All eyes in the college basketball world Saturday will be fixed on the 8th annual SEC-Big 12 Challenge, with the SEC looking to win the event for only the second time. The Big 12 holds a 40-30 overall edge in the challenge, but the SEC has been far more competitive in recent seasons, playing the Big 12 to a 20-20 split over the past 4 challenges. 

The challenge moved to the last weekend in January during the 2015-16 season and has served as a welcome reprieve for fans and players alike from the midseason monotony of conference play ever since. The challenge consistently delivers a game or two of appointment television, and that’s no different this season, with 13 teams in the field in Jerry Palm’s CBS and Joe Lunardi’s ESPN Bracketology set to compete. 

Bragging rights are always at stake, as well as résumé opportunities. This season it may be even more impactful. 

The COVID-19 pandemic forced a later start to the season than usual, has caused game cancellations and postponements, and significantly limited the nonconference slate across the country. As a result, this challenge takes on added significance. 

Multiple games could impact not just whether a team solidifies a résumé, but could be decisive in seed lines, and with the NCAA Tournament set to be played entirely in Indiana, a program’s pure placement on the seeding curve figures to be all the more critical. 

The games, Saturday tip times and television landing spots are listed below.

  • No. 9 Alabama @ No. 24 Oklahoma (12 PM, ESPN 2)
  • Texas A&M @ Kansas State (12 PM, ESPNU)
  • No. 10 Texas Tech @ LSU (2 PM, ESPN 2)
  • Florida @ No. 11 West Virginia (2 PM, ESPN)
  • TCU @ No. 12 Missouri (2 PM, ESPN U)
  • Auburn @ No. 2 Baylor (4 PM, ESPN)
  • Arkansas @ Oklahoma State (4 PM, ESPN 2)
  • No. 15 Kansas @ No. 18 Tennessee (6 PM, ESPN)
  • Iowa State @ Mississippi State (6 PM, ESPN 2)
  • No. 5 Texas @ Kentucky (8 PM, ESPN)

Here are five thoughts on the SEC-BIG 12 Challenge.

Appointment TV: No. 9 Alabama at No. 24 Oklahoma 

There’s nothing better on a college basketball Saturday than waking up, getting some breakfast, knocking out a Saturday morning errand (Home Depot and maybe Bed, Bath and Beyond, if there’s time) and buckling up for a big-time game with a noon tip.

Nate Oats has the Crimson Tide rolling in Year 2, unbeaten in the league and looking like a legitimate Final Four contender behind the marvelous play of Herb Jones, the runaway midseason favorite for SEC Player of the Year.

College basketball fans and analysts alike have long believed in Oats’s analytics-driven offense, which sees the Tide take a ton of 3s and shots at the tin, based on the percentages saying that’s an efficient way to play. The Tide’s culture simply refuses to allow bad or low-efficiency shots, like the midrange jumper or the floater in the lane. Case in point: this shot chart, which for basketball analytics nerds and former math teachers like Oats, probably belongs in the Metropolitan Musuem of Art:

 The question with Oats was always whether his quick tempo offense and system would work in the Power 6, and whether his teams would be able to defend in his aggressive man to man scheme for 40 minutes. This season, the Tide have dramatically improved on defense — to the point where they win basketball games on that end. The Tide have the SEC’s best per-possession defense (0.090 points allowed per possession), which means on the rare night they miss shots, like Tuesday against Kentucky, they can survive by getting stops.

They’ll be pushed by an Oklahoma team analytics like more than pollsters. The Sooners rank 19th in KenPom, buoyed by a very efficient offense led by Austin Reaves and stretch four Brady Manek and a fantastic bench led by lethal shooters Umoja Gibson and Jalen Hill. Lon Kruger’s team has won 4 straight, beating 2 top-10 teams in that stretch. 

This will be the Tide’s best test since a visit to Tennessee in early January and it will be appointment television.

Disappointment TV: Texas A&M at Kansas State

Look, Buzz Williams is going to get things going in College Station. There’s too much administrative support and his track record is too good for him to fail. But the Aggies at present are a brutal watch. They play hard for Buzz and they defend beyond their talent level (74th in KenPom defense), but they can’t score. They rank 216th in adjusted offensive efficiency and have scored more than 60 points only twice in conference play. Woof.

They’ll face a Kansas State team that has gone from the penthouse (an Elite Eight in 2018) to the poorhouse (a 5-12 mark this season) in what seems like the blink of Bruce Weber’s eye. The Wildcats have lost 7 in a row and have lost by double digits this season to Division II Fort Hays State. Ouch. 

Avert your eyes.

Florida at No. 11 West Virginia: Seeds at stake

This isn’t your typical Bob Huggins team — you know the type — suffocate you on defense and grind out just enough offensively to win games and be a brutal out in March. 

