectacular, such as a blown alley-oop attempt which was swiftly rectified on the other end with a magnificent block. Indiana struggled to shoot over or get behind Syracuse’s 2-3 zone, and the orange jumped out to a 10-0 lead before the Hoosiers finally hit from the free throw line. Indiana would eventually make something of a game out of it, but Syracuse guards Trevor Cooney and Tyler Ennis’ 21- and 17-point efforts, respectively, would pave the way for an Orange win. Of note: forward Rakeem Christmas wears, of course, number 259.

Over in Pittsburgh, the Zoo shimmered and bopped in a riotous champagne cacophony, mocking their Keystone rivals with re-appropriations of the Nit’s beloved “We are …” cheer. They had come to attend a funeral; displayed on the walls of Pitt’s arena were tombstones demarcating the Panther’s victims thus far, a raw of pauper’s graves featuring such notable foes as Savannah State, Howard, and Duquesne, a lineage from which, admittedly, the Nittany Lions were not far afield. However, the Lions had a weapon in senior point guard Tim Frazier the likes of which the Panthers had not previously seen, and he proceeded to torch them—his lithe, muscular, 6-1 frame continuously cutting in and around the Pitt defense like a living linoleum knife—for 27 points, pacing Penn State to a slim lead with a little over five minutes to go. The Big Ten would not find first blood in this unlikely source, however, as the Panthers responded, reeling off an 11-3 run to close the game.

A loss in Atlanta to the Yellow Jackets meant that the ACC had swept day one’s early slate; the evening matches held the old league’s better chances, but they would need to win two of the three to assure that the ACC would not clinch with Northwestern’s inevitable mauling in Raleigh the next day. Michigan’s trip to Cameron Indoor was the linchpin of the opening night festivities, if not the entire Challenge, the only clash of top 25 ranked teams on a slate full of them. Where ESPN’s schedulers saw a marquee contest, however, your correspondent saw the meteor game incarnate. A meteor game is that most vexing of competitions wherein one wishes for both parties to loose, wherein one’s rooting interests lie in the slim possibility of a meteor falling from the heavens upon the proceedings. 

Grievances on the court quickly brought concerns back to the terrestrial; a clear shot clock violation which was subsequently deemed a Duke basket and a ball caroming off the not-petite frame of Marshall Plumlee being awarded to the Blue Devils made it clear that the old Tobacco Road bias, that patina of deity which paints Chapel Hill and Durham and which seems to manifest itself corporeally in an unusual amount of officiating decisions breaking for the Devils/Heels, was to be hobbling the Wolverines this evening. After Michigan’s Nik Stauskas tossed his lost sneaker to the Cameron Crazies, who lined the court baying like rabid adjules drenched in Smurf blood, your correspondent relegated the game to the small screen, admittedly for personal reasons10.

Duke would eventually prevail, but the night was not lost; it was with the Hawkeyes and Gophers that the Big Ten’s hopes lay. Iowa played host to Notre Dame in a bruising matchup which saw the efforts of Iowa’s Aaron White, who had ballerina tights and a black eye and hands which curled up like alabaster cobras at the charity stripe, or when he maneuvered his long, athletic pallor between Irish defenders; Roy Devyn Marble, who laced silky parabolas; and the cigarette slim, prodigiously smiled Jarrod Uthoff, juxtaposed by Irish center Garrick Sherman’s raw, ugly power and Moses’ burning bush of a beard. Iowa would eventually grind Notre Dame down for the Big Ten’s first win.

One would have to lash together White, Uthoff, and at least one more of Iowa’s skeletal roster to get constitute even an approximation of Florida State’s Michael Ojo, a colossal center from Nigeria whose shoulders could bear an entire cruise ship, yet who occasionally plays with a nonplussing, oddly endearing finesse; after he laid a drop-off pass into the basket, the announcers relayed a tale of Ojo’s reluctance to dunk. Apparently, where he played growing up had only one rim, which he treated with circumspect gentleness. Ojo and company were sacrificed upon the raised altar of The Barn, the Golden Gophers’ guard duo of Andre and Austin Hollins—as far as your correspondent can tell, unrelated—the leading scorers in a 10-point Minnesota win to send the conference into the locker room with some confidence.

