Some teams will mix in a non-conference game or two in the middle of their conference schedules, but typically, you play non-conference for the first 1/3 of the season, and then you have conference play for the remainder. Starting last year, the SEC and the Big 12 joined up in the middle of their conference schedules for the Big 12/SEC Challenge, pitting the 10 teams from the Big 12 against 10 teams from the SEC. It is a fun little break from the conference grind, and it takes place this Saturday. This year, the schedule makers have given us some exciting match-ups, highlighted by a huge battle at the Phog between Kansas and Kentucky. Here is a preview of Saturday’s Big 12/SEC Challenge!
#9 West Virginia @ Florida
When: 12:00 pm, ESPN
Why: A great game to kick off the challenge, two of the best defenses in the nation will go at it in “The Swamp.” Both West Virginia and Florida are ranked in the top-5 in defensive efficiency according to KenPom. Florida is coming off of a 1-point loss at Vanderbilt, and they are still searching for a signature win to put a stamp on their tournament resume. West Virginia just announced that F Jonathan Holton has been suspended indefinitely for a violation of team rules, so I’m interested to see the effect not having him has on the team as a whole, on the court as well as mentally.
Prediction: West Virginia has a little more offensive firepower, but they’ll be playing their first game without Holton. They’ll have to adjust, and this game will be low-scoring and very close, but I think West Virginia will pull it out, getting a big road win.
Vanderbilt @ Texas
When: 12:00 pm, ESPN2
Why: These are two teams that are just now starting to really hit their stride. The Longhorns have wins over Iowa State, West Virginia and North Carolina, and first year head coach Shaka Smart has his team playing at an extremely high level, despite the loss of Cameron Ridley. Vanderbilt has won four of their last five games, that following a stretch which saw them lose seven of ten games. The Commodores have not lost to a team outside of KenPom’s top-70, and therefore are rated much better than their 12-8 record would suggest.
Prediction: Vanderbilt probably has the best player on the court in G Wade Baldwin IV, but Texas is a better team right now. Given that they’re playing at home, I expect them to get another nice victory.
Ole Miss @ Kansas State
When: 2:00 pm, ESPNU
Why: If you’re looking to watch a team, Kansas State is the team to look for here. They are just 2-6 in Big 12 play, but they lost to Texas by just three points, and they took West Virginia and Baylor to double overtime. They are currently on the bubble, and can’t afford a home loss to Ole Miss. The Rebels are just 3-5 in the SEC, and they have a brutal schedule coming up, where they’ll face Vanderbilt, Florida, Arkansas and Texas A&M in consecutive games. A road win against Kansas State would be a good start to that stretch.
Prediction: As a bubble team, Kansas State needs every win that they can get, and on their home floor, I expect them to defeat Ole Miss.
Tennessee @ TCU
When: 2:00 pm, ESPN2
Why: Tennessee is struggling under first year head coach Rick Barnes, as they sit at just .500 two-thirds of the way through this season. They have defeated Florida and South Carolina, so they are capable of beating good teams. A few years ago they made a late-season run, made the tournament as one of the last four teams in, and ended up making it to the Sweet 16. They will look to make a similar run late in this season. TCU is at the bottom of a very good Big 12, but their lone win in conference play is over Texas. That leads me to believe that if they play their best, they can definitely beat Tennessee.
Prediction: I just don’t see TCU having enough firepower to defeat a Tennessee team that needs to win as many games as possible the rest of the season. Coach Barnes should have his Volunteers motivated enough to get this victory.
#14 Iowa State @ #5 Texas A&M
When: 2:00 pm, ESPN
Why: This is probably the most exciting match-up of the challenge, even though ESPN, Kentucky fans and Kansas fans would tell you different. Iowa State has defeated Iowa, Kansas and Oklahoma this season, but those were all at home. Their best road win this season is a 2-point win over Cincinnati. They could really use a signature road victory. The Aggies had a 10-game win streak snapped this week against Arkansas, so they will be extra motivated to get back on a winning track. They have wins over Texas, Kansas State and Baylor this year, so they’ve proven that they can beat Big 12 teams. A win over Iowa State would put a nice stamp on that.
