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ACC Has a Big Tendency to Fail

Intriguing results from the only ACC/Big Ten Challenge that matters: Michigan State 78, Duke 68.

Wisconsin 65, North Carolina State 56.

That happened Friday night in the third round of the NCAA tournament, one night after top-seeded Illinois disposed of Wisconsin Milwaukee, leading us to another fascinating ACC/Big Ten stat: Number of teams advancing to the Elite Eight: Big Ten 3, ACC 1.

And that was with North Carolina surviving Villanova’s attempts to conjure the spirit of ’85, needing an officiating assist -- did Allan Ray walk on that last-second drive to the basket? -- to tiptoe past the upset-minded Wildcats, 67-66.

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With 11.6 seconds remaining and Villanova trailing by three, Wildcat guard Ray took an inbounds pass, weaved his way into the lane, split two defenders and flipped the ball into the basket as he was bumped by North Carolina’s Rashad McCants. Score? And a foul? And a chance to tie it at 66-all?

Not so fast. Ray was whistled for traveling, negating the play, despite television replay evidence suggesting the basket should have counted.

By that much, the ACC squeezed a single representative into the fourth round.

As for the Big Ten, well, yes, everybody said it was a down season for that conference.

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The big tournament is down to its last eight contenders, and the Big Ten has three of them.

Further proof that the RPI conference rankings are useful at this stage of the tournament only for dicing for confetti to be used on championship final night.

When this competition began, the Big Ten was only sixth in the RPI conference rankings -- and that was with Illinois, the top-ranked team in the nation. Ranked ahead of the Big Ten were:

* The Atlantic Coast Conference, home of highly regarded Duke, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech, all of them ousted by the end of the third round. Elite Eight representatives: One, an extremely shaken, and somewhat fortunate, North Carolina.

* The Pacific 10, home of the Albuquerque Regional’s top-seeded squad, Washington, which vacated the regional Thursday. Elite Eight representatives: One, Arizona, which plays Illinois today in Chicago.

* The Big 12, home of Kansas, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, all seeded third or higher. Elite Eight representatives: Zero.

* The Big East, home of highly publicized Connecticut, Syracuse and Boston College, all out by the end of the first weekend. Elite Eight representatives: One, West Virginia, seeded seventh in the Albuquerque Regional.

* The Southeastern Conference, home of Kentucky, which buys any conference a permanent stash of prestige, along with such usual suspects as LSU, Mississippi State and Alabama. Elite Eight representatives: One, Kentucky, which advanced Friday by doing what it always does in the NCAA tournament against Utah -- win. Kentucky and Utah have met six times in the last 13 years in the tournament, the Wildcats winning on each occasion. This time the score was 62-52.

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Meanwhile, the supposedly slump-ridden Big Ten has three teams still bidding for the Final Four. And with each remaining Big Ten rep situated in a different regional, the Big Ten still stands a chance to equal the Big East’s 1985 feat of placing three teams in the Final Four.

Today, Illinois, the winningest single-season team in Big Ten history, is favored to defeat Arizona in the Albuquerque Regional final.

Sunday, No. 5 Michigan State will face No. 2 Kentucky in the Austin Regional final, and No. 6 Wisconsin will take on No. 1 North Carolina in the Syracuse Regional.

Michigan State and Wisconsin will be underdogs again, which, considering the events of this tournament, has to be discouraging news for Kentucky and North Carolina.

Friday, Wisconsin trailed North Carolina State by nine points at halftime after a first 20 minutes so nervous and error-ridden, Badger Coach Bo Ryan told his players he was embarrassed for them.

“Sometimes when young men get into this,” Ryan said in a postgame interview with CBS, “they get a little anxious. Those turnovers we had in the first half, I had to read the uniforms again, on the front, and say, ‘Guys, at halftime here now, I’m not worried about me being embarrassed as a coach. I’m embarrassed for you guys. Now this is not the way we play.” North Carolina State discovered that in the second half, which featured a game-turning 13-0 Badger run.

Duke, however, never could solve its turnover problems against Michigan State. The Blue Devils made 22 of them, the Spartans converting the miscues directly into 29 points.

Of course, most of the country still considers the Big Ten a football conference, and a conservative one at that. Different sport here, but old habits die hard. If the Elite Eight is basketball’s version of the red zone, the Big Ten is pretty much where you’d expect it to be. Getting ready to go for three.

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