***

Entering day 2 of the Challenge with a 4-2 lead, the ACC seemed primed to regain outright its title. With Northwestern’s defeat all but assured—and verily, the Wildcats would end up mauled by the Wolf Pack—the Big Ten would have to win every other match on the card for the comeback, or go 4-out-of-5 to tie. Wisconsin did their part in a brutal mire of a game at the University of Virginia. Bo Ryan’s Badgers held the Cavaliers to shooting 23% (!) from the floor and 38 points on the night, while the Cavaliers proved no paper bags themselves, availing themselves of a staunch pack line defense11 which kept Wisconsin’s own field percentage somewhere slightly south of 30%. “An ability to make any shot would come in handy for either team right now,” an announcer noted. The Badges eventually exsanguinated the Wahoos, proving the Big Ten’s superiority in the realm of ugly, obstinate, truculent hoops.

Meanwhile, in Columbus, Maryland peacocked about in front of its future mates, outfitted in black-on-black uniforms with screaming accents across their flanks and shoes, snatches of checkered or sable and argent and gules, trefoil bearing crosses drawn from the state flag, which itself draws upon the heraldic banner of the first Lord Baltimore, George Calvert12. They faced in Ohio State, one of their more highly regarded future peers, and, as they were yet one year early to joining the correct side in the ongoing conflict, were dispatched with.

Key to the Super Mario-esque shell stomping of the visiting Terrapins was Aaron Craft, whose tenacity and skill as a perimeter and one-on-one defender is regarded across the nation; Craft has, to use the parlance, a motor, with his being of a particularly high rev; one sees it in his play, of course, the hip pocket location, the ever shuffling feet, the ever probing hands, but it is most noticeable on his face, where red, angry blotches shaped like the Arab Peninsula bloom across his cheeks whenever he seems to be working hard, which, if the prominence and duration of the blotches is any indication, is always.

The Buckeyes entered the locker room at the half up by 17 off of a series of events which serve as a microcosm for their best ball: Craft set upon his man at the top of the arc with a savage pincering of arms; having devoured the poor soul like an ant lion, Craft passed, from on his back, the newly acquired ball to teammate Sam Thompson, who swept in on a break and authoritatively ended the play with a dunk (must have been fewer concerns for rims in Chicago). Maryland would close the gap at times in the second half, but the psychic damage had been done, and Ohio State notched another win for the suddenly back in it Big Ten.

Purdue ran over the struggling Boston College Eagles, while Nebraska, still freshly appointed vanguards of the western front, hosted the Hurricanes in the still sparkling new Pinnacle Bank Arena. The Huskers faithful, so exalted for their devotion and congeniality to the Black Shirts, turned out en masse for the event, a rollicking red sea that garnered comparisons to Cameron and Pittsburgh. They were on, dancing and clapping and bouncing about, haunting Miami’s Davon Reed—and later, Manu Lecomte—with whooping denigrations, air ball, air ball, air ball, whenever they touched the rock; the Huskers responded in kind, draining three pointers from the corn fields and holding against Miami, which was admittedly a ghost ship of its previous seasons’s self.

Nebraska’s fortitude would end up being the deciding factor in the outcome of The Challenge, as the Lincoln contingent managed to deadlock the series—and retain the Cup—for the Big Ten yet again. Any thoughts of winning the title outright had mostly been abandoned shortly after the tip in East Lansing; Roy Williams’ maddeningly erratic Tar Heels13 took the fight directly to State with the kind physicality one would expect from a Big Ten or Classic Big East team, belting Michigan State on the offensive boards from the opening minutes.

Big Body Kennedy Meeks, whose furrowed brow resembled nothing so much as venetian blinds, was dominant for the Heels, pouring in 15 points, good enough for team high in a score-by-committee effort, and contributing to the glass cleaning efforts mightily with teammate J. P. Tokoto, who lead the category. Not even the somewhat off-pace night for James Michael McAdoo, who has wonderfully faux-unkept hair a la the glass paneled penthouse ensconced Drake of the “I’m On One” video, and Marcus Paige, could not derail the well, railing, Roy Williams' crew laid down in Jack Breslin. 

When the baby blue dust had settled, North Carolina emerged with a 15-point victory and the Spartans had their first home loss to an unranked, non-conference foe in over a decade. Michigan State looked sluggish and, far worse, soft in the contest; Izzo would tell the media afterwards that it was “One of the more disappointing performances of my career here.”

***

Tom Izzo’s career, as illustrious as it may be, is not really what is at stake here, of course; that would be the pecking order of things on Pride Rock, w/r/t to athletics and dick measuring and even, yes, academics, but most importantly with economics, and the Big Ten had already licked the ACC in that regard, and would have even if every one of its teams had been caned off the court. In the money-making plantation system of Top End College Athletics, only TV contracts, bowl payouts, and staying far enough head of the Cartel to run afoul matter, all of which would be perfectly acceptable—well, minus the Cartel, of course—if the great, shining straw man of amateurism and academics were not continually foisted upon the consumers and, worse, the young men (we are talking revenue sports here, so, unfortunately, it is all men) upon whose blood, fragile ligaments and futures these millions were leveraged against.

