In the course of time, the Big 12-SEC Challenge could very easily become an event which reshapes several college basketball seasons.
We could sit here in April and realize how much this midseason event — staged in the middle of the conference season — altered the trajectory of a crazy college basketball campaign.
Right now, however, we simply don’t know what this event means for the teams involved — not on a larger level.
If you wanted a big takeaway from the past weekend of ball, you just didn’t get one. You’ll have to settle for the smaller details and a lot of wishes from various fan bases.
Sure, on a more immediate level, some news stories definitely emerged from the 10-game series involving the Big 12 and the SEC. The Big 12 put Kansas, Kansas State, TCU, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Baylor, and Texas in the winner’s circle. The SEC’s banner was carried by Florida, Arkansas, and most centrally by Texas A&M. The Big 12 won, 7-3, as you’d expect in one of the SEC’s weaker team sports. (Dorothy, you’re not playing football or baseball anymore.)
Also of note: Kentucky’s failure to beat Kansas will almost certainly limit how high the Wildcats can climb on the seed lines come Selection Sunday. If UK can’t beat Texas A&M on the road, it’s highly likely the Cats will not get a protected (top-4) seed. They’ll have to come from the middle of the bracket to make the Final Four, much as they did in 2014. True, no one will want to play Big Blue, but just the same, the margins will be smaller for John Calipari this March. If he rides this team to Houston (which hosted UK when it reached the 2011 Final Four as a 4 seed), he will make the strongest case yet that he — not Rick Pitino or Tom Izzo — is the Italian-American coach who does his best work in the month of March.
Another story which emerged from Saturday: Texas A&M, by taking care of Iowa State, took the path opposite of Kentucky’s. The Aggies will indeed get a protected seed, barring a complete collapse over the next six weeks. Billy Kennedy’s team needed to reaffirm its credentials (and blot out a curiouser-and-curiouser loss to Arizona State). Mission accomplished in College Station.
Let’s be clear in establishing the parameters of this piece: This is an evaluation of the quality and identity of teams, not so much their resumes. We certainly gained critical information about the profiles of various teams heading into February. We didn’t learn as much about the teams themselves — they’re still mysteries as college basketball enters the hinge-point month before March.
Underline this sentence in bright red ink: No one’s saying that the various results in the Big 12-SEC Challenge lacked value.
LSU’s loss to Oklahoma is a huge one in terms of the Tigers’ NCAA tournament chances. The Bayou Bengals would have been in good shape with a win. Now, their margin of error is conspicuously small. On the other side of the coin, Florida’s win over West Virginia gives the Gators the transformative triumph LSU failed to snag. Michael White won his first really big game in Gainesville. The locals hope it will be the first of many dozens of signature conquests.
Yes, Saturday’s games meant a lot in terms of altering various resumes. Did they show that certain teams are uniquely fortified to thrive in the postseason (or conspicuously lacking when March Madness comes calling)? That’s where it’s hard to find solid answers.
The first and most significant big-picture result of the Big 12-SEC Challenge is that in these rare non-conference games (rare not on a general level, but for the end of January), the road team won only two of 10 games. When you then realize that the two losing home teams were Auburn (still a mess as Bruce Pearl dives into a long-term rebuild) and a team coached by Johnny Jones, it’s pretty clear that home-court advantage meant a ton.
Kansas protected Phog Allen Fieldhouse yet again, but you’d get few arguments that Kentucky impressed and progressed more than the Jayhawks did on Saturday. Being able to do that well in one of college basketball’s toughest gymnasiums for road teams should give Kentucky the belief that it can put the pieces together in March. That said, the Wildcats still have to get more production from their frontcourt, so that Tyler Ulis doesn’t have to carry a disproportionate share of the workload for this team. We’ve seen Kansas win home game after home game in previous seasons, only to lose on a neutral court in March, well before the Final Four. If you wanted a definitive indication of KU’s readiness for March, it just didn’t emerge on Saturday, though the Jayhawks will happily take a win which (as in the case of A&M) bolsters that seed line for Selection Sunday.
Let’s move to Iowa State in this examination of “Discovery Saturday.” The Cyclones might have lost on the road to a team from the weaksauce SEC, but A&M is going to be a top-three seed on Selection Sunday. In the Aggies’ house, the Cyclones played well below their best and still came very close to winning:
Iowa State hit just 31% of their jump shots, committed 16 turnovers, and had a hobbled Niang, yet still almost pulled this out.
— Jeff (BPredict) (@BPredict) January 30, 2016
It’s true that the NCAA tournament can’t be played in Hilton Coliseum, and it’s also true that by losing, Iowa State failed to pick up the kind of win that can move a team up a seed line or two. Nevertheless, in a season with no truly great teams — only a lot of very good ones, jumbled together — Saturday’s showing reinforces the idea that ISU remains in the mix, as opposed to being exposed as a team which won’t make the cut.
West Virginia? The Mountaineers are predictable only in their unpredictability.
Baylor? The Bears did beat Georgia… and that’s about it. They actually seemed a little bored with a lower-tier opponent in a non-conference matchup. They know their bigger games lie ahead.
We do know that Texas Tech has a terrible time finishing games — 8-0 against West Virginia on Jan. 23, 4-0 at Arkansas this past Saturday:
The Red Raiders have been outscored 12-0 in the final 52 seconds of regulation in each of their last two Saturday games, including today.
— The Student Section (@TheStudentSect) January 30, 2016
Beyond the micro, though, it didn’t seem that any big-picture lessons emerged on Saturday.
Oh, well — I guess we’ll just have to study and enjoy college basketball before March… which is exactly as it should be, at least if every game counts.