On Saturday afternoon, the Vanderbilt Commodores will travel to Norman, Oklahoma, in the middle of SEC play, to take on the Oklahoma Sooners. You might wonder why this is happening and the answer is ESPN.
In recent years, with ESPN looking for compelling college basketball content to fill the winter months, conference “challenge” events have become a popular thing. The ACC/Big Ten Challenge has been a thing for a while now, and it’s something that some college basketball fans like, with matchups happening over a few nights in early December. The Gavitt Games between the Big Ten and Big East are another one.
The Big 12/SEC Challenge is a different matter, inserted onto a random Saturday, usually seeming to coincide with the weekend between the NFL’s Conference Championship Saturday and the Super Bowl. That timing probably isn’t a coincidence. It’s a “we’re desperate for content!” weekend for ESPN. Insert a glut of nonconference games, because why not?
This is actually an improvement, though, over the first edition of the event — which just threw matchups in random spots in the early season calendar and made you think “wait, this is actually a thing?” But interrupting conference play for this seems sort of dumb. And until last year, the thing was pretty one-sided in favor of the Big 12.
The other big issue, though, is that the SEC has 14 teams while the Big 12, in spite of its name, has ten. That means four SEC teams don’t participate annually, and for whatever reason it’s done on a two-year basis, with the bottom four teams in the SEC standings sitting out for two years.
Seems logical, right? Except that right now, there are six SEC teams in the AP Top 25 and three of them aren’t participating. On the other hand, the three SEC teams outside the KenPom Top 100 — Vanderbilt, Georgia, and Texas A&M — are participating.
And how the matchups are set is another problem. The matchups are announced in advance of the season, which seems like a fine idea for an early-season event like the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, but less so for a January event. In the latter case, that means you get the #1 team in the country playing the Big 12’s basement dweller. What’s more, ESPN has to this point gone along with the petty, odious reasons that Kansas refuses to play Missouri and Texas refuses to play Texas A&M. ESPN could instantly make this more compelling by throwing those blood rivals on the court together. Instead, Kansas plays Kentucky. This is now the third time in four years that Kansas has played Kentucky in this event, and in the one year they didn’t, it was because they’d already met in the made-for-TV Champions Classic earlier in the season. Regardless of whether the matchup is compelling, there are plenty of SEC teams that would love a game with Kansas, and plenty of Big 12 teams that would love a game with Kentucky. But instead — well, Calipari and Self don’t have to deign to play a road game at a lower-tier nonconference opponent.
This might work all right if ESPN drew the matchups a couple of weeks before, Bracket Busters style. Or, hell, just drew them out of a hat. Instead, we get a weak event and a needless break from nonconference play. What the hell is the point of this?