The Mountaineers will be a brutal out in March, to be sure, but for a different reason in 2021: They can really score. West Virginia ranks 16th nationally in KenPom offense, thanks to sharpshooters Taz Sherman and Miles McBride, who have helped a team that ranked 310th in the country in three-point field goal percentage a season ago at 28.5% shoot 38% through the season’s first 15 games this year. 

The added scoring has offset a bit of a different look defensively. The Mountaineers don’t press as much as they used to, reverting to traps and a 1-3-1 zone that beckons back to Huggins’s Cincinnati days on defense, but they are turning teams over with traps and getting enough stops to let their offense do most of the heavy lifting. Plus, they are their usual dominant selves on the glass, ranking 13th in offensive rebounding, a number that’s actually improved since Oscar Tshiebwe transferred. 

Mike White and the Gators have struggled this year with teams that can control the glass, losing the rebounding battle by 23 in a 3-point loss at Mississippi State earlier this month. But after initially struggling to find an offensive identity in the absence of SEC preseason player of the year and surefire All-American Keyontae Johnson, Florida has found a rhythm offensively, scoring over 1.2 points a possession against a great Tennessee defense and manhandling an improved Georgia on the road one weekend ago. If Florida sticks with the 2-big lineup of Omar Payne and Colin Castleton and they hold their own on the glass, Florida’s excellent guards Tre Mann and Tyree Appleby should be able to use their speed in transition against the less athletic West Virginia backcourt for easier buckets. That will give the Gators a chance.

The winner will have their second-best win of the season, and that should be worth a seedline or even two come Selection Sunday. 

No. 15 Kansas at No. 18 Tennessee: Good teams desperate for big win

Speaking of seedline games, the much-anticipated Kansas-Tennessee game is still huge, but not for the reasons we thought it might be when we saw the challenge slate last autumn. Back then, the thought was that this could be a game that determines who gets a 1 or a 2 seed in March. Now, it’s a seedline game but more in the 3-5 range, and it is also an inflection point game for two teams that have struggled over the past few weeks.

The Vols have really struggled to score without Jaden Springer, who has been battling an ankle injury. Springer returned against Mississippi State but looked limited, and he’s still day-to-day for Saturday. More concerning, the Vols’ defense, which still ranks 2nd in KenPom defensive efficiency, has gone from allowing .88 points per possession to .95 over the past 4 games. That’s still good defense — but it isn’t suffocating enough when you struggle to score. Rick Barnes has lamented his veteran leadership, and Saturday would be as good a time as any to turn that around.

Meanwhile, Kansas appears poised to finally lose its vice grip on the Big 12, having lost 3 of their last 4 and looking unconvincing in the only win in that stretch, a tight 8-point contest with TCU. The Jayhawks defend at a high level (.94 per possession), but they can struggle to score, especially when the vastly improved Ochai Agbaji isn’t making shots. 

Expect a low-scoring rock fight but a fun one between two teams desperate to make a statement and grab a big resume win in the process.

Kentucky’s last stand? Sharife Cooper’s “Hello World” Game? Other thoughts …

John Calipari, long an advocate for canceling conference tournaments, joked that he “loved the conference tournament” this week after Kentucky’s tough loss at Alabama. The Wildcats still have time to turn things around and get back in the at-large conversation, but Saturday night’s game, ironically against a team from Texas, is their Alamo on that front.

The Longhorns will arrive at Rupp without Shaka Smart, but Texas star Courtney Ramey, who missed the Horns loss to Oklahoma, is expected back. Kentucky doesn’t have a point guard that can do what Calipari needs them to do, and as good as Olivier Sarr is, he’s not comfortable enough with his back to the basket to offset the lack of creativity at the guard position. It’s tough to see Kentucky fixing that in time to upset Texas on Saturday, but stranger things have happened.

Meanwhile, Auburn gets the toughest ask in the SEC in visiting No. 2 Baylor. A month ago, with Sharife Cooper in NCAA limbo and the Tigers losing to the likes of Texas A&M, this game looked like a dud. Now, with Cooper infusing Auburn with life and looking very much like the star Bruce Pearl recruited, this could be a fun coming out party game for those who haven’t seen Cooper nationally.

Is it enough to keep it close? Hard to say. Cooper hasn’t seen defenders like Davion Mitchell and Jared Butler yet and Baylor is so good schematically on defense an upset is a tough ask. But it will be a fun game for the DVR. 

Keep your eyes on LSU and Texas Tech as well — a magnificent contrast of styles, with LSU’s high octane offense and Chris Beard’s “no middle penetration” defense a delight for the Xs and Os basketball fan.