KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — This weekend’s Big 12/SEC Challenge offers a midseason opportunity for both leagues: The Southeastern Conference has a chance to improve its national perception, while the Big 12 seeks to solidify its status as the nation’s top basketball conference.
“We’ll see if stepping outside the league and playing some really good teams from a really great league can help us in our standing for pursuit of NCAA Tournament berths,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said.
Saturday’s schedule includes Vanderbilt at Texas, No. 9 West Virginia at Florida, No. 14 Iowa State at No. 5Texas A&M, Ole Miss at Kansas State, Tennessee at TCU, Texas Tech at Arkansas, No. 1 Oklahoma at LSU, Georgia at No. 17 Baylor, No. 20 Kentucky at No. 4 Kansas and Oklahoma State at Auburn.
The SEC enters the weekend with much to prove.
Although Kentucky added the nation’s top recruiting class and LSU has the likely No. 1 overall draft pick in freshman Ben Simmons, the SEC could have a tough time matching last season’s total of five NCAA Tournament bids. SEC teams have a combined 13-29 record against other Power 5 schools this season (4-5 against the Big 12, 8-11 against the Atlantic Coast Conference, 0-7 against the Big Ten and 1-6 against the Pac-12).
The SEC’s only Top 25 teams are Texas A&M and Kentucky, which was ranked No. 1 early in the season. Only four of the SEC’s 14 members are in the top 50 of the RPI: Texas A&M (13th), Kentucky (18th), South Carolina (26th) and Florida (28th).
In the Big 12, half of the league’s 10 teams are ranked 17th or higher: Oklahoma, Kansas, West Virginia, Iowa State and Baylor. Seven Big 12 members are in the top 50 of the RPI: Oklahoma (1st), Kansas (6th), Iowa State (8th), West Virginia (16th), Texas (21st), Baylor (23rd) and Texas Tech (37th).
“I think it’s maturity,” Texas Tech coach Tubby Smith said of his league’s strength. The Big 12 has “a lot of returning players. Talented returning players on most teams. Excellent coaches from top to bottom. Great coaches in this league. Those are the main ingredients. And then the depth that we have in the Big 12.”
CBS Sports analyst Doug Gottlieb said a negative perception surrounds the SEC mainly because Kentucky hasn’t lived up to its preseason billing, though he also noted Vanderbilt has been “alarmingly disappointing.”
“There’s been a group of disappointing teams that have made a narrative of, ‘Hey, the SEC is down,” Gottlieb said.
Saturday’s schedule creates major opportunities for SEC programs such as Florida, LSU and Vanderbilt to improve their NCAA Tournament credentials. Gottlieb called Florida a “pleasant surprise” and said Simmons’ presence makes LSU a dangerous postseason team if it gets an NCAA bid.
Florida coach Mike White acknowledges he pays close attention to the RPI and other facts and figures that can determine where his team stands.
“I’m obsessed with all those numbers,” White said. “I’m not going to lie. … We look at numbers and maybe look at other teams and how they’re doing things. There’s so much information out there. We’ve done a lot of good things. We’ve had opportunities. Some we’ve taken advantage of; some we haven’t. We have plenty more opportunities in front of us. I don’t talk to our team about it, though.”
This weekend also means plenty for the Big 12. Oklahoma and Kansas are bidding for No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. The entire league wants to show it’s as good as the RPI suggests.
“Let’s say they mop up the SEC,’ Gottlieb said. “I think the narrative will be that they’re far and away the best (conference). Whether it’s reality or not doesn’t really matter. The narrative will be in a year in which we’ve had great parity, they’re the best.”
The timing of these games should result in plenty of attention for both conferences. The Big 12/SEC Challenge, an early season event the last two years, moved to late January this season.
“We do get a Saturday in January where, there’s no football on that weekend,” Iowa State coach Steve Prohm said. “Everybody will be focused on the Big 12/SEC Challenge because our league is No. 1 in RPI. Kentucky has Kansas, we go to A&M. It’s a win-win for us.”
Because the Big 12 has four fewer members than the SEC, not every SEC team plays in this event each year. Alabama, Mississippi State, Missouri and South Carolina aren’t participating this time.