The Maryland men's basketball team's difficult early-season schedule continues tonight when the No. 24 Terrapins play Iowa and its new coach, Steve Alford, in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge at the Baltimore Arena.

The game is one of nine in the two-day Challenge. Among tonight's other games, Virginia plays at Minnesota and No. 17 Duke plays No. 16 Illinois at Chicago's United Center. The marquee game is Wednesday when No. 8 Michigan State plays at No. 2 North Carolina.

This is not the first time the ACC has staged an annual series with another conference. From 1989 to 1991, there was the Big East-ACC Challenge. However, that series was canceled after the third season, with the conferences tied at 12 victories each. When John Swofford became ACC commissioner in 1997, he pursued a series with the Big Ten, but could not finalize an agreement until last summer.

"I think our coaches were really strongly for it from the very beginning," ACC associate commissioner Tom Mickle said. "They really liked the ACC-Big East Challenge and didn't want that to end. They were supportive from the get-go."

Adding to the support of the coaches was the backing of ESPN, which televises eight of the nine games in the series on either ESPN or ESPN2 and will produce Clemson at Penn State for a regional broadcast.

According to a source familiar with the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, each of the 18 schools involved will receive between $75,000 and $100,000 from ESPN. Host schools also keep gate revenues and concessions, the source said, with teams playing on the road this season hosting a game next season. Teams playing at neutral sites are being paid a flat fee by ESPN, the source said.

The pairings are arranged by ESPN, with the intent of ranking teams in each conference and having corresponding teams play each other, providing those teams are not scheduled to play during the regular season.

Because the ACC has nine members and the Big Ten has 11, two Big Ten teams will not participate in the Challenge. Big Ten assistant commissioner Sue Ryan said Ohio State could not participate because of a scheduling conflict, and Indiana chose not to participate. Those teams will not be included in the event next season and their status will be reevaluated before the 2001-02 season, Ryan said.

The conferences agreed to a six-year series, but the ACC has an out clause after the second year because its television contract expires after the 2000-01 season, and a new contract might prohibit ACC teams from playing in the Challenge, Mickle said.

"That wasn't the reason we did it," said Mickle, "but it has turned out that it may work well in terms of RPI [Ratings Percentage Index] and trying to bolster the league's reputation."

As for Maryland (4-1), tonight's game is the third of seven nonconference games in an 18-day stretch. Though it is coming off an 85-76 loss to Creighton on Saturday, Iowa (2-2) gained national acclaim when it defeated then-No. 1 Connecticut in Alford's debut to open the season. The Terrapins lost to No. 13 Kentucky and beat Notre Dame in the Preseason NIT last week and have upcoming games against Illinois and George Washington or Seton Hall this weekend and a rematch with Kentucky on Dec. 11. Tonight, the Terrapins will be trying for their fifth consecutive victory in Baltimore. The focus will be on continuing to get the ball inside offensively.

"I think we're really good when we can make the other team work defensively," Maryland Coach Gary Williams said yesterday. "Part of that is getting the ball inside. When we played well against Kentucky and Notre Dame, we were able to do that. When we didn't play well, we didn't get the ball inside."

Sophomore center Lonny Baxter has emerged as the Terrapins' top inside threat. The only Maryland player to score in double figures in each of the first five games, he had 17 points and 14 rebounds in the 72-67 victory over Notre Dame in the Preseason NIT consolation game on Friday.

Williams said his other goals include rebounding well and containing Iowa's tandem of guard Dean Oliver and center Jacob Jaacks, who average 18.2 and 17.5 points, respectively.

"Iowa has a very good inside and outside combination with those two players," Williams said. "Most of their offense on the outside runs through Oliver on the perimeter. It looks like he has the green light to pull up and shoot or to penetrate whenever he thinks he can get it. And then they play off Jaacks inside."

THE ACC-BIG TEN CHALLENGE

Tonight

No. 24 Maryland vs. Iowa at Baltimore Arena, 7:30, ESPN2

Virginia at Minnesota, 9:30, ESPN2

Wisconsin at Wake Forest, 7, ESPN

No. 17 Duke vs. No. 16 Illinois in Chicago, 9, ESPN

Wednesday

Michigan at Georgia Tech, 7 p.m. ESPN

N.C. State at No. 19 Purdue, 7:30 p.m. ESPN2

Clemson at Penn State, 8 p.m.

No. 8 Michigan St. at No. 2 North Carolina, 9 p.m. ESPN

Florida State at Northwestern, 9:30 p.m. ESPN2