Weekend Viewer’s Guide: Big 12/SEC Challenge interrupts conference play

Typically, college coaches aren’t fans of interrupting conference play with nonconference showdowns.

But the Big 12/SEC Challenge in January is here, and coaches are trying to look on the bright side.

“I don’t necessarily like it at all. I don’t like the disruption of league play,” Kansas coach Bill Self said on his weekly conference call. “And I think a majority of the coaches would probably agree with that. But for our league, I think it’s going to be a great exposure day.

“The bonuses or advantages probably outweigh the negatives. Even though I know nobody likes to step out of conference this late in conference season, especially in a conference like ours or the SEC.”

Self is right. Despite other strong matchups around the country — including a top-16 ACC showdown and some really tough, tricky road games for ranked teams — it seems like the only thing that is being discussed this weekend is the nonconference event that should tell us a lot about where each of these leagues are midway through the season.

And in that vein, it seems to be a situation where one league has a lot to gain and the other has some potential to lose. The Big 12 is currently the No. 1 conference in the nation from top-to-bottom according to KenPom. The SEC is sixth, worst of the high-major conferences. Undoubtedly, that means the SEC has a chance to turn things on their head a bit and gain a bit more respect nationally than it has gotten this year. But when someone rises, that typically means another has to fall. That makes this a particularly precarious position for the Big 12, many of whose coaches’ feel that the league does not get the respect nationally it deserves.

The key to how this event is perceived will be the performances of the teams in the high-profile event games. Here’s a quick breakdown of what those will look like.

Texas A&M plays a huge game against Iowa State. (USATSI)
Texas A&M plays a huge game against Iowa State. (USATSI)

Biggest game — No. 14 Iowa State at No. 5 Texas A&M — 2 ET, ESPN

Coming into the season, this was certainly not what was expected to be the most important matchup of the day. That honor would have been bestowed on the game that will be listed next. However, each of these senior-laden teams has played extremely well this season, and are well-deserving of their top-15 rankings. Plus, to be honest, the chess match here is just going to be terrific to watch because these two teams are so different. On the home side, you have the SEC’s best defense, a group who shares the ball as well as anyone in the country, and a deep roster that goes nine or 10 deep nightly. On the other side, you have the sixth-best offensive team in the country and a group that really only goes about six-deep consistently.

Also, let’s not forget the coaching matchup here between two friends in Steve Prohm and Billy Kennedy, the past two coaches at Murray State. Prohm was Kennedy’s assistant for over a decade at stops like Centenary, Southeastern Louisiana, and the aforementioned Murray State.

“It’s funny how these things work out,” Prohm said earlier this week. “Obviously, we wouldn’t schedule a game against each other. We’re probably each other’s biggest fans. I’m always rooting for Texas A&M, I couldn’t be happier that they’re one of the top five teams in the country this year. But we have to go play the game Saturday, and it’s a big game for both teams from a non-conference standpoint, from a Big 12/SEC Challenge. BUt it’s really surreal. Really, 15, 18 years ago we were working at Centenary College. He was the head coach, I was a volunteer assistant. Smallest Division I school in the country. And now, 15, 18 years later we’re running two top-15 programs.”

That’s a pretty wild story, and it shows the crazy paths that coaches can take throughout their career. But back to the game, there’s the fact that Iowa State might have a better pair of wins than just about anyone else in the country having beaten Oklahoma and Iowa. Texas A&M is still looking for that truly marquee win (their best is Baylor). This is maybe the most important game of the showdown. If Texas A&M can hold its home court against a tough opponent like Iowa State, it would continue to go a long way toward legitimizing the league. If not, the Big-12 might be able to roll through this event relatively unscathed.

Matchup of traditional powers — No. 20 Kentucky at No. 4 Kansas — 7 ET, ESPN

Anytime these two teams get together, you know it’s going to be fun. On one side, you have John Calipari and the Wildcats who have made four of the last five Final Fours. On the other side, you have Bill Self and the magical powers of Phog Allen Fieldhouse, where Kansas is 200-9 since Self took over. Having said that though, this one could be setting up for some shenanigans.

Kentucky comes into this game having won its previous three in blowout fashion, and seems to be rolling. Kansas comes in having lost three of five, and is having a bit of a midseason blip. Let’s also not forget that Kentucky looks to have a pretty significant edge in the backcourt. Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray have been terrific this season, and have the ability to get hot and carry a team to victory, especially over undersized opponents like Frank Mason and Devonte Graham.

I don’t bet against the Jayhawks at home, but at the very least this matchup is much more interesting than it looked two weeks ago.

Buddy vs. Ben — No. 1 Oklahoma vs. LSU — 5 ET, ESPN

Look, it’s probably unfair to the rest of these teams to reduce this to a showdown of Buddy Hield against Ben Simmons. But from a viewer’s perspective, that’s what makes this so interesting.

