The vision of an Iowa-North Carolina match-up in next winter's Big Ten-ACC Challenge proved to be just as much of a pipe dream as we feared it might (the Tar Heels will be tangling with Michigan State instead), but Notre Dame as a consolation prize in the Challenge? Yeah, that's not so bad at all.
The full pairings for the Big Ten-ACC Challenge were announced today by ESPN:
Tuesday, December 3rd
Florida State at Minnesota
Illinois at Georgia Tech
Indiana at Syracuse
Michigan at Duke
Notre Dame at Iowa
Penn State at Pittsburgh
Wednesday, December 4th
Boston College at Purdue
Maryland at Ohio State
Miami, FL at Nebraska
North Carolina at Michigan State
Northwestern at North Carolina State
Wisconsin at Virginia
Not all ACC teams are represented; with the additions of Syracuse, Pitt, and Notre Dame (in everything except football) as of the 2013-14 season, the ACC is sitting at 15 teams, while the Big Ten only has 12 teams. The Big Ten will add Rutgers and Maryland as of the 2014-15 season, while the ACC will replace Maryland with Louisville, so at that point only one ACC team will be left out of the Challenge each year. But this year that means Wake Forest, Clemson, and Virginia Tech are all sitting out the Challenge. Coincidentally (or, um, not), those were also the three-worst teams in the ACC last year. So yeah: retaining the Big Ten-ACC Challenge crown next year is going to be a tall task for the Big Ten.
The headline match-ups are Duke-Michigan (is it too much to hope for a Fab Five reunion at that game?), Michigan State-North Carolina, and Indiana-Syracuse (a rematch from this past season's Sweet 16), but obviously the game we care about is Notre Dame at Iowa on Tuesday, December 3rd. Notre Dame finished 25-10 last year, good for 6th in the Big East. They earned a 7-seed in the NCAA Tournament... and promptly got wrecked by Iowa State in the first round.
Hlas notes that they lose their top two big men, Jack Cooley and Tom Knight (they averaged 18.6 ppg, 13.6 rpg, and 2.1 bpg combined), but they do return guards Jerian Grant and Eric Atkins (they averaged 24.5 ppg, 11.0 apg, 2.7 spg combined). They finished 35th in the year-end KenPom ratings, 12 slots behind Iowa (GO IOWA AWESOME) and are not appearing in many preseason top-25 rankings, although they did make Jason King's "on the cusp" rankings.
(UPDATE: Hlas read the ND website and, thinking that "senior" meant that a player was, y'know, a senior, assumed Knight was leaving. Turns out he has one year of eligibility left.)
Notre Dame figures to be a good team next year and a solid challenge for Iowa -- but also a team that Iowa will likely be expected to beat. They're also exactly the sort of team Iowa probably needs to beat (especially at home) if they want to end their seven-year NCAA Tournament drought next season. Of course, the Big Ten-ACC Challenge has not been kind to the Hawkeyes; Iowa has a laughably bad 2-10 record in the event and will bring a 7-game losing streak in the competition into December's game. Mind you, we know Iowa can beat ACC teams -- see: the 2013 National Invitation Tournament. It's just a matter of actually doing that in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge itself, I suppose.
Iowa does not have a particularly rich history against Notre Dame in basketball. Notre Dame owns a 8-5 record in the all-time series, but the teams haven't played in 23 years (a 77-68 Notre Dame win in South Bend). Before that, the previous meeting was a 121-106 (!) Iowa win in an NCAA regional consolation game back in 1970. You have to go all the way back to 1950 to find the last time the two teams played in Iowa City, a 63-60 Iowa victory. Hell, Iowa's played Notre Dame more often in football (24 times), and more famously (curse you, Fainting Irish!). Mind you, while there may not be much institutional familiarity between the two teams, there is definitely some personal familiarity -- Fran McCaffery was a Notre Dame assistant coach from 1988-1999 and met his wife Margaret there, so I'm sure this game will have a bit of extra meaning for the Franimal.
The Notre Dame game is also the latest piece in the puzzle that is Iowa's 2013-14 non-conference schedule and it continues to show the increased quality of that schedule. This particular game may not have had a lot to do with Fran or Gary Barta -- ESPN, the Big Ten, and the ACC dictate these match-ups -- but it helps the schedule (and Iowa's RPI ranking) all the same. As it currently stands, Iowa could wind up playing four RPI top-50 teams in their non-conference slate, assuming they and Kansas make it to the finals of the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament. This is shaping up to be a vastly more challenging -- and interesting -- non-conference schedule than we've seen from Iowa in several years. But with the team that Iowa should have next year, I can only think of one thing to say about the new, tougher schedule: bring it on.