Five years ago, it was considered fantasy. Three years ago, it became made-for-television reality. After this week, the ACC-Big East Challenge will be history.
The question isn't whether this eight-game college basketball series has lived up to its billing. It has exceeded most expectations, turning some opponents of the concept into fans.
"This is the week that the ACC and Big East take over college basketball in the country," said Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins. "I hope everyone realizes what we're giving up."
The question is this: Why is the series being scrapped?
Was it merely a luxury left over from the extravagant 1980s, ill-fit for these times when intercollegiate sports are concerned with cutting costs and reducing athletes' playloads? Or did Big East coaches, never advocates of the idea in the first place, merely take their ball and go home?
No matter the reasons, this year's series, which will begin tonight in Hartford, Conn., and end Thursday in Greensboro, N.C., will be the last between the two powerful conferences. This, despite a contract with ESPN that was to have run through next year.
"There were scheduling problems, with the reduction of games, with the NCAA's moving the start of the season back to Dec. 1 and with exams, but our people didn't seem to care," ACC commissioner Gene Corrigan said last week. "All the problems could be worked out."
But they won't, at least not with the Big East. Its coaches and athletic directors voted this fall to end the series, and the ACC already has held preliminary discussions with the Big Ten to begin a similar format. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said recently that a possible series against the ACC couldn't start until the 1993-94 season.
Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese said last week that his coaches -- particularly Georgetown's John Thompson -- shouldn't shoulder the blame for the demise of the series. Tranghese said that athletic directors simply rejected another scheduling change.
"John is being postured as the reason that this is happening, and that's absurd," said Tranghese. "I have been on the job 17 months, and I have not spoken about this with John. The biggest problem we have are the dates."
Tranghese said the Big East originally agreed to play the series during the second week of December, but moved it to the first week to accommodate the ACC and ESPN. When the NCAA mandated that the season start two weeks later in 1992, it meant that some teams would have to jump right into high-level competition.
There were other hang-ups. The addition of Miami this season to the Big East meant an additional two conference games. Though the ACC faced a similar situation with Florida State, it has nine teams compared with the Big East's 10. This year, Miami and Boston College will sit out, as will Clemson. It marks the second time in three years that B.C. will be left watching.
"The people that have been left out have come back to us and told us how much they disliked it," said Tranghese.
But those who have played in the event generally have liked it. Some wanted it from the start. Others, such as Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, grew to enjoy it because of the success their teams have had. And a few, such as St. John's coach Lou Carnesecca, begrudgingly went along with it.
"For the fans and for the players, it's great," said Carnesecca, whose top-seeded Redmen will play top-ranked Duke on Thursday night in Greensboro. "For the coaches, they'd rather play the Little Sisters of the Poor."
Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said that, among his Big East brethren, only he and Seton Hall's P. J. Carlesimo voted for the series to continue when polled by Tranghese last summer.
But, at least publicly, Thompson is the lone major dissenter. Despite a pair of victories, over North Carolina and Duke, Thompson is as vigorously opposed to it as he was at its inception.
"I think being called a critic is a media term, but I didn't approve of it," Thompson said last week from Hawaii, where his Hoyas were tuning up for their game against Virginia this Thursday by playing two NAIA schools, Hawaii Loa and Hawaii Pacific. "I didn't like the effect it had on us emotionally during the first semester. It's a high price to pay."
Speaking of prices, that's the one area for which the series has taken some heat from fans. After tickets went for $30 a doubleheader at all four sites two years ago, the conferences were criticized for gouging in some economically depressed markets. This year, tickets range from $18 to $30.
But prices aside, the first two years of the series have presented some terrific basketball, not to mention making for wonderful theater. The inaugural series was heart-pounding from start to finish, featuring one overtime game and three others that weren't decided until the final buzzer.
After the conferences split two years ago, the Big East dominated last season, winning six of the eight games.
One aspect that never fully developed was the idea of the ACC vs. the Big East. The styles of the conferences are still quite distinct, but it was more a matchup of top-ranked teams than of top-flight conferences.
"The overall pride factor [for the conferences] is not really there," said Cremins. "I couldn't tell you who won. It's more a personal thing."
Calhoun said, "When you throw the ball up, you're not out there trying to win for the Big East vs. the ACC, you're there to win for yourselves."
ACC-Big East Challenge
At Hartford, Conn.: Wake Forest vs. Connecticut, 7 p.m.; N.C. State vs. Pittsburgh, 9:30 p.m.
At Atlanta: Florida State vs. Syracuse, 7 p.m., Georgia Tech vs. Villanova, 9:30 p.m.
At East Rutherford, N.J.: Maryland vs. Providence, 7 p.m.; North Carolina vs. Seton Hall, 9:30 p.m.
At Greensboro, N.C.: Virginia-Georgetown, 7 p.m.; Duke-St. John's, 9:30 p.m.
Challenge at a glance
TEAM RECORDSGeorgetown......... 2-0
Seton Hall......... 2-0
Boston College..... 1-0
Duke....... ....... 1-1
Georgia Tech....... 1-1
North Carolina..... 1-1
N.C. State......... 1-1
St. John's......... 1-1
Wake Forest........ 0-2
Big East........... 10-6
ACC...... ......... 6-10