Hield is throwing up a shooting season the likes of which we haven’t seen in a long time. He’s nearing a 50/50/90 season, which is just ridiculous. Every time he puts up a shot, you just expect it to go in. The Bahamian senior is the leading candidate for national player of the year, and could take a deep Sooners team to the Final Four for the first time since Hollis Price and co. took them there in 2002. On the other side, you have the leading contender to become the No. 1 overall pick in the country in Simmons, a preternaturally gifted 6-foot-9 forward who is averaging 19.8 points, 12.7 rebounds, and 4.9 assists for an LSU team that seems much more likely to make the NCAA Tournament than it did a month ago due to its 6-2 start in the league.

This is the kind of game that could pretty much lock LSU into the field barring a major collapse down the stretch. It’s also the kind of game that could make a true statement in the national player of the year race. If Simmons wants to get his name back into that conversation in earnest, he’ll need a big one against Hield and the rest of the Sooners.

Under-the-radar big game — No. 9 West Virginia vs. Florida — Noon ET, ESPN

This comes following news that Mountaineer starting forward Jonathan Holton has been suspended indefinitely. Holton is one of the best offensive rebounders in the country, a major part of West Virginia’s production on that end of the floor. After all, this is a group that really doesn’t shoot the ball (currently 307th in free throw percentage and 306th in 3-point percentage), and can also really get turnover prone. They defend as well as anyone in the country, but the lack of offense will catch up with them eventually, right?

The Gators need a marquee, resume-building win and this seems like the perfect opportunity to pick one up at home. Another team with offensive struggles who really defends — they’re fourth in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric — Florida’s best win is probably a win over Saint Joseph’s on a neutral floor earlier this year. The key to this one will be Chris Chiozza and Kasey Hill handling the press. If they can do that, Florida could move to 14-7 and put itself right back in the tourney picture. If not, the Gators are going to have nearly zero margin for error down the stretch.

Other Big 12/SEC games

Vanderbilt at Texas is a game that should be better than it is. But the Longhorns are still without Cam Ridley, and Vanderbilt is still just not playing offensively the way that it should be. Baylor sees a somewhat disappointing Georgia team travel to Waco. Texas Tech has to go to Bud Walton Arena to take on Arkansas, which is never a particularly easy place to play. Could be a fun game to watch though. Oklahoma State has to go down to Auburn to face Bruce Pearl and company. Tennessee and Kevin Punter goes to Fort Worth to face TCU. Finally, Kansas State takes on Mississippi.

Damion Lee will need to have a big game against Malcolm Brogdon and company. (USATSI)
Damion Lee will need to have a big game against Malcolm Brogdon and company. (USATSI)

ACC Showdown — No. 11 Virginia at No. 16 Louisville — 1 ET, CBS

This is Louisville’s chance to pick up a marquee, quality win in a way that it still hasn’t yet this season. The Cavaliers have really struggled on the road this season, possessing only a 2-4 record in games at the opponent’s home gym and needed a miraculous Darius Thompson 3 against Wake Forest to get to that mark even. The Cardinals’ best win this season is still either a home triumph over Pittsburgh or a home win over Florida State, so beating Virginia would give them a bit of a leg up heading into the stretch run of their season. Also, look for the terrific Damion Lee vs. Malcolm Brogdon matchup on the wing as something to tune in for here.

A trap game in the Big East — No. 10 Providence at Georgetown — 8 ET, FS1

This is a big one Providence, who is coming off of a loss earlier in the week at home to Xavier. They have been terrific on the road, but it’s never easy to go into the Verizon Center and pick up a win. Especially when the team they’re playing has a sense of desperation. The Hoyas need to continue piling up wins in conference after a substandard non-conference season that saw them lose to Radford and UNC-Asheville on their way to a 12-8 mark currently. Wins over Xavier and Providence could go a long way though in this wide-open season, so the Friars are definitely on the lookout for an upset.

A Sunday matinee in the Valley — No. 22 Wichita State at Evansville — 4 ET, ESPNU

Wichita State is rolling right now, pure and simple. Gregg Marshall’s group has won 10 games in a row, and is the team that everyone expected it to be coming into the year. The Shockers get their toughest remaining matchup of the season on Sunday, travelling to Evansville to take on an Aces’ team that is currently 18-4 and No. 48 in KenPom. D.J. Balentine and Egidijus Mockevicius are two of the best mid-major players in the country in Marty Simmons’ motion offense, and the Aces really gave them a game back in Wichita earlier this month. It’ll take a pretty big effort, but don’t be surprised if we see Evansville pick up a win here.

A pair of Sunday trips for the road

Maryland goes to Ohio State to take on the Buckeyes in a game that could be a bit trappy for the Terps if they get tight on the road. The Buckeyes have won their last nine home games, and already beat Kentucky earlier this season.

Finally, No. 23 Oregon seems to be the favorite in the Pac-12 right now, but they have to go on the road to face the potentially Michael Phelps’ led Curtain of Distraction and Arizona State. The Ducks have the best road wins of any team in the league right now having beaten Arizona and Utah, but as this season has shown, it’s never easy to win these games.

Georges Niang and Wayne Selden each need to have big games against the SEC. (USATSI)
Georges Niang and Wayne Selden each need to have big games against the SEC. (USATSI)

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