Big 12-SEC Challenge:

No Challenge for Pearl's Tigers

By: Bob Holt
Published: Friday, January 26, 2018
Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl gives a thumbs up during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Arkansas, Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018, in Auburn, Ala. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl gives a thumbs up during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Arkansas, Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018, in Auburn, Ala. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

FAYETTEVILLE -- Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl was bummed out at the SEC spring meetings about his Tigers not playing in the Big 12-SEC Challenge this season.

"I'm very disappointed," Pearl said in May. "I've always taken great pride in that matchup."

BIG 12-SEC CHALLENGE MATCHUPS

game;time;TV

Oklahoma State at Arkansas;5 p.m.;ESPN2

Baylor at Florida;11 a.m.;ESPN

Texas Tech at South Carolina;11 a.m.;ESPN2

Ole Miss at Texas;1 p.m.;ESPN2

Georgia at Kansas State;1 p.m.;ESPNU

Oklahoma at Alabama;1:15 p.m.;ESPN

TCU at Vanderbilt;3 p.m.;ESPN2

Tennessee at Iowa State;3 p.m.;ESPNU

Kentucky at West Virginia;3:30 p.m.;ESPN

Texas A&M at Kansas;6 p.m.;ESPN

Imagine the rest of the SEC's disappointment now -- with the fifth Big 12-SEC Challenge on Saturday -- that Auburn won't be representing the conference.

Auburn (18-2) is the SEC's highest-ranked team in The Associated Press poll at No. 19 and leads the league with a 6-1 record after a 91-73 road victory at Missouri, but the Tigers will play LSU at home on Saturday instead of being involved in a marquee matchup against a Big 12 team.

"Arguably the hottest team in our league isn't in it in Auburn," Tennessee Coach Rick Barnes said. "They're playing terrific basketball and they're not in it."

But what could have been done to include Auburn short of changing the schedule a couple of weeks ago?

Auburn finished 11th in the SEC last season and was picked to finish ninth in a preseason media poll -- and that was before returning starters Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley were suspended indefinitely by in November while their eligibility is reviewed by the school in the wake of an FBI investigation into college basketball bribery.

The SEC determines which teams participate in the Big 12-SEC Challenge on a two-year rotation, according to the conference office, so teams that play on the road the first year will get a home game the next year.

"The SEC had a tough decision to make, and I think they made the right decision," Pearl said Thursday. "Prior to this go-around, there were teams -- for whatever reason -- who didn't want to play in the Challenge. So the league office was able to accommodate everybody."

Only 10 SEC teams can play in the Challenge because the Big 12, despite its name, has 10 teams.

The SEC didn't include the four teams with the worst conference records last season -- LSU, Missouri and Mississippi State along with Auburn -- in the Big 12-SEC Challenge.

"We finished 11th, so we did not get invited to the party," Pearl said. "I think that was the only fair way to do it because this year all 14 teams wanted to play in the Challenge."

Arkansas Coach Mike Anderson, whose Razorbacks play Oklahoma State on Saturday in Walton Arena, said Auburn would represent the SEC well against the Big 12, but that the Tigers' absence from the Challenge doesn't mean the SEC can't win it for the first time in five seasons.

"Auburn's a team that's playing really well right now, but then you look at the depth of the league," Anderson said. " The teams that are playing in it, I think they're going to go out and represent real well."

The Big 12 is 25-15 against the SEC in Challenge matchups the previous four seasons, going 7-3, 6-4, 7-3 and 5-5.

Florida (3-1) and Tennessee (2-2) have the SEC's best record. Arkansas is 1-2. Baylor is 4-0 for the Big 12 with Kansas, TCU and Texas Tech at 3-1.

"The image of your league is determined so much by what you do outside your conference, because once you get into your conference it's 50 percent wins and 50 percent losses," Kansas Coach Bill Self said. "So these games on Saturday add up the same way that November and December games do, so yeah, it's important.

"I don't know if it's a tell-all, but I think all coaches want to do well for their league."

SEC coaches hope they can finally have a winning record against the Big 12.

"I mean, we don't want to end up 3-7 or 4-6," South Carolina Coach Frank Martin said. "It doesn't make any sense for us to do that.

"But one day is not going to make or break our conference. I think we've proven how good our teams are with who we beat over the two-month period in non-conference play."

SEC teams are 4-4 against the Big 12 in games earlier this season with Arkansas beating Oklahoma, Texas A&M beating West Virginia and Oklahoma State and Missouri beating Iowa State.

"I think we've proven how good our teams are with who we beat over the two-month period in non-conference play," Martin said. "I think last year what happened is that by playing it at this time of year, it gave our league credibility which has carried into this year."

South Carolina was among five SEC teams in the NCAA Tournament last season and went to the Final Four while Florida and Kentucky reached the Elite Eight and Arkansas fell one game short of the Sweet 16 losing to eventual national champion North Carolina.

"I think people now understand how much this league has developed from top to bottom," Florida Coach Mike White said "How competitive we are."

ESPN projects eight SEC teams will make the NCAA Tournament and seven from the Big 12.

Self said he's impressed by the SEC.

"The SEC is obviously strong," Self said. "It's on a serious uptick."

The 10 Big 12-SEC Challenge games are being televised on ESPN, ESPN2 or ESPNU with tipoff times from 11 a.m. through 6 p.m.

Added exposure outweighs the fact coaches in both the Big 12 and SEC have said they would prefer to play the Challenge before the conference season starts.

"The timing isn't great because we're right in the middle of the Big 12 grind," said Texas Tech Coach Chris Beard, who led the University of Arkansas at Little Rock to the NCAA Tournament in 2016, "But I wouldn't trade the opportunity to play a nationally attention-getting game on this stage."

Sports on 01/26/2018

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