The SEC/Big 12 Challenge is perfectly timed. The other leagues should take notes — particularly the SEC/ACC Challenge, which ESPN announced is set to take its place next season. This mid-January series impacts NCAA tournament résumés. It is a chance to play meaningful matchups in the middle of conference action. It has showcased some of men’s college basketball’s most talented players. That’s a beautiful thing.
The final edition of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge on Saturday similarly promises to be filled with stars and storylines. Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes and Kansas State star Keyontae Johnson will both face their former teams. John Calipari tweaked his starting lineup and now has his Kentucky squad on a four-game winning streak — the same team whose fans were ready to fire him a few weeks ago. If the Wildcats beat Kansas on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN), they might give him a second lifetime contract. Kansas, meanwhile, hopes to end a three-game losing streak and maybe get a bit of revenge for last season’s loss.
Elsewhere, a home win over Iowa State would help a Missouri squad that’s clinging to a top-50 NET ranking. Alabama hasn’t lost since Dec. 17, and a matchup against Oklahoma in Norman probably won’t end that streak. Arkansas vs. Baylor will feature multiple projected first-round picks in this summer’s NBA draft.
Ahead of the weekend’s action, ESPN’s Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway, Joe Lunardi and Myron Medcalf break down the biggest games and storylines.
Two weeks ago, Kansas was a No. 1 seed, while John Calipari was in the coaching hot seat for Kentucky’s less-than-stellar start to the season. Now, the Jayhawks are off the top line with three straight losses, while the Wildcats are on the bubble with a four-game winning streak. What are you expecting from both teams when they meet on Saturday?
Borzello: When Kansas was humming offensively for the first two months of the season, it was its smaller lineup causing fits for opponents, spreading the floor, making 3s, winning the turnover battle. That hasn’t happened during this losing streak. The Jayhawks are shooting 26% from 3 during that stretch, while turning it over 32 times in the past two games. Throw in Jalen Wilson not getting enough help offensively and a defense that has fallen off dramatically in the past couple of games, and Kansas needs to right the ship at both ends of the floor. Kentucky has also gone smaller during its winning streak, getting better spacing and allowing Oscar Tshiebwe more room to operate inside. Which group wins out on Saturday? I think Kansas can’t shoot this poorly forever and gets back on the right track.
Predicted score: Kansas 72, Kentucky 70
Gasaway: Since Kentucky’s victory at Tennessee, the Wildcats have won three games they’re “supposed” to win, which is an essential skill. UK’s defense has improved dramatically and Tshiebwe has 67 rebounds across the four wins. Kentucky could be back. Good thing for KU that the Wildcats don’t force many turnovers. I expect Gradey Dick to shake off a perimeter cold spell (5 of his last 21) in a game that goes down to the wire.
Predicted score: Kansas 74, Kentucky 71
Lunardi: Could this be the reverse of last season, when Kentucky waltzed into Allen Field House and blitzed the future national champions? Kansas is the better team, I think, and has to be smarting a bit heading to Rupp Arena. I doubt this will be a blowout in either direction, as both teams really need a win (albeit for different reasons). But I like the Jayhawks in a close one on the road.
Predicted score: Kansas 78, Kentucky 74
Medcalf: Bill Self’s three-game losing streak says a lot about the strength of the Big 12 — the Jayhawks lost to three top-30 KenPom teams — but it doesn’t change my view of Kansas as a contender. Now, Saturday might do that. But Self has always been strong in tight games. His team is 4-1 this season in games decided by three points or less, and was 6-2 last season in the same scenario, including the national title game. But this is a hot Kentucky team. The starting lineup of Chris Livingston, Cason Wallace, CJ Fredrick, Jacob Toppin and Tshiebwe has held opponents to just 85 points per 100 possessions and snatched 42% of its missed shots during this four-game run, per hooplens.com.
Predicted score: Kentucky 74, Kansas 72
Which other Saturday game intrigues you, and why?
Lunardi: Alabama at Oklahoma (2 p.m. ET, ESPN). I am fascinated by the prospect of a freshman leading the Crimson Tide to a national championship in a sport other than football. Alabama has pretty much met every challenge to date, especially on the road, and this could be a trap against a desperate bubble team like Oklahoma. If the Sooners are going to make the NCAA tournament, they need a game like this to go their way.
Gasaway: Florida at Kansas State (6 p.m. ET, ESPN2). Keyontae Johnson faces his former team. The Gators have dropped three heartbreakers in SEC play, but Todd Golden’s group chases opponents off the 3-point line and plays excellent D inside the arc. (Well, except for the defensive rebounding.) If the Wildcats are tempted to look past UF in anticipation of Tuesday’s visit to Kansas, the home team could be in for a rude surprise.
Medcalf: At this point, they should call every Texas-Tennessee game the Rick Barnes Celebration. Barnes is in a top-10 matchup with the team he once coached in Austin (6 p.m. ET, ESPN) and the squad he now leads in Knoxville. Santiago Vescovi (12.2 PPG, 3.2 APG) is back and healthy after suffering a shoulder injury and missing time following the Kentucky loss. But a matchup against a Texas squad with legit Final Four potential will be different from the Mississippi State-LSU-Georgia run of the Vols’ three-game winning streak. The emergence of Dylan Disu — 11.6 PPG over the past three games — is one of the reasons Texas is 10-2 in the post-Chris Beard era. Rodney Terry has done a great job as acting head coach.
Borzello: Arkansas at Baylor (4 p.m. ET, ESPN). It’s a rematch of a 2021 Elite Eight game, between two teams that have picked up some consistency after early speed bumps in conference play this season. Baylor has rattled off five wins in a row since starting 0-3, while Arkansas has won two in a row following a four-game losing streak. Can Eric Musselman’s team get a road win? The Razorbacks haven’t won an away game yet in 2022-23. I don’t think it starts Saturday, but the perimeter battle with Adam Flagler, LJ Cryer and Keyonte George vs. Anthony Black, Davonte Davis and Ricky Council IV is wildly intriguing.
Alabama and Tennessee are both No. 1 seeds in Joe Lunardi’s Bracketology, among the AP top five and top three in the BPI and NET rankings. Which one is your pick for a Final Four appearance this season?
Gasaway: We have to pick one? Ouch. Fine, I’ll take the Vols. Zakai Zeigler has recorded 21 assists and nine steals to go along with nine 3s in three games since reentering the starting lineup. Plus Tennessee’s a smidge older (weighted by minutes) than the Tide. If we’ve learned one thing from the past two national champions, it’s that it can pay to be ancient.
Medcalf: On Jan. 14, 11 ranked teams lost for the first time since 2011, the same year Kemba Walker guided UConn to the national championship. I don’t think college basketball has a great team this year, so I expect the NCAA tournament to be decided by star power more than balance. And if that’s the case, I’ll go with Alabama, because I think Brandon Miller (19.5 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 45% from 3) could carry the Crimson Tide to a Final Four. Alabama ain’t a Cinderella, but I don’t think the Tide will enter many games without the best player on the floor.
Lunardi: Give me Alabama, as the Crimson Tide have the kind of balance on both sides of the ball that tends to play well in March (and April!). Tennessee’s defense might wear the Tide down in a best-of-seven series, but that’s not what we’re talking about. Alabama is going to have the best player on the floor in almost every postseason game, and you’d be surprised (not!) how often that makes the difference.
Borzello: Despite looking less than impressive against Mississippi State on Wednesday, I’ll take Alabama. I love the makeup of this team. First of all, the win over the Bulldogs was the Tide’s first victory by single digits since Dec. 13. They’ve been dominating teams. Brandon Miller is the best freshman in the country, and classmate Noah Clowney has been a surprise up front (although he’s 0-for-16 from 3 in his past four games). Mark Sears, Jahvon Quinerly and Jaden Bradley are all dynamic guards, and Charles Bediako is a shot-blocker up front. On top of all the offensive firepower, they’re a top-five defense nationally. I’m all-in.
What’s your final tally for the two conferences?
Gasaway: One wrinkle in the 2023 Challenge: Texas A&M isn’t playing, and the Aggies just might turn out to be the SEC’s third-best team. Conversely, the SEC has some teams that are struggling at the moment that are participating. That should give the Big 12 an edge. Final tally, a decisive 7-3 in favor of the Big 12.
Medcalf: Yeah, John makes a great point. If I’m Greg Sankey, I make the call and I swap Mississippi State for Texas A&M in that matchup against TCU. That would’ve been a more interesting game and might have given the SEC the edge. But I’ll take the Big 12 with a 6-4 win.
Borzello: I might go as far as saying the Big 12 wins by an 8-2 margin if things fall a certain way. Alabama and Tennessee should win their games, Kansas-Kentucky is a tossup, but the league might have the edge in the other seven games.
Lunardi: Seems to me the Big 12 has home court in more of the 50/50 games, so I’ll take the Big 12 by a 6-4 margin (and 7-3 if Kansas wins at Kentucky).
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