It feels like it’s been a while since we got actual, tangible on the court college basketball news (outside of you know, testing protocols, NCAA legislation and all that other boring stuff), but on Wednesday that finally changed. That’s because, we got official matchups for the Big 12-SEC Challenge.
While the news itself isn’t exactly Earth-shattering, it is a sign that we are in fact inching towards some normalcy in the college hoops world. Practices have begun, and we are now closing in on one month until the tip-off of the actual season.
Not to mention that these two leagues specifically are… LOADED. In total, five SEC teams made my most recent Top 25 (although Arkansas would fall out with the loss of Isaiah Joe in late August) and there are upwards of seven teams in the Big 12 that I believe are “NCAA Tournament good.”
Matchups for the 2021 SEC/Big 12 Challenge are set! pic.twitter.com/7BkothnZ0D
— ESPN PR (@ESPNPR) October 21, 2020
So again, these matchups are awesome.
Let’s rank them from worst to best.
10) Iowa State at Mississippi State
So I’m not going to lie to you, there’s just not all too much meat on this bone.
Mississippi State loses its top two players (Reggie Perry and Robert Woodard) off a fringe NCAA Tournament team and Iowa State lost its best player mid-season last year (Tyrese Haliburton) and was never really competitive from there. And unfortunately neither team did enough reloading to make them at all interesting. It doesn’t help that this game will be played in Starkville, likely in front of limited or no fans. I mean, at least if it were in Ames we could say, “it will be played in front of a raucous home court crowd.”
We can no longer say that, and because of it, there just isn’t all too much to get excited about – even for the fans of the two teams playing. This has “noon tip-off on ESPNU” written all over it.
9) TCU at Missouri
To it’s credit, Missouri, at least on paper, is an interesting team. They were a group who played hard last year (at one point they beat Auburn, who finished second in the league) and return nearly 90 percent of their scoring off that squad. On the flip side, they still only went 7-11 in league play and tied for 10th place in a 14 team league.
So yeah, in theory, Missouri could be a middle of the pack, NCAA Tourney bubble type team this coming season. But I guess I’ll believe it when I see it.
Then there is TCU, and well, there’s really nothing to see here. They finished tied for eighth place in the 10-team Big 12 last year, and lost their best player, Desmond Bane, off that team.
I’m not saying there’s “no” reason to watch this game. I’m just struggling to find one.
8) Texas A&M at Kansas State
Of the two teams that were actually worse than TCU in the Big 12 last year, one was Kansas State – which finished 10th in the conference standings. Oh, and for anyone looking for a silver lining, well there really isn’t one here. They lost their top three scorers off last year’s team.
At the very least however, Texas A&M should be interesting in Year 2 of the Buzz Williams era.
To his credit, Williams completely flipped the Aggies program in 2019-2020, helping them finish 16-14 and 10-8 in the SEC.
With most of their roster back, the Aggies will be a tough out in the SEC. And if you’re looking for a team that no one is really talking about which could make an NCAA Tournament run, the Aggies are probably it.
7) Auburn at Baylor
This game looks awesome on paper. There’s just one problem: Auburn loses just about everyone off last year’s second-place finisher in the SEC. And when I say “just about everyone” I mean “their top six scorers.” Even with a loaded recruiting class (highlighted by start point guard Sharife Cooper) I’m just not sure how good this team can be.
Which is a shame, because in terms of “how good this team can be” not many have a higher ceiling than Baylor. Remember, the Bears were ranked No. 1 in the country for several weeks last year, went from early November until early February without losing a game and were in line for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament before the actual NCAA Tournament was called off. Oh, and they bring back just about everyone off that team, including guard Jared Butler, who will be in the National Player of the Year conversation.
To his credit, Bruce Pearl always seems to get Auburn to overachieve. I’m just not sure this will be the game where they have a chance to show it.
6) Alabama at Oklahoma
Poor Alabama was dealt a tough blow on Monday, when four-star freshman Alex Tchikou suffered what appears to be a season-ending Achilles injury. We wish him a speedy recovery.
With that said, it doesn’t really change things from Alabama’s perspective, as they remain one of the most explosive, fun teams in the SEC entering the season. Last year the Tide led the SEC in scoring and there’s no reason to think they won’t do the same again this year, with former McDonald’s All-American Jahvon Quinerly running the point, alongside returnees John Petty and Herb Jones, who both went through the NBA Draft process before electing to return to school. Freshman guard Josh Primo and grad transfer Jordan Bruner will only add to the depth and explosiveness of this team.
As for Oklahoma, well, they’re basically the Even Steven of college basketball – never too high, never too low, just always there. I really can’t name you one specific thing that has happened at Oklahoma since Trae Young left three years ago, but I just know that they were in position to make their seventh NCAA Tournament in eight years a season ago.
