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.