Big 12/SEC Challenge pits two leagues with depth

By: Steve Megargee, The Associated Press
Published: Friday, January 26, 2018
Oklahoma State's Jawun Evans throws a pass past Arkansas' Jaylen Barford during an NCAA college basketball game in Stillwater, Okla., Saturday Jan. 28, 2017. (Tyler Drabek/Tulsa World via AP)
Oklahoma State's Jawun Evans throws a pass past Arkansas' Jaylen Barford during an NCAA college basketball game in Stillwater, Okla., Saturday Jan. 28, 2017. (Tyler Drabek/Tulsa World via AP)

Parity in the Southeastern Conference and Big 12 races thus far has raised the stakes of Saturday's Big 12/SEC Challenge as teams in both leagues try to upgrade their NCAA Tournament credentials.

Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said this week he'd be disappointed if the SEC doesn't get eight or nine NCAA Tournament bids this year, which would represent its highest total. Kansas coach Bill Self believes all 10 Big 12 members remain in NCAA contention and says the league realistically could get eight bids.

"There's not a deeper league in America," Self said.

But the depth of both leagues could prove costly.

Every team in the Big 12 already has at least two conference losses. No. 19 Auburn and No. 20 Florida are the only SEC teams that haven't already lost at least three league games. ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla noted the possibility that SEC and Big 12 teams might "cannibalize" one another in league play, knocking potentially worthy teams out of NCAA Tournament consideration.

"I think it's possible that each of these leagues could put as many as eight teams in the field," Fraschilla said, "but I also think the danger is that in conference play, they'll beat each other up, especially in the middle of the pack."

Now these teams have an opportunity to take a break from league play and earn a quality nonconference win.

Saturday's Big 12/SEC Challenge matchups include No. 14 Texas Tech at South Carolina, Baylor at Florida, Mississippi at Texas, Georgia at Kansas State, No. 12 Oklahoma at Alabama, No. 22 Tennessee at Iowa State, TCU at Vanderbilt, Texas A&M at No. 5 Kansas, Oklahoma State at Arkansas and Kentucky at No. 7 West Virginia.

Kentucky's trip to West Virginia gives the Wildcats an opportunity for redemption after falling out of the Top 25 for the first time since March 2014. The SEC team has no teams ranked higher than 19th.

Calipari says that reflects outdated opinions about the SEC, which sent three teams to regional finals last year but hasn't earned more than five NCAA bids in a single season since 2008.

"The only thing that kind of gets me is we have some teams lose a couple of games and all of a sudden, you start dropping like a rock, and not just us," Calipari said. "In other leagues, you lose two or three in a row or two in a row, and it doesn't really affect you. That's the dregs from the old SEC."

Every team in the Big 12 is at least three games over .500 , which explains why Self believes all 10 members still have legitimate NCAA hopes.

"Let's say a team that's maybe struggled with its league record so far could get a Challenge win and then get hot and get to 8-10 or 9-9 in our league," Self said. "I think it would be very difficult to keep them out of the tournament."

Here are some things to watch in the Big 12/SEC Challenge:


GAME OF THE WEEKEND

Most of the SEC will be competing in the Big 12/SEC Challenge and a good performance on Saturday could be a boost in March if some of the league's teams are on the NCAA Tournament bubble. There are several interesting matchups, including Kentucky's trip to No. 7 West Virginia. The best game might be in Tuscaloosa when Alabama hosts No. 12 Oklahoma. The Sooners have one of the country's best players in freshman Trae Young, who is averaging more than 30 points and nearly 10 assists per game. Alabama counters with its own star freshman Collin Sexton, who returned earlier this week after missing two games with an abdominal injury.

LOOKING AHEAD

How can Kentucky get better?: Kentucky is out of the Top 25 for the first time since March 2014. The Wildcats are even younger than usual this season, and although they have plenty of future first-round picks on their roster, they lack the true superstar they've had in years past. Kentucky needs to do a better job of protecting leads. The Wildcats led by nine in a loss at Tennessee and blew a 14-point edge at South Carolina. Although Kentucky trailed most of the way in a 66-64 home loss to No. 20 Florida , the Wildcats did grab a late 56-53 advantage before falling short. Kentucky responded to its drop out of the Top 25 with a victory over Mississippi State on Tuesday.

NUMBERS GAME

No. 19 Auburn (18-2, 6-1 SEC) is enjoying its best 20-game start in nearly two decades - and its fourth-best 20-game start in school history. Auburn started 19-1 in 1927-28, 1958-59 and 1998-99. ... South Carolina owns an 8-4 record against Top 25 teams over the last two seasons. The Gamecocks host No. 14 Texas Tech on Saturday. ... Vanderbilt's Riley LaChance scored no points in the first half and 25 in the second half Tuesday in a 67-62 loss to No. 22 Tennessee . The senior guard ended up two points off his career high despite going scoreless in the first half. ... Tennessee's Jordan Bowden is shooting 53.8 percent (35 of 65) from 3-point range. That figure would lead all Division I players if Bowden had enough attempts to qualify. ... In its last 10 games that were decided by one possession, Arkansas has won nine of them.

IMPACT PERFORMERS

Arkansas seniors Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon give the Razorbacks one of the nation's more dynamic backcourts. Barford averages 19.4 points and has scored at least 23 points in each of the Razorbacks' last three games. Macon averages 16.3 points and has reached the 20-point mark in Arkansas' last two contests. Barford ranks second and Macon seventh in the SEC in scoring. Macon and Barford combined for 49 points Tuesday as Arkansas rallied from a 16-point deficit to win 80-77 at Georgia in double overtime .

WHERE'S AUBURN?

Because the SEC has 14 members and the Big 12 has only 10 teams, four SEC teams don't participate in this event each year. This year, one of the missing teams is No. 19 Auburn, which leads the SEC and has the best RPI of any team in the SEC or Big 12. Auburn instead is hosting LSU. The other SEC teams absent from the Challenge are Missouri and Mississippi State.

BIG 12 SUPREMACY

The Big 12 owns a 25-15 edge in the four-year history of this event. The Big 12 won this event 7-3 in 2013-14, 6-4 in 2014-15 and 7-3 in 2016-17. The SEC and Big 12 split their 10 matchups last season.

OPPORTUNITY FOR AGGIES

Texas A&M was ranked as high as fifth in the country before conference play but has gone just 2-6 in SEC competition. The Aggies' trip to Kansas gives them a chance to rejuvenate their NCAA Tournament hopes against a top-five opponent.

RPI WATCH

The Big 12 enters the weekend with five of the top 22 teams in the RPI : Oklahoma (8th), Kansas (9th), TCU (16th), Texas Tech (19th) and West Virginia (22nd). All 10 Big 12 teams are in the top 100. The SEC has six teams in the top 35: Auburn (7th), Tennessee (12th), Kentucky (17th), Arkansas (24th), Texas A&M (34th) and Alabama (35th). The only SEC team outside the top 100 is Vanderbilt (134th).

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