Big 12 looking to showcase depth. SEC looking to showcase anything
For a challenge between the strongest major conference from top to bottom a year ago (the Big 12) against the most top heavy (the SEC), this year’s event has surprisingly interesting matchups.
The headliner, Texas’ trip to Kentucky, matches two teams with Final Four aspirations and star-studded frontcourts. Arkansas and Iowa State should meet in an entertaining up-and-down affair. The matchup in Morgantown features one overachieving team (West Virginia) with one still struggling to find its way (LSU).
Of course, there are a few clunkers. Missouri-Oklahoma and Baylor-Vanderbilt would be more interesting in other seasons. Perhaps Florida-Kansas could use a Gators team that’s not stumbling into Lawrence.
For the Big 12, the challenge is a chance to establish the kind of depth that allowed the league to send seven of its 10 teams to the NCAA Tournament. For the SEC, the challenge is an opportunity to undo some of those embarrassing losses from the first three weeks of the season.
Auburn at Texas Tech
9 p.m., SEC Network
Bruce Pearl and Tubby Smith won two games apiece when the former was at Tennessee and the latter was at Kentucky. Both are building from the ground up at their new jobs. Texas Tech is projected to finish last in the Big 12 but took LSU to overtime earlier this season. Auburn hopes to get a boost by the return of Antoine Mason from an ankle injury. Mason, a transfer from Niagara, is the nation’s top returning scorer this season.
LSU at West Virginia
7 p.m., ESPN2
West Virginia is off to a surprising start at 7-0 this season, headlined by a 78-68 win over Connecticut on Nov. 23. The Mountaineers, in the NIT a year ago, lead the nation in forcing turnovers on 32.4 percent of possessions, according to KenPom.com. LSU is one of the nation’s most disappointing teams early in the season. Johnny Jones has an NCAA-caliber roster, but the Tigers have lost to Old Dominion and Clemson.
Baylor at Vanderbilt
7 p.m., ESPNU
Baylor’s chances to win at Memorial Gym will improve if point guard Kenny Chery is healthy. He’s missed the last three games, including a 64-54 loss to Illinois in which Baylor had nine assists and 15 turnovers. Vanderbilt will have a size advantage with 6-10 sophomore Damian Jones against an uncharacteristically small Baylor lineup.
Arkansas at Iowa State
9 p.m., ESPN2
This has potential to be the most entertaining game of the SEC-Big 12 Challenge. The two teams are averaging a combined 170 points per game and both are in the top 25 in tempo, according to KenPom.com. After being on the NCAA fringe for a few years under Mike Anderson, Arkansas will look to pick up a key non-conference win while Iowa State will look to come back from a 72-63 loss to Maryland on Nov. 25.
TCU at Ole Miss
9 p.m., ESPNU
TCU won’t win the Big 12, but it could win the state of Mississippi. The Horned Frogs have defeated Mississippi Valley State and Mississippi State already this season. The Rebels, though, will be the toughest of the three. Ole Miss, like most SEC schools, has taken a bad non-conference loss (Charleston Southern), but came back to defeat Creighton and Cincinnati in a Thanksgiving tournament.
Texas at Kentucky
7 p.m., ESPN
We’ve been burned before saying this, so tread lightly when we say the following: Texas is legit. The Longhorns entered the season with the most experience in the Big 12, and they’re playing like it. Texas defeated Iowa and Cal in Madison Square Garden, and most impressively, the Longhorns defeated Connecticut on the road without point guard Isaiah Taylor. Winning in Lexington against this squad without Taylor (broke wrist) will be a tougher task. With its deep cast of bigs, Kentucky will be a tough matchup in an area that’s usually an advantage for Texas with Jonathan Holmes, Myles Turner and Cameron Ridley.
Florida at Kansas
9 p.m., ESPN
Kansas has rebounded since Kentucky dominated the matchup in Indianapolis. The Jayhawks handled Rhode Island, Tennessee and Michigan State in the Orlando Classic during the Thanksgiving weekend. Worth watching will be the use of the Jayhawks’ freshmen. Cliff Alexander has yet to start, and Kelly Oubre isn’t even cracking 10 minutes per game. Florida didn’t have nearly as much success in its holiday tournament, losing to Georgetown and North Carolina in the Battle 4 Atlantis. Injuries and suspensions have shortened Billy Donovan’s bench, but while last year’s Florida team found a way to win shorthanded, this team is struggling.
Missouri at Oklahoma
9:30 p.m., ESPNU
Oklahoma was billed as a sleeper contender in the Big 12, especially after Houston transfer TaShawn Thomas was declared eligible. The Sooners have yet to look the part, especially on the offensive end of the floor by shooting less than 40 percent from the floor in losses to Wisconsin and Creighton. That said, the Sooners should cruise at home against a rebuilding Missouri team that was outclassed by Arizona and Purdue in Maui.
Oklahoma State at South Carolina
Oklahoma State’s Le’Bryan Nash (18.3 points per game) and Phil Forte (17.2) are doing just fine without Marcus Smart and Markel Brown, thank you very much. The Cowboys are 6-0 but have yet to play a true road game. Meanwhile, the rebuilding job at South Carolina is still a slow go. The Gamecocks have already lost to Charlotte and Akron.
Kansas State at Tennessee
3:15 p.m., ESPN2
Kansas State needs a confidence boost in a major way. Bruce Weber’s squad was projected as an NCAA team, but the Wildcats have already lost to Long Beach State on the road and by 33 to Pittsburgh in the Maui Invitational. Those are not the kinds of things top-half Big 12 teams should be doing. An NCAA investigation stemming from Donnie Tyndall’s days at Southern Miss is looming over the Volunteers as they’re simply struggling to put a competitive team on the court.
Athlon Sports Staff Picks
|Game||David Fox||Braden Gall||Mitch Light||Nathan Rush|
|Auburn at Texas Tech||Texas Tech||Auburn||Auburn||Auburn|
|LSU at West Virginia||West Virginia||West Virginia||West Virginia||West Virginia|
|Baylor at Vanderbilt||Vanderbilt||Baylor||Vanderbilt||Vanderbilt|
|Arkansas at Iowa State||Iowa State||Arkansas||Iowa State||Iowa State|
|TCU at Ole Miss||Ole Miss||TCU||Ole Miss||Ole Miss|
|Texas at Kentucky||Kentucky||Kentucky||Kentucky||Kentucky|
|Florida at Kansas||Kansas||Kansas||Kansas||Kansas|
|Missouri at Oklahoma||Oklahoma||Oklahoma||Oklahoma||Oklahoma|
|Oklahoma State at South Carolina||Oklahoma State||Oklahoma State||South Carolina||Oklahoma State|
|Kansas State at Tennessee||Kansas State||Kansas State||Kansas State||Kansas State|
|Final Tally||Big 12 7-3||Big 12 7-3||Tie 5-5||Big 12 6-4|