The straw man sits so proudly upon his throne due to the system’s reliance on what are, essentially, youth; it is carried on the wide shoulders of athletes who are forever ensnared by the cruel, gossamer threads of sporting fate and, more frighteningly for the men making the money, ruled by the mercurial whims of the college aged mind. The blinds and maneuvering and One-Shining-Moment nepenthes must stay, because millions of dollars are at stake, and a paper lion is a difficult thing to protect. 

The Footnotes: Or, The Most Obvious Hint I Can Give For Readers Who Have Not Yet Figured Out This Is A David Foster Wallace Homage

1. The embarrassment in this case stemming not only from your correspondent’s natural demureness and desperate desire to not sound like he is flouting his new toy—although the solid state hard drive is, indeed, notably faster, and, being the main selling point for your correspondent, is highly recommended for your next machine, with the caveat that your correspondent hardly constitutes what one would consider a “computer guy,” by any means—but also how he came to find himself needing one. A can of Miller High Life, which had been assumed to be positioned safely away from the computer, proved itself to only be positioned safely away from the clumsy movements of man, not beast. When Maggie the pug dog, of rheumy eyes and distended tongue, was lifted into the lap before the computer and proceeded to uncharacteristically flail her tiny paws about, sending the beer onto the laptop and your correspondent into edge-of-tears histrionics.

2. Squids and cuttlefish generally have eight arms and two tentacles; octopuses have eight arms and no tentacles. While the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, in general, an arm is covered with suckers* upon most of their lengths, while tentacles posses them only near their ends. Those two long, whip-like appendages one sees giant squid dragging across the sides of sperm whale in imagination—and horror, one supposes—sparking dramatizations? Those are the tentacles.

*One hopes that “sucker” is the commonly accepted and used term among scientists.

3. If one is working with a very loose definition of the term “art.” (In application to the squid, not the Rip City hurricane.)

4. One would perhaps expect that the Ivy League, with many of its venerable institutions predating the nation itself, would be America’s oldest conference, but according to that sometimes-correct apocrypha-font Wikipedia, the term first came into use in The Christian Science Monitor in 1935, only becoming official with the establishment of the NCAA’s Division I in 1954.

5. The qualifications, as laid down by economics of sports teacher and hockey coach T.J. Manastersky for being a cartel: A cartel must demonstrate relevant control of a given market (check), the ability to monitor and control entities in said market (check), the ability to control entrances and exits into said market (check), and the ability to punish those in said market (big fucking-a right check).

6. The Big East was transubstantiated, and is now comprised of the Catholic schools from its original iteration.

7. The SEC’s new ESPN run personal television station will almost assuredly place it atop the Scrooge McDuck money pile within the next few years.

8. Civil Rights historian Taylor Branch, in a superb piece for The Atlantic, really revealed the term for the hyphenated horror it is, noting that student-athlete is, along with amateurism, are “legalistic confections propagated by the universities so they can exploit the skill and fame of young athletes.” A little later, he states that being designated as student-athletes “deprives them of their right to due process guaranteed by the Constitution.”

9. One would perhaps expect a joke here, but your correspondent does not know any good basketball forward jokes.

10. Those personal reasons being that he hates the two teams in question, hates every last thing about them, and he did not feel that the meteor was coming.

11. The pack line is sort of a conflation of the man-to-man defense and the zone, in that, while a player will go out to the perimeter to guard the ball, as in a man-to-man, the other will slough off, not coming above the pack line—generally, a few feet inside the three point line—in an effort to completely shield the area inside the pack line from penetration, spiritually similar to a zone. For this reason, it is also called a “sagging man-to-man” defense.

12. Interestingly, the yellow and black aspects of the flag come directly from the Calvert family, and were the only ones used during the colonial period; by the time of the Civil War, the checks had become synonymous with a state that, however reluctantly, had stayed in the union. In response, the Crossland arms were adopted by Confederate sympathizers as a sort of secondary flag for their home state. (All of this can be found on the Maryland Secretary of State website. The case almost certainly provides the most colorful and potentially blood-soaked example of vexillogy amongst the states.)

13. North Carolina, coming into East Lansing, had beaten the then third-ranked defending national champion Louisville Cardinals before losing to perennial mid-major power Belmont at home and, more shockingly, to the University of Alabama at Birmingham, albeit on the Blazers' home court; basically, the Heels season had hitherto tacked to the predictable as does your average methamphetamine addict.


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