Prediction: Texas A&M will have the home court advantage, and they will not want to lose a second game in a row, but every time I watch Iowa State, I am more and more impressed by them. They need a signature road win, and I think they get it here.
Texas Tech @ Arkansas
When: 4:00 pm, ESPNU
Why: Texas Tech looked really good during non-conference play, going 10-1 so far with wins over Hawaii, Arkansas-Little Rock and Richmond, but they have come back to earth during Big 12 play, where they are just 2-6. They also have just one road win this season (against TCU), so this will be a difficult test for them. Arkansas has under-performed this season after losing Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls to the NBA. They are just 10-10, but they’re coming off of their biggest win of the season over Texas A&M. This should be an entertaining game.
Prediction: Arkansas will look to avoid a letdown after their huge win on Wednesday, and I think they’ll be fine. Advanced statistics say that Arkansas is better than their record, and with Texas Tech’s road struggles, I think the Razorbacks will pull it out.
#1 Oklahoma @ LSU
When: 5:00 pm, ESPN
Why: If you tune in to this game, you will see the two best players in college basketball on the same court. A college basketball fan’s dream this year! The sure-to-be #1 overall selection in the 2016 NBA Draft, LSU’s Ben Simmons, and the almost sure-to-be National Player of the Year, Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield. Outside of these two guys, these teams are led by their guard play (Ben Simmons plays like a guard most of the time), and that should create an exciting, high-scoring match-up.
Prediction: LSU has already beaten Kentucky on their home floor, and a win over Oklahoma is the thing that could give them a spot in the tournament. While they are playing much better now, I think Oklahoma is just too talented. The Sooners will win a close one.
Georgia @ #17 Baylor
When: 6:00 pm, ESPN2
Why: Baylor has a lot of close wins this season, but they only have four losses, and all four of those losses are to teams in KenPom’s top-20 (Oregon, Texas A&M, Kansas, Oklahoma). They are a great offensive team, and they can stifle teams with their 1-3-1 zone defense. They’re hosting a Georgia team that has, for the most part, beaten the teams they should beat, and lost to the teams they should lose to. They’re 11-7 on the year, and they need to make a late-season run if they’re going to make the tournament. A road win over Baylor would be a nice jumping-off point.
Prediction: Every time I watch Baylor, they leave me asking a ton of questions. The results tell the story, but the eye test leaves much to be desired. I expect them to play really well in this one, and get the victory.
#20 Kentucky @ #4 Kansas
When: 7:00 pm, ESPN
Why: Two traditional heavyweights going at it in the main event of the Big 12/SEC Challenge. Kansas has been one of the best teams in the country this season, but they’ve lost three of their last five games, and they’re coming off a loss to Iowa State. Kentucky has been solid this year, but they haven’t been the same Kentucky team that we’re used to. PG Tyler Ulis might be the best player in this game, and they’ll need him to carry the load if they’re going to knock off the Jayhawks.
Prediction: ESPN’s College Gameday will be in town, so the home crowd will be especially pumped up for this one. Kentucky is definitely good enough to beat Kansas, but in this atmosphere, I like the Jayhawks to come out victorious.
Oklahoma State @ Auburn
When: 8:00 pm, ESPN2
Why: Unfortunately, the schedule makers messed up a little, and Oklahoma State versus Auburn will be the final game in the Big 12/SEC Challenge. That doesn’t mean this game won’t have fireworks, maybe. The Cowboys defeated Kansas a couple weeks ago, but that is their only win in their last seven games. They’ll need to play really well to win this one on the road. Auburn is under .500 on the season, but they have beaten Tennessee, Alabama and Kentucky at home this season. Head Coach Bruce Pearl is trying to turn this program around, and they’re definitely on the right track, despite their struggles this season.
Prediction: Oklahoma State might be the more talented team, but Auburn has been very good at home this season. I expect them to get the win, and if my predictions hold true, that would give the SEC three wins in the challenge, giving the Big 12 the edge this year.
I hope you’re able to sit down and watch some of these games. This should be a good Big 12/SEC Challenge!