Breaking Down the Top Five Big 12/SEC Challenge Match-upsPosted by Brian Goodman on June 3rd, 2014
Over the last few years, college basketball has taken some big steps to become more relevant in the national consciousness before non-conference play. The second annual Big 12/SEC Challenge will attempt to drum up some early December interest in basketball before bowl season hits in earnest. The Big 12 won last season’s rendition with seven victories in 10 games and will look to pick up the pieces of its fractured national reputation after a middling March performance. Here’s a quick look at the top five match-ups of next season’s edition.
- Texas at Kentucky (December 5) – Just 12 months ago, Rick Barnes was squarely on the hot seat. Now he finds his team in the Challenge’s marquee game against last year’s national runner-up and what is sure to be the preseason #1 team in the country. Both squads will enter this game with crazy depth, so look for this one to be decided by how each team’s coach handles its pieces at this early juncture. The Longhorns will have a slight leg up on Kentucky in experience with Cameron Ridley, Jonathan Holmes and Prince Ibeh to side with blue-chip prospect Myles Turner, but much of Kentucky’s frontcourt will be back too after Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress and Dakari Johnson announced their returns in surprising fashion. The guard battles will be nothing to sneeze at, either, with Javan Felix, Isaiah Taylor and Demarcus Holland going up against the loaded Kentucky backcourt of Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison and Tyler Ulis.
- Florida at Kansas (December 5) – Andrew Wiggins nearly led the Jayhawks to an improbable comeback in Gainesville last season, but Kansas ultimately fell short in that effort. They’ll have a chance to make it good at Allen Fieldhouse, where despite their overall struggles last season, was a relative safe haven for Bill Self’s team. Wiggins and Joel Embiid are of course now gone, but Kelly Oubre, Cliff Alexander and Sviatoslav Mykhaliuk will step in, and hopefully Bill Self will find a steady point guard who can be relied on to make everything come together. Florida’s Final Four core has moved on as well, so this will be a great chance to see how incumbents Michael Frazier, Kasey Hill, Chris Walker and Dorian Finney-Smith handle a big early test on the road.
- Arkansas at Iowa State (December 4) – Late last season, Arkansas finally got to work on shaking its reputation as an incredibly frustrating road team by beating the aforementioned Wildcats in Lexington. Hilton Coliseum may not have the tradition or capacity of Rupp Arena, but the Cyclones’ faithful bring it as hard as any fan base in the country. Iowa State will be without Melvin Ejim and DeAndre Kane this time around, but they return nearly everyone else of consequence and have another group of transfers ready to make Iowa State contenders once again. On the other side of things, Bobby Portis will try to make good on his decision to return to Fayetteville for his sophomore year, and he’ll have a little more help down low than he had last season.
- LSU at West Virginia (December 4) – Last season, LSU was a trendy pick to make some noise in the SEC, but the Tigers couldn’t quite find their footing in Johnny Jones’ second year at the helm. The same can be said for West Virginia in the Big 12 under Bob Huggins, who missed the NCAA Tournament in consecutive seasons for the first time since he rebuilt the foundation at Cincinnati over 20 years ago. Juwan Staten will be back for the Mountaineers, but who will step in to fill the void left by Eron Harris’ transfer? This match-up doesn’t have the appeal of the three above tilts, but it could be the most important of the challenge games when it comes to building eventual NCAA Tournament resumes.
- Oklahoma State at South Carolina (December 6) – The Big 12 will be reunited with an old friend in South Carolina’s Frank Martin, who breathed new life into Kansas State from 2008 until his departure two years ago. Both the Cowboys and Gamecocks have some talent, but both probably need more improvement than can reasonably be expected if they are to make the NCAA Tournament next season. Le’Bryan Nash and Sindarius Thornwell, respectively, will have to lead the charge in their quest to prove the doubters wrong.