Previewing the final SEC-Big 12 challenge
Saturday marks the final edition of the SEC-Big 12 Challenge.
While the Big 12 has a 48-41 overall lead in SEC-BIG 12 Challenge games, the SEC has won the past 2 challenges, and the league can earn an all-time split with the Big 12 by capturing the challenge this weekend.
It won’t be easy.
Every analytical benchmark and ratings system says the Big 12 is the nation’s best basketball conference. A nation-leading 7 Big 12 programs rank in the Top 25 in the KenPom efficiency rankings. The Big 12 is an outstanding 29-15 against Power 6 opposition this season, and 9 of the 10 Big 12 teams are ranked in the top 68 of the NET standings, the most of any Power 6 league. The Challenge could be one final chance for the Big 12 to flex its muscle.
Of course, the SEC is no slouch in hoops, either. The league ranks 3rd among Power 6 leagues in KenPom and features 2 potential No. 1 seeds in Alabama and Tennessee. The SEC has also had the better of the Challenge lately. The Big 12 hasn’t won the Challenge since the 2018-2019 season and as noted, the SEC has won the past 2 outright.
While the marquee games are No. 9 Kansas visiting Kentucky and Rupp Arena (8 pm ET, ESPN) and No. 10 Texas visiting No. 4 Tennessee (6 pm ET, ESPN), the Challenge has plenty of other games of note, with a total of 8 top 25 teams in action on Saturday.
Here’s Saturday Down South’s preview of each game.
No. 15 Auburn at West Virginia (Noon, ESPN)
KenPom ranking: Auburn ranks 24th in KenPom; West Virginia ranks 21st.
The Skinny: A strange game because on paper, it’s quite evenly matched. The Tigers are 16-4, however, and West Virginia is 12-8, and at 2-6 in the Big 12, the Mountaineers are tied for 8th in their own league. Bob Huggins’ team has played more Quad 1 games than anyone in the country, however, and West Virginia is 3-8 in those games, accounting for all of their losses. If the SEC wants to win or at least tie the final SEC-Big 12 Challenge, they need Bruce Pearl’s team to come away with a win in Morgantown. Ultimately the game may come down to whether the Tigers can do enough to stop the lethal offensive duo of Tre Mitchell and Erik Stevenson. If they can cook at home, Auburn is in deep trouble.
The Pick: West Virginia.
No. 2 Alabama at Oklahoma (2 pm, ESPN)
KenPom ranking: Alabama ranks 3rd, Oklahoma ranks 53rd.
The Skinny: Porter Moser has a Final Four to his pedigree (with Loyola) and is widely regarded as one of the best X’s and O’s coaches in the sport. The Sooners play a slow, meticulous brand of basketball (328th in tempo) and don’t have much in the way of an electric scorer outside of guard Grant Sherfield, who can create his own look, is comfortable shooting off the bounce, and is connecting on 42% of his 3s this year. The Sooners won’t be able to dictate tempo against Alabama, however, and they just can’t match up with Alabama’s athleticism (not many can!). The Tide will pull away in the second half.
The Pick: Alabama
No. 12 Iowa State at Missouri (2 pm, ESPN2)
KenPom ranking: Iowa State ranks 14th; Missouri ranks 56th.
The Skinny: A battle of a great offense (Missouri ranks 6th in KenPom Adjusted Offensive Efficiency) vs. a great defense (Iowa State ranks 8th in KenPom Adjusted Defensive Efficiency). The Tigers are at home and desperate for another feather in their NCAA Tournament résumé cap. It’s just difficult to see them getting it against a team that can really guard you 1-5 like the Cyclones. Iowa State doesn’t turn the ball over either (89th in the country in turnover rate), which negates Missouri’s greatest defensive strength.
The Pick: Iowa State
Texas Tech at LSU (2 pm, ESPNU)
KenPom ranking: Texas Tech ranks 70th; LSU ranks 123rd.
The Skinny: One long losing streak will end Saturday. These teams mirror each other in many ways. Both ripped off hot starts, with the Tigers 12-1 and Texas Tech 10-2. Now, both have massive conference losing streaks. The Red Raiders have dropped their past 8 and LSU has lost its past 7 games. In games like this, it’s tempting to look at who has the best player. For Texas Tech, that’s either Kevin Obanor, the Oral Roberts transfer, or point guard and thief merchant De’Vion Harmon, a bull-nosed defender with a penchant for grabbing steals and getting to the foul line. For LSU, it is KJ Williams. If Williams has a game where he makes a bunch of shots, LSU can win. Give me the home team in a battle of squads who are due.
The Pick: LSU
No. 11 TCU at Mississippi State (4 pm, ESPN2)
KenPom ranking: TCU ranks 13th; Mississippi State ranks 52nd.
