This year's SEC/Big 12 Challenge ended in a 5-5 tie.
The Big 12 had won the first three challenges between the conferences and held a 20-10 edge heading into this season. But Kansas’ 79-73, come-from-behind victory at Kentucky on Saturday, just the third win by any visiting team at Rupp Arena in more than two years, kept the SEC from breaking through.
The Big 12’s best showcased their potential -- and flaws -- in the challenge. Kansas, Baylor, West Virginia, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech all won. For the SEC, Tennessee, Auburn, Georgia, Vanderbilt and Florida scored victories.
What did we learn about both leagues from the challenge? Plenty.
Manu Lecomte is an elite point guard who could lead Baylor to the Final Four
Deep into a difficult game at Ole Miss on Saturday, Baylor led by just three points.
Andy Kennedy’s Rebels squad connected on 38.9 percent of its shots from beyond the arc on Saturday. Sebastian Saiz finished with 20 points and 10 rebounds. Baylor’s foul trouble and Ole Miss’ zone disrupted the Bears’ attack.
That’s how the Rebels led throughout a game against a Bears team that’s vying for the top overall seed on Selection Sunday.
With just under 23 seconds to go, Manu Lecomte -- a junior transfer from Miami -- caught the ball above the 3-point line and hit a critical shot that extended Baylor’s lead. That proved to be a critical shot because Rebels guard Cullen Neal drew a late foul at the 3-point line and made all three free throws in the final seconds.
Lecomte is a star.
Per Synergy data, Lecomte is 23-for-50 this season on his no-dribble jumpers. He has also made 39 percent of his 3-pointers and 82 percent of his free throws.
With Johnathan Motley hindered by foul trouble throughout the game and defensive ace Ish Wainright wrestling ballhandling troubles (five turnovers), Baylor coach Scott Drew needed someone to help his team avoid a loss that would have damaged its top-seed aspirations.
Lecomte stepped up with a 17-point, 4-rebound, 4-assist game that included his big 3-pointer. Earlier this year, he finished with 24 points in the Bears' victory over Xavier and 18 points in a victory over Oregon.
Baylor is one of America’s best defensive teams, although Ole Miss’ 1.15 points per possession challenged that notion Saturday. The Bears also have an all-Big 12 star in Motley. But Lecomte continues to emerge in big moments.
With Lonzo Ball, De’Aaron Fox, Frank Mason, Bronson Koenig, Nigel Williams-Goss, London Perrantes, Joel Berry II and Quentin Snider all handling point guard responsibilities for top-15 squads, a Final Four run without the services of a talented point guard seems an unlikely endeavor.
On Saturday, Lecomte tossed his name into the conversation about the nation’s most significant point guards with his effort at Ole Miss. Baylor could go far in March with Lecomte as its leader.
Kansas relies on experience to leave Rupp Arena with a win
In the first 10 minutes of their 79-73 victory at Kentucky on Saturday, the Jayhawks looked tired. They’d lost a scrap at West Virginia earlier in the week. Several players had been interviewed as part of an investigation into an incident that occurred in their dorm last month. Then the school announced that sophomore Carlton Bragg (6.1 points per game) had been suspended indefinitely heading into Saturday’s matchup in Lexington, Kentucky.
Kansas needed freshman Josh Jackson (20 points, 10 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals) to secure the win. But Mason and the three other upperclassmen in the starting lineup -- including Landen Lucas and his 6-for-6 effort -- helped Kansas fight back from an early deficit and control the game in the second half.
That would not have happened without the poise of veterans who helped KU navigate a turbulent week and grab another signature victory.
Bizarre final seconds did not diminish the danger of West Virginia
A weird thing happened toward the end of West Virginia’s 81-77 win over Texas A&M. If you only glanced at the box score, you missed A&M outscoring WVU 14-7 in the final 90 seconds of the game. The Mountaineers got sloppy late, but they also forced turnovers on 31 percent of A&M’s possessions.
Oklahoma, Texas Tech and Kansas State each respectably handled West Virginia’s pressure and handed Bob Huggins’ squad a loss this season