For the third year in a row, Vanderbilt is not competing in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge. Somehow, this is only tied (with Georgia and South Carolina) for the SEC’s longest streak of not competing in the event, which annually gives SEC teams a brief break from conference play to go play the Big 12.
But, since at least some of you are interested in the SEC writ large, here’s the schedule and preview of the ESPN-sponsored event, which will probably be won by the Big 12, but we don’t actually know that.
The early game might actually be a good one. By most metrics, LSU is a top-15 team (currently 12th in KenPom) in spite of a three-game losing streak that they ended on Wednesday night with a last-minute win over Texas A&M. Here, they draw TCU in a matchup of teams that wear purple; the metrics aren’t in love with the Horned Frogs (currently 61st in KenPom), but they’re a solid 3-3 in Big 12 play and 13-4 overall. This could be a tough spot for LSU; meanwhile, this is a free shot at a Quad 1 win for TCU, which could certainly use the help.
Missouri at Iowa State (1 PM CT, ESPNU)
Unsurprisingly, this is the event’s biggest mismatch, with a top-25 Iowa State team hosting one of the SEC’s worst. Missouri has shown signs of life lately; they’re also 2-5 in the SEC and getting outscored by 0.11 points per possession in conference play.
Oklahoma at Auburn (1 PM CT, ESPN)
On the other hand, this (again unsurprisingly) is the biggest mismatch in the SEC’s favor; KenPom gives Auburn, the #1 team in the AP Poll, an 80% chance of beating Oklahoma, who’s actually a decent team (27th in KenPom) but still figuring things out in its first year under former Loyola-Chicago head coach Porter Moser (3-5 in Big 12 play.) And somehow, in a few years, this will be an SEC game.
West Virginia at Arkansas (1 PM CT, ESPN2)
The 1 PM timeslot isn’t all bad, though. West Virginia could use a win to snap a four-game losing streak, while Arkansas is red-hot, having reeled off a five-game winning streak after starting SEC play 0-3. This isn’t a pure tossup — KenPom, after all, gives Arkansas a 68% chance of winning — but this should be more competitive than either of the other two early afternoon games.
From the SEC’s perspective, it’s not great that Ole Miss is participating in this event; the Rebels are the third-worst team in the conference according to KenPom. But at least they get a home game against the Big 12’s last-place team. Kansas State isn’t terrible; they’re 57th in KenPom with wins over Texas Tech and at Texas in recent weeks, but they’re also 2-6 in the Big 12 and 10-9 overall. Still, they’re given a 58% chance of winning by KenPom.
Oklahoma State at Florida (3 PM CT, ESPN2)
Oklahoma State is ineligible for the NCAA Tournament after unsuccessfully appealing a one-year postseason ban, which held off the ban long enough for Cade Cunningham to play in the NCAA Tournament, but means that they won’t be participating this season. They’re 3-5 in the Big 12 but have a pretty solid team. Meanwhile, Florida desperately needs a win after dropping a pair of road games to Ole Miss and Tennessee this week. This is one of the more interesting games in the Challenge.
Baylor at Alabama (3 PM CT, ESPN)
This looked like a marquee game when it was scheduled, but now, in late January, Alabama sits at 4-4 in the SEC and was most recently seen handing Georgia its first SEC win. Then again, they’re definitely capable of beating Baylor, as seen in December takedowns of Gonzaga and Houston. And Baylor is capable of losing to teams like Alabama, as seen in home losses to Texas Tech and Oklahoma State earlier this month.
Mississippi State at Texas Tech (5 PM CT, ESPN2)
Obviously, this wasn’t known when the game was scheduled, but this is now a basketball version of the Liberty Bowl, where these two teams met and Texas Tech handed Mike Leach an even bigger loss than it did in court. In spite of losing head coach Chris Beard to Texas, Texas Tech is really good (13th in KenPom) and grades out as a pretty heavy favorite according to KenPom (77% chance of winning.)
Kentucky at Kansas (5 PM CT, ESPN)
I swear to God, these teams play every year in the Big 12/SEC Challenge. Unless they already played in the Champions Classic to open the season. I guess ESPN figures the only way to keep John Calipari and Bill Self on board is to ensure that they’ll never have to go to Stillwater or Starkville?
Tennessee at Texas (7 PM CT, ESPN)
Rick Barnes returns to his old stomping grounds, where he coached the Longhorns for 17 years before getting fired because he wouldn’t let go of some assistant coaches. Anyway, Texas definitely got the worse end of that breakup; in the six seasons since Barnes left, Texas has been to the tournament three times and hasn’t gotten out of the first round. This might actually be the best game of the challenge, and yes, I realize that Kentucky and Kansas play in it.