The Big 12-SEC Challenge freshens the season… and offers the possibility of change

The Big 12-SEC challenge is not a new thing in the world of college basketball.

Conference challenges have become a regular part of the sport. The Big 12-SEC version has been around for a few years, following a six-year period in which the SEC paired up with the previous (old-school) version of the Big East. The Big Ten-ACC Challenge has anchored the early-December schedule in the 21st century. This concept is both familiar and entrenched. It’s an easy way for conferences to schedule high-quality non-league games every year.

You might wonder: Why does the Big 12-SEC Challenge merit special attention this season?

Simple: Look at the calendar.


It has long been a belief of mine that when highly-seeded teams lose in the first week of the NCAA tournament, a part of the reason they lose is that they don’t have the familiar whistle they receive both in their conference and in their home building. A neutral floor with a different officiating crew creates an unfamiliar situation in which it’s harder for players to know what kind of calls will be made during a game.

For this and related reasons, I accordingly believe that the coaches of teams which struggle in March — I’m looking at you, Kansas, and over at you, Villanova — should play late-season non-conference games in neutral buildings to prepare for the Dance in a real-world way. The Big 12-SEC Challenge doesn’t take place in neutral arenas, but it does offer a non-conference game of significance. This event would be even better in late February, but January 30 represents a good start.

It’s true that Saturday’s events could reshape the season in a meaningful way for some of the participants. LSU (yes, overhyped and over-televised in general) might receive too much day-to-day attention in college basketball, but the Tigers will play a game worth watching on Saturday, unlike your run-of-the-mill SEC game against Georgia or Arkansas. When Ben Simmons and Company play No. 1 Oklahoma, they will play precisely the sort of game which, if won, could catapult them into the NCAA tournament. LSU doesn’t have many quality-win chances left in the SEC, so going out of conference to play a likely No. 1 seed could easily transform the Bayou Bengals’ portfolio.

Beyond Baton Rouge, Florida is another team with a chance to benefit from the adjusted-calendar version of the Big 12-SEC Challenge. The Gators lack a signature victory, but that could instantly chance if first-year head coach Michael White can lead his charges past West Virginia. Florida’s dossier would immediately receive the transformative result it needs.

Georgia, playing at Baylor, could also make a big statement to the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Committee. Texas Tech isn’t playing a likely NCAA tournament team in Arkansas, but the Red Raiders could still profit from a non-league road win against the Razorbacks. Vanderbilt and Texas could both use a win on Saturday. The Commodores need it much more than the Longhorns, but Texas is not a shoo-in for the tournament and, as such, should take this contest very seriously.

Iowa State-Texas A&M and Kentucky-Kansas aren’t instances in which teams are playing for inclusion in the field. These two clashes are, however, the centerpieces of the Big 12-SEC Challenge. They could very easily be worth a seed line come Selection Sunday.

There’s so much like to love about this event.


The final point worth emphasizing is that while these games would count just as much on a resume if they were played in November or early December, the end-of-January occasion magnifies these events in the public eye. It would be great if other conferences staged their non-league challenges at this time of year, but at least two conferences have taken the plunge.

If Kansas or Texas A&M do well in March, the point will be made (certainly by me, most likely by many others) that slotting a non-conference game closer to the Super Bowl than to Christmas just might help a team adjust to a March environment. If the practice of playing a non-conference game on or after January 30 is seen by coaches as a necessary part of a responsible regular season schedule, you’ll see more such games in the future. The 2016 Big 12-SEC Challenge really could change the face of college basketball.

The change would be for the better.

Let’s get this party started. Saturday could be a transformational day in the modern evolution of college basketball and the way teams schedule non-conference games.

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.