Yes, Saturday’s Big 12-SEC Challenge is a day for improving resumes and gaining NCAA tournament leverage.
LSU, Florida, Georgia, Texas Tech, Texas, Vanderbilt — they could all significantly improve their standing to varying degrees. It is a day to burnish the nitty-gritty profile, with January about to end and March coming ever closer.
However, the resume discussion is just one component of the Big 12-SEC Challenge. The event’s significance exists on a more immediate level, a month and a half before Selection Sunday.
We need to find out what teams are really made of, and in most cases, we don’t. Moreover, since the Big 12 has fallen short in each of the last two NCAA tournaments, while the SEC has lacked depth beyond Florida (2014) and Kentucky (2015), these two conferences need to test (and prove) themselves in non-league play. At the end of January, a lot of teams will be unmasked to a much greater extent, especially in the SEC. The conference known for football is a murky and muddled mystery in basketball, with few quality-win chances remaining for the top teams. Texas A&M and Kentucky, along with bubble-hugging Florida, LSU, and Georgia, will all be known to a greater extent after Saturday’s proceedings. The questions:
1) To what extent?
2) For better or worse?
Texas A&M had been thumping opponents in the SEC until recently. The Aggies swiftly and decisively knocked out a stream of inadequate foes, raising eyebrows across the land. However, A&M — perhaps looking ahead to this very moment and its “Challenge” game against Big 12 stalwart Iowa State — has gotten bored recently. The Aggies have lost their verve. The season has acquired a stale quality in a ho-hum win over Missouri and a sloppy loss at Arkansas earlier this week. Saturday, playing at home, the Aggies should be revved up and motivated. Accordingly, observers should be in a position to offer a detailed evaluation of Billy Kennedy’s team in its matchup against Steve Prohm’s Cyclones.
Will A&M play like the team which handled Gonzaga and especially Baylor, or will the Aggies be exposed as the team which got hammered by Arizona State? We’ll learn soon enough.
Kentucky really doesn’t have a top-end win which blows away everyone else in the room. The early-season victory over Duke no longer carries the cachet it possessed at the time. The Wildcats have lost to Auburn, and at least some of their other losses will likely be to non-tournament teams. Ohio State is one legitimate possibility, LSU another if the Tigers fail to beat Oklahoma in the Big 12-SEC Challenge. Going to Phog Allen Fieldhouse might not result in a win, but if Kentucky gives Kansas a 40-minute fight, John Calipari will gain the reassurance that his team can make a run in March, even if his team’s seed will fall between the 4 seed of 2011 and the 8 seed of 2014.
We’ll learn more about Big Blue in Lawrence.
Florida has muddled along this season, predictably struggling to find an identity under a new coach after the long and prosperous reign of Billy Donovan in Gainesville. Saturday’s showdown with West Virginia isn’t just a resume-making game for Michael White; it’s a time for Florida to show that it’s capable of beating a highly-credentialed team outside the SEC. The Gators’ best non-league win to this point is Saint Joseph’s, a team which owns a solid profile only because it has avoided bad losses. The Gators badly need a win of greater substance before they play Kentucky twice and visit both South Carolina and LSU.
Yes, the value of this West Virginia game is considerable for Florida. However, before we toss around the B-word (which rhymes with Australian Open “racket technology”), we must first identify what kind of team Michael White carries into February. Saturday will be a revealer for Florida, just as it will help us understand more about A&M, Kentucky, and a few other teams in the Big 12-SEC Challenge.
The long two-and-a-half-month run of conference play (including the league tournaments) can make it hard to see what teams do (or don’t) bring to the discussion table on Selection Sunday.
Thanks to the late-January staging of the latest Big 12-SEC challenge, we’ll be able to learn a lot about several teams — some pursuing high seed lines, others living on the bubble — well before March Madness arrives.
It’s a beautiful thing.