The SEC/Big 12 Challenge commences Saturday at noon ET, tipping off a 10-game extravaganza of interconference action across the ESPN family of networks. Kansas at Kentucky (6 p.m. ET, ESPN) will have the brightest spotlight, but 18 other teams — including top-ranked Tennessee — will join in the fight for conference bragging rights. Here’s how ESPN.com’s college basketball experts see the challenge playing out, in addition to their picks for the weekend’s other marquee contests.
Which league are you taking in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge on Saturday?
Myron Medcalf, senior college basketball writer: I think the SEC is a strong league, but the pairings seem to favor the Big 12, especially the road games for Big 12 teams that should be favored in those matchups. Assuming Kansas State knocks off Texas A&M on the road, Iowa State wins at Ole Miss and Texas wins at Georgia, I could see the Big 12 winning the challenge with a 6-4 or 7-3 edge.
Jeff Borzello, college basketball Insider: The SEC caught a bad break with Auburn, LSU and Mississippi State all sitting this one out, while its best team (Tennessee) plays against arguably the Big 12’s worst team (West Virginia). As a result, I think it’s going to be tough for the SEC to win the challenge. The Big 12 is going to be favored in at least seven of the 10 games, and should have some room for error even if a couple games go the SEC’s way.
John Gasaway, college basketball writer: The pairings are indeed a bit one-sided, but, hey, I’d rather light a candle than curse the SEC’s probability darkness. Let’s map out this challenge shocker: Ole Miss flexes its (still) outstanding interior D and handles Iowa State in Oxford; Vanderbilt rides hot 3-point shooting from Aaron Nesmith and Matt Ryan and stuns Oklahoma in Norman; and South Carolina uses its patented close-game voodoo on Oklahoma State in Stillwater. It will also help if LSU shows up and impersonates one of the weaker SEC participants. Never say never.
Jordan Schultz, Insider/analyst: The SEC has been really good, but as Jeff points out, it gets a tough break with Tennessee playing lowly West Virginia, while Auburn, Mississippi State and upstart LSU are idle. Moreover, the Big 12 is loaded. Kansas aside, Scott Drew’s Baylor Bears have posted victories over Arizona, Iowa State and Texas Tech. Speaking of the Red Raiders, Chris Beard is a Coach of the Year candidate — despite his team’s recent woes — and sophomore guard Jarrett Culver looks every bit like a lottery pick. Additionally, Kansas State might be better than its Elite Eight team last season, while Iowa State, TCU, Oklahoma and Texas could all be tournament outfits.
How do you see Kansas @ Kentucky playing out?
Medcalf: Well, I’m looking forward to being in Lexington to see it live. Kentucky has had problems with teams that can play efficient four-guard lineups, but so much of Bill Self’s success is tied to Dedric Lawson. And I think Lawson will have a big night, probably in front of a lot of family members who will make the six-hour drive from Memphis, but I think Reid Travis, Nick Richards and PJ Washington will wear him down and help Kentucky secure the victory in the final five minutes of an intense game.
Borzello: Give me Kentucky. I just have no idea how good Kansas is right now. Kentucky is on fire lately, but to be fair, the last time everyone hopped on the Wildcats’ bandwagon (after wins over North Carolina and Louisville), they went to Alabama and lost to an average Crimson Tide team. Kentucky is highly susceptible to teams that can spread the floor and make shots from the perimeter, which is what Kansas was last season — but not this season. The Wildcats are clicking at the right time, while the Jayhawks still seem to be figuring things out.
Gasaway: One shootout at Auburn notwithstanding (and even that was a Wildcats win), Kentucky’s looked outstanding on defense in SEC play. So, yes, the Jayhawks are catching UK at the wrong time. (Right now Self’s wondering: Where’s that version of John Calipari’s guys that allows 118 points? Can we play them?) Also, KU has lost games in Tempe, Arizona; Ames, Iowa; and Morgantown, West Virginia. Lexington, Kentucky, might be too tough as well.
Schultz: Calipari posts a 95 percent win rate coaching the Cats at Rupp. Just as important, Kentucky is playing its best ball of the season right now. Freshmen blue-chippers Keldon Johnson and Tyler Herro have become reliable perimeter scorers, while sophomore PJ Washington has flashed first-round ability by playing both ends of the floor. Kansas will ultimately be just fine, but the Jayhawks — sans center Udoka Azubuike — have been an enigma of late. They got hammered in Ames and then fell to lowly West Virginia in Morgantown. The Wildcats win this game with suffocating half-court defense and plenty of firepower offensively, especially in the open floor.
Give us one coach in college basketball who deserves more recognition than he gets.
Medcalf: I’ll go with Bruce Weber, because Kansas State endured a six-game stretch without Dean Wade and maintained its defensive tenacity. Kansas State is now a legit threat in the Big 12, especially with Wade regaining his mojo after missing time due to injury. We’ve often talked about Chris Beard, Bill Self and even Steve Prohm in that league, but Weber is doing some amazing work in Manhattan, Kansas.
Borzello: I’ll give two answers. For this season, I think we have to acknowledge what Scott Drew is doing in Waco, Texas. Baylor was picked ninth in the preseason Big 12 poll and a season-opening home loss to Texas Southern seemed to hammer that home. But the Bears are currently 4-2 in the league, including victories over Iowa State and Texas Tech. And maybe this isn’t the right season to advocate for Oregon’s Dana Altman, but he’s annually one of the nation’s most underrated coaches. Opposing Pac-12 coaches consistently say he’s difficult to prepare for.
Gasaway: In the preseason AP poll, this coach’s team was ranked below West Virginia, Oregon, UCLA, Clemson, Washington, Loyola-Chicago and Indiana. Now his team’s in the top 15, and his only conference loss since the calendar flipped to 2019 came on the road to an opponent that could get a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. I will not rest until Mark Turgeon gets the recognition he deserves at Maryland.
Schultz: As Borzello notes, Drew has done an outstanding job in Waco. When I spoke with him around Christmas, Drew felt his team was just starting to hit its stride, in large part because of transfer senior point guard Makai Mason, who now leads Baylor with nearly 16 points per game. Drew was right. His Bears have rattled off quality wins over both Iowa State and Texas Tech. At 4-2 in the rugged Big 12, Baylor appears well on its way to a surprising tournament appearance.
ESPN.com expert picks for this week’s top games
(Lines, published as they become available, from the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook.)
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