In this season’s edition of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge, the two leagues will enter Saturday’s slate in juxtaposing positions.
If the current trend holds, the Big 12 could send 80 percent of its membership to the NCAA tournament. The Big 12, ranked first in the conference rankings on ESPN’s BPI, has eight top-50 teams and zero outside the top 100 of the BPI. That’s a remarkable reality for the nation’s most potent league.
The SEC will fight to sneak four, maybe five, teams into the NCAA tournament. And Kentucky, the jazzy billboard in front of the league’s strip mall, lost at Tennessee on Tuesday and jeopardized its shot at a top seed.
The NCAA tournament committee will not reward or punish teams according to Saturday's individual results. But the victorious conference will glean the mutual benefit of enhancing its nonconference pedigree and overall strength of schedule. That helps.
This show, however, feels like the Big 12’s party for the fourth time. We’ll see if the SEC can prove the naysayers wrong.
Last week: 3-1
No. 2 Kansas at No. 4 Kentucky, 6:15 p.m. ET, Saturday, ESPN: Maybe they’re feeling themselves. Maybe they’re caught up in the hype, in the bright lights, in the hoopla that comes with life on the Kentucky campus. Don’t kid yourself about Kentucky’s loss at Tennessee on Tuesday. The problems started with the squad’s recent 88-81 win at Mississippi State, which outscored the Wildcats 47-42 after the break and cut Kentucky’s 18-point lead with 12:21 to play down to three points with 7:49 to go.
That Kentucky team competed as if it had a magic button. Just push it once and the Wildcats will miraculously regain a double-digit lead. Nah. That’s not how it works, and the Wildcats learned the hard way in Knoxville.
Their Saturday opponents also will enter Rupp Arena after a loss. You can’t condone any doomsday theories about a Kansas team that lost for the first time on the mainland -- Indiana defeated the Jayhawks in Hawaii on Nov. 11 -- when it faced West Virginia in Morgantown on Tuesday. But you can cite this number: 6-for-15 from the charity stripe. That poor effort extended a season of drama at the free throw line (63.2 percent, No. 332 in the country). Plus, Kansas announced late Thursday that Carlton Bragg has been suspended indefinitely.
Both sets of challenges will matter on Saturday. So you have to ask yourself this question: What’s more probable? A powerful Kentucky team shifting into cruise control far too early in a packed Rupp Arena or Kansas missing one or two shots -- or free throws -- and failing to protect the rim down the stretch of a tight road game?
Prediction: Kentucky 97, Kansas 92
Texas A&M at No. 18 West Virginia, 12 p.m. ET, Saturday, ESPN: Yes, Robert Williams and Tyler Davis pose a threat to any opposing frontcourt. But these numbers matter: The Aggies have committed a turnover on 25.6 percent of their possessions in SEC play, worst in the league. West Virginia forces more turnovers than any team in America.
Prediction: West Virginia 82, Texas A&M 67
No. 5 Baylor at Ole Miss, 6 p.m. ET, Saturday, ESPN2: Baylor boasts the best defense (0.96 points allowed per possession) in the best league in America. Per KenPom.com, Ole Miss possesses the SEC’s worst offense in league play. This could be over by halftime.
Prediction: Baylor 79, Ole Miss 65
No. 25 Florida at Oklahoma, 2 p.m. ET, Saturday, ESPN: Unless Buddy Hield shows up with another year of eligibility, the Gators should pressure Oklahoma into sloppy possessions and rushed shots. Jordan Woodard will keep the Sooners close late, though. No blowouts here.
Prediction: Florida 70, Oklahoma 68
Kansas State at Tennessee, 2 p.m. ET, Saturday, ESPN2: The Wildcats go to Knoxville, where Robert Hubbs and Co. chewed up another group of Wildcats on Tuesday. The Vols have won three of their past four games. But they’ll face a Kansas State team that’s seventh in defensive turnover rate, per KenPom.com. Still, Thompson-Boling Arena will offer a setting for another significant win for the Vols.
Prediction: Tennessee 77, Kansas State 73
LSU at Texas Tech, 2 p.m. ET, Saturday, ESPNU: A Texas Tech team vying for an NCAA tournament invitation in Chris Beard’s first season in Lubbock won’t let a subpar LSU squad hinder those plans.
Prediction: Texas Tech 82, LSU 71
Texas at Georgia, 4 p.m. ET, Saturday, ESPN: It has been a rough second season for Shaka Smart. He has a projected lottery pick in Jarrett Allen and the worst offense in the Big 12 since the start of league play. The Longhorns will face one of the SEC’s worst offenses. But both teams are ranked within the top five of defensive efficiency in their respective leagues. This is a good matchup. Yante Maten (19.7 PPG) will give Georgia the edge.
Prediction: Georgia 76, Texas 70
Iowa State at Vanderbilt, 4 p.m. ET, Saturday, ESPN2: Vandy leads the SEC with a 38.8 percent clip from beyond the arc, and the Commodores also connect on 77.7 percent of their free throws. But Iowa State doesn’t put opponents on the charity stripe often, and the Cyclones protect the ball (14.0 percent turnover rate, second in the country), so Vandy won’t get many chances to hit open 3-pointers off turnovers. Monte Morris will make sure Iowa State leaves Nashville with the victory.
Prediction: Iowa State 78, Vanderbilt 74
Arkansas at Oklahoma State, 4 p.m. ET, Saturday, ESPNU: Juwan Evans will drop 30 and lead the Cowboys to a win in Stillwater.
Prediction: Oklahoma State 75, Arkansas 71
Auburn at TCU, 6 p.m. ET, Saturday, ESPNU: Jamie Dixon’s reboot at TCU will continue with a win over Auburn, which has assembled a young nucleus that will continue to grow under Bruce Pearl. Alex Robinson, however, intends to help this TCU squad reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1998. And a home loss to Auburn would not increase those odds.
Prediction: TCU 77, Auburn 70