The Skinny: Miss State has played a brutal schedule in January and it doesn’t get any easier Saturday when the Horned Frogs visit the Hump. On the bright side, Chris Jans’ team should feel somewhat confident after controlling tempo and battling tooth and nail with a great Alabama team in Tuscaloosa earlier this week. The problem with that might be replicating a great performance twice in a row against a TCU team that has won its past 2 games (Kansas, Oklahoma) by an average of 25 points. TCU is just on fire, and Mike Miles is one of the game’s best players in the open court. Keep an eye on Eddie Lampkin, the big fellow for TCU. He missed the Oklahoma game with a high ankle sprain. If he doesn’t play, Tolu Smith could have a decided advantage down low.
The Pick: Miss State
Arkansas at No. 17 Baylor (4 pm, ESPN)
KenPom ranking: Arkansas ranks 22nd; Baylor ranks 16th.
The Skinny: One of the better matchups this weekend, Arkansas is an excellent defense (13th in KenPom Adjusted Defensive Efficiency) capable of slowing Baylor’s magnificent offense (2nd in KenPom Adjusted Offensive Efficiency). The problem for the Hogs has been consistent offense, especially on the road, where Eric Musselman’s young team has yet to win a game. Waco isn’t the best place to grab your first road win. ESPN — and everyone who loves college hoops — is irritated that there won’t be a Nick Smith Jr. vs. Keyonte George diaper dandy duel, but this will be fun television regardless as it is a great contrast of styles.
The Pick: Baylor
No. 10 Texas at No. 4 Tennessee (6 pm, ESPN)
KenPom ranking: Texas ranks 9th; Tennessee ranks 2nd.
The Skinny: The Longhorns were 12-1 when their head coach was rightly fired after his arrest on a charge of felonious domestic abuse, but they haven’t let that derail their season. Instead, they sit in a tie for first place in the best conference in America. They have an explosive scorer in Marcus Carr (17.6 points per game, 41% 3P FG) and a disruptive shot blocker in Vanderbilt transfer Dylan Disu. The big fellow is scoring too, with 11.6 points per game in his past 3, and he’ll give the Horns the inside-out game needed to challenge Tennessee’s outstanding defense. Playing at home and healthy for the first time since early January, Rick Barnes and the Vols will be too much on both ends for Texas though, with Santiago Vescovi just what Tennessee’s offense needs to look electric again.
The Pick: Tennessee
Florida at No. 5 Kansas State (6 pm, ESPN 2)
KenPom ranking: Florida ranks 44th; Kansas State ranks 25th.
The Skinny: This will be an emotional game. Florida faces Keyontae Johnson, who was a star at Florida, and the 2020-2021 preseason SEC Player of the Year, before collapsing on the court at Florida State in December 2020. Johnson didn’t play for 2 years, earning a degree in Gainesville and then, when Florida’s doctors wouldn’t clear him to play again, he transferred to Kansas State, where he’s gotten a second chance at playing the game he loves. Johnson has rewarded new head coach Jerome Tang with a Big 12 Player of the Year type season, averaging 17.5 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 2.5 assists per night on one of the nation’s most surprising success stories this season.
The Gators are all too familiar with Johnson’s talents, but unless Alex Fudge, the 6-9 wing with elite length and athleticism, can play, Florida can’t stop him, barring a staff decision to play defensive specialist Niels Lane, who has spent most the season sitting on the bench. Colin Castleton does give the Gators a mismatch down low, as Jerome Tang’s team plays small. If Florida’s starting guards, who have 22 assists and 0 turnovers in their past 2 games, can get Castleton the ball down low, then Florida can win. But Florida is 1-6 in Quad 1 games and hasn’t shown they can beat a team of Kansas State’s quality yet this season.
The Pick: Kansas State
Ole Miss at Oklahoma State (8 pm, ESPN2)
KenPom ranking: Ole Miss ranks 94th; Oklahoma State ranks 39th.
The Skinny: The Rebels are a mess, with their lone win in their past 9 games coming over a woeful South Carolina team. The Cowboys are a victim of one of the nation’s toughest schedules, and while they sit 2-6 in the Big 12, they boast a top-10 KenPom defense well suited to shutting down Kermit Davis’ anemic offense.
The Pick: Oklahoma State
No. 9 Kansas at Kentucky (8 pm, ESPN)
KenPom ranking: Kansas ranks 10th; Kentucky ranks 30th.
The Skinny: Just a season ago, Kentucky rolled into Phog Allen Fieldhouse and dominated the future national champions. Could this be a bit of a role reversal, where a Kentucky team that is getting its act together hits one more stumbling block before going on the tear the talent on their roster suggests is possible? Kansas has lost 3 straight, and Kentucky has found the defensive lineup that maximizes their talent in Chris Livingston, CJ Fredrick, Jacob Toppin, Cason Wallace and Oscar Tshiebwe, who are holding opponents to .85 points per possession during Kentucky’s current 4-game win streak. Jalen Wilson is spectacular, but the game may turn on who hits 3s: Gradey Dick has shot poorly during the Jayhawks’ 3-game losing streak and CJ Fredrick has shot the ball quite well since his playing time increased. Expect a close game with a Sweet 16 feel.
The Pick: Kansas.
The Final Tally: 6-4, Big 12.