LEXINGTON, Ky. — In four years of the Big 12-SEC Challenge, the latter league has never posted a winning record. The former went 20-10 in the first three years before the Southeastern Conference scratched out a 5-all split last season.
But now the SEC finally might have the firepower to take out the Big 12 in this thing. The league has earned a measure of respect since putting three teams in the 2017 Elite Eight and opening this season with several key nonconference victories.
In fact, the SEC is already 4-4 against the Big 12: Back in November, Arkansas beat Oklahoma, Texas A&M took out West Virginia and Oklahoma State, and Missouri beat Iowa State.
The Big 12 has eight top-50 teams in Ken Pomeroy’s metric-based rankings, while the SEC has seven. ESPN’s latest bracketology (updated Thursday) has seven Big 12 teams and eight from the SEC projected in the NCAA Tournament field.
“Look, both leagues are really strong this year,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “I would say right now when you look at RPI and all the other things, probably the best two leagues.”
Calipari’s Wildcats, unranked for the first time since 2014, have arguably the most difficult matchup this year: Saturday night at seventh-ranked West Virginia. The Aggies have a tough one, too, with a trip to fifth-ranked Kansas.
“We probably have the challenge of challenges playing who we’re playing and how they’re playing, on their court where they just don’t lose. Great challenge,” Calipari said. “I’m excited for the challenge and I’m excited for our team to see where we are right now.
“And thank goodness we’re still in January — we still have a solid month and a half to get this thing right.”
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One unfortunate stroke of scheduling luck for the SEC: First-place and 19th-ranked Auburn, which no one predicted would be either of those things, is not participating in the challenge. Instead, on Saturday the Tigers will play LSU, which owns five RPI top-50 wins but also wasn’t invited to the challenge.
So what if the SEC can’t topple the Big 12 this year?
“I don’t think this does anything to hurt what’s happening in our league,” Calipari said. “The only thing that kind of gets me is we have some teams lose a couple games and all of a sudden you start dropping like a rock — not just us. But in other leagues, you lose two or three in a row and it doesn’t really affect you. That’s just the dregs from the old SEC. That’s just the dregs. It’s just not believable.
“We’ve got really good teams in this league right now with really good coaches, and dudes are performing. There are no bad teams in this league — none. [South Carolina coach] Frank Martin and I were talking the other day and he said to me, ‘Cal, there is no game where you walk in and say, OK, we can play bad and still win this.’ No, you’re losing.”
2018 Big 12-SEC Challenge schedule
(All games Saturday; rankings from KenPom.com)
No. 42 Baylor at No. 28 Florida, Noon, ESPN
No. 12 Texas Tech at No. 68 South Carolina, Noon, ESPN2
No. 77 Ole Miss at No. 40 Texas, 2 p.m., ESPN2
No. 70 Georgia at No. 31 Kansas State, 2 p.m., ESPNU
No. 19 Oklahoma at No. 58 Alabama, 2:15 p.m., ESPN
No. 20 TCU at No. 102 Vanderbilt, 4 p.m., ESPN2
No. 15 Tennessee at No. 99 Iowa State, 4 p.m., ESPNU
No. 35 Texas A&M at No. 9 Kansas, 4:30 p.m., ESPN
No. 64 Oklahoma State at No. 45 Arkansas, 6 p.m., ESPN2
No. 33 Kentucky at No. 10 West Virginia, 7 p.m., ESPN
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Kyle Tucker – SEC Country