By Chris DePew
Jan. 26, 2016
The SEC has been asking for a showcase event to prove it belongs in the ranks of the elite basketball conferences. Ready or not, it gets its wish Saturday.
The Big 12-SEC Challenge takes place for the third time, but feels like a new creation. Where previous editions consisted of games scattered across the pre-Christmas calendar, this year’s version packs 10 games into an eight-hour block on Saturday, with all games on either ESPN, ESPN2 or ESPNU. It’s a perfect occasion for laying in snacks and binge watching hoops, all in the name of conference pride.
But with the big day at hand, the SEC finds itself with a house not put in order and high-class company on the way. Half of the Big 12 is comfortably in this week’s AP Top 25, with Oklahoma at No. 1 and Kansas having been there earlier this month. West Virginia joined that duo in the Top 10, while Iowa State continues to be a giant killer at home and Baylor is nobody’s slouch at No. 17. Digging deeper, Texas is a respectable 12-7 against the nation’s toughest schedule and even Kansas State is holding on inside the RPI top 50.
The SEC? Well Texas A&M cracked the Top 5 this week and hosts No. 14 Iowa State in the league’s best shot for an impressive win Saturday. No. 20 Kentucky had a bounce-back week but owes its ranking as much to reputation as results. Furthermore, the Wildcats face steep odds at Allen Fieldhouse, where No. 4 Kansas has won 34 straight games.
In the other marquee games, unranked LSU and Florida both figure to be home underdogs to Oklahoma and WVU respectively. Underachieving Vanderbilt is 1-5 in road games and must travel to Texas for a morning tipoff against Shaka Smart’s patented Havoc defense. Meanwhile, Georgia will be lucky to hang around at Baylor and Ole Miss still figures to be banged up for its trip to Kansas State. Arkansas-Texas Tech, Tennessee-TCU and Auburn-Oklahoma State could make the final tally look more respectable for the SEC, but those games will reflect true conference strength about as much as the average Music City Bowl does in football.
So enjoy the games Saturday, but be prepared to save room for some humble pie. And remember why Mama insisted that the house be cleaned before company came over.
Game of the week: Alabama (10-8, 1-5 SEC) at South Carolina (17-2, 4-2), 5 p.m. Central Saturday, SEC Network. While all the other SEC contenders are mixing it up out of conference, the Gamecocks will try and avenge their first loss of the season and reverse some troubling trends that have erased their margin for error in the league race. In both the 73-50 blowout in Tuscaloosa and last Saturday’s 78-69 setback at Tennessee, USC was plagued by prolonged shooting droughts, unbalanced scoring (both times Michael Carrera was the only starter to break double figures) and giving up career highs to an opposing player (27 points for Bama’s Riley Norris, 36 to UT’s Kevin Punter). And it took a rally from an 11-point deficit in the final five minutes to force overtime before the Gamecocks escaped with a midweek win at Ole Miss.
For its part, the Crimson Tide shouldn’t count on winning the same way twice. Norris and Justin Coleman (14 points) both blew past their season scoring averages, while no one else scored more than eight points. And while Bama is no longer the worst rebounding team in the SEC, it still seems unlikely that it will out-rebound South Carolina again, when the Gamecocks average 7.5 more boards per game than the Tide.
Also this week:
Mississippi State at South Carolina, 6 p.m., SEC Network
Florida at Vanderbilt, 8 p.m., ESPNU
Georgia at LSU, 8 p.m., ESPN
Tennessee at Alabama, 8 p.m., SEC Network
Auburn at Ole Miss, 6 p.m., SEC Network
No. 5 Texas A&M at Arkansas, 6 p.m., ESPNU
Missouri at No. 20 Kentucky, 8 p.m., SEC Network
No. 9 West Virginia at Florida, 11 a.m., ESPN
Vanderbilt at Texas, 11 a.m., ESPN2
Ole Miss at Kansas State, 1 p.m., ESPNU
Tennessee at TCU, 1 p.m., ESPN2
No. 14 Iowa State at No. 5 Texas A&M, 1 p.m., ESPN
Texas Tech at Arkansas, 3 p.m., ESPNU
No. 1 Oklahoma at LSU, 4 p.m., ESPN
Georgia at No. 17 Baylor, 5 p.m., ESPN2
No. 20 Kentucky at No. 4 Kansas, 6 p.m., ESPN
Oklahoma State at Auburn, 7 p.m., ESPN2
Mississippi State at Missouri, 7:30 p.m.
- Texas A&M – Aggies basketball is at its loftiest height ever. Previously, A&M had never been higher than No. 6 in the polls, a ranking it hit three different times in the 2006-07 season. That team made the Sweet 16 before losing 65-64 to Memphis in the Alamodome.
- Kentucky – It was hardly a surprise to see John Calipari win his 100th game at Rupp Arena Saturday against Vandy. Since taking over the Wildcats, Calipari is an incredible 97-3 in his oldish Kentucky home.
- Florida – The maturation of Dorian Finney-Smith is a big reason the Gators are bouncing back this year. He was named the SEC’s player of the week after collecting 20 points and 13 rebounds against MSU and 24 points and eight rebounds in a 95-63 demolition of Auburn.
- LSU – It’s not fair to say he was slumping, but Ben Simmons did end a mini-drought by his standards with 23 points at Alabama. It was the first time in four games he broke the 20-point barrier, and the most he scored in a Tigers win since dropping 36 against Vandy back on Jan. 2.
- South Carolina – The Gamecocks’ defense has sprung a leak along the perimeter. In six league games, USC is allowing 9.5 made 3-pointers per game, and Tennessee and Ole Miss both had 10 treys against USC last week.
- Georgia – Sophomore forward Yante Maten may be the best SEC player no one’s talking about. He’s averaging 16.3 points and 7.9 rebounds per game and has scored in double digits in all seven conference games. Maten scored 21 points last Wednesday at Mizzou and 17 Saturday versus Arkansas, while grabbing 12 rebounds in both games.
- Vanderbilt – Is Damian Jones fouling his way out of the draft lottery? The junior center only played 19 minutes and collected five fouls in last Wednesday’s win at Tennessee, his fourth disqualification of the year. He has also finished three league games with four fouls.
- Auburn – As Cinmeon Bowers goes, so go the Tigers. He had a dream game versus Alabama, racking up 20 points and 18 rebounds. But the dream turned into a nightmare at Florida, where he finished with four points and nine boards.
- Tennessee – Punter grabbed the headlines against USC, but undersized forward Armani Moore did the dirty work in the Vols’ upset. The 6-foot-4 senior racked up six rebounds, five steals and four assists Saturday.
- Ole Miss – The Rebels are tied with Bama for the longest current losing streak (four games) and figure to be in free fall until Stefan Moody returns. Ole Miss wilted late against South Carolina once the league’s top scorer left with an injured hamstring, then lost at Mississippi State with him and two other regulars out.
- Arkansas – The Hogs are the best 3-point shooters in the SEC, but it was hard to tell in Thursday’s loss to Kentucky, when Arkansas went 2-for-12 from behind the arc. The Razorbacks improved to 8-for-19 Saturday but lost an overtime heartbreaker to Georgia.
- Alabama – Norris may never have another dream night like he did against USC, but the sophomore small forward has become a solid complimentary scorer. He had 10 points (along with 10 rebounds) in Saturday’s loss to LSU and now has scored in double digits in eight of the Tide’s 18 games.
- Mississippi State – Freshman Malik Newman finally had his breakthrough game, and all it took was a visit from archrival Ole Miss. The shooting guard from Jackson hit seven 3-pointers and scored 20 of his career-high 25 points in the second half as the Bulldogs got their first SEC win, 83-77.
- Missouri – Go figure. The Tigers have played some of their basketball after announcing a self-imposed postseason ban. Over the last three games, Mizzou has hung tough before fading at South Carolina and A&M, and in between nearly shocked Georgia before falling 60-57 in Columbia.
Follow Chris DePew on Twitter @TideFansChris
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