Point being, this should be a matchup of a pair of NCAA Tournament caliber teams in Norman.
5) Florida at West Virginia
Speaking of a pair of NCAA Tournament caliber teams, I present you Florida at West Virginia.
Admittedly, I’d like to hype this game up, but most of you know where I stand on Mike White – I just don’t believe he is a coach that routinely has his team ready to play, especially in big games. So forgive me if I’m not sold that he can go into Morgantown, against maybe the toughest, most physical team in college basketball and come out with a win.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, if I could bet this game today, I would. West Virginia is going to physically beat the Gators to a pulp.
4) Arkansas at Oklahoma State
Forgive me if I’m getting repetitive here, but this will be a dynamic matchup of two really good teams (whether Oklahoma State is allowed to play in the NCAA Tournament or not, is another story all together).
At this point, we know the story on Arkansas: Yes, they lost their two best players off last year’s team (Mason Jones and Isaiah Joe). But they also reloaded in recruiting, with a Top 10 class nationally, headlined by four-star wing Moses Moody. They also loaded up in the grad transfer market, with former Indiana forward Justin Smith and former Top 50 recruit Vance Jackson, who most recently played at New Mexico.
Then there is Oklahoma State, and all I can say is: Welcome to the Cade Cunningham show. The kid is a superstar, and with the talent around him, I believe that the Cowboys can overachieve in the Big 12. As mentioned above though, the question becomes whether Cunningham and Oklahoma State will be allowed to compete for a tournament berth, as they’re in the midst of appealing a bogus, one-year NCAA Tournament ban.
Oh, one other fun fact: Cunningham and Moody both played together last year at Montverde Academy, on one of the best high school teams of all-time.
This will be a fun one.
3) Texas Tech at LSU
At first glance, this doesn’t have the appeal of the two games below it on this list, but let me just say that this is going to be a really good game, between two of the deepest and most athletic teams in all of college basketball.
In Baton Rouge, Will Wade once again has a “strong ass” team. As a matter of fact it might be the strongest asssed team that he has had there in four years (and yes, I just made up that term). It features returnees Javonte Smart, Trendon Watford and Darius Days (who could all be All-SEC type performers), a loaded recruiting class (highlighted by high-scoring guard Cam Thomas) with transfers Shareef O’Neal (UCLA), Josh LeBlanc (Georgetown) and Bryan Penn-Johnson (Washington) filling the frontcourt.
Then there is Texas Tech, and I’m just telling you, watch out for this team. Chris Beard loves to play tough, pressure defense and this might be his team best equipped to do it, as his whole roster is basically, versatile, switchable guys that range between 6’4 and 6’8. Returnees Kevin McCullar and TJ Shannon are joined by transfers Joel Ntambwe and Marcus Santos-Silva as well as freshmen Nimari Burnett and Micah Peavy, with the possibility that Mac McClung gets eligible by the time this game is played.
Like I said, these are two of the most talented rosters in college basketball. And this could have an Elite Eight type feel in Baton Rouge.
2) Texas at Kentucky
Call it the Jai Lucas revenge game, but again, for the 3,487th time on this list, this is just going to be a really fun game, between two LOADED rosters.
We know all about Kentucky, and with the increasing likelihood that Olivier Sarr is eligible, the Wildcats will have one the most talented starting fives in college basketball. BJ Boston is a star, Isaiah Jackson is getting rave reviews, and the buzz I’m hearing is that Terrence Clarke could be an X-factor. Apparently, Bruiser Flint agrees.
Then there is Texas, and let’s just say this: They have, in my opinion, one of the 10 most talented rosters in college basketball. In something I’ve never heard before, the Longhorns bring back their top 12 scorers off last year’s team – TOP 12!!! – and add Greg Brown. The question now is whether Shaka Smart can harness all that talent and get it to play up to its potential.
I’m not quite sure he can, but Kentucky always gets everyone’s best shot. And if they do, this should be one of the more entertaining games of Kentucky’s season.
1) Kansas at Tennessee
It doesn’t matter what preseason poll you look at, just about all of them have these two teams in the Top 15.
It starts with Tennessee, which has the best combination of talent, depth and experience in the league, with returnees Yves Pons, John Fulkerson and Santiago Vescovi, teaming with a loaded freshman class. Jaden Springer will likely compete with Boston, Clarke and Moody for Freshman of the Year honors in this league. As for Kansas, at this point, there is nothing to be said that hasn’t been already. I’m not crazy about this collective group of players, but say what you want about Bill Self (and believe me, I’ve said it all): He always has his team ready to compete.
Take two teams in the Top 15, two big-time head coaches and loaded rosters, and this is probably the best game of a big-time Big 12-SEC Challenge.
The season can’t start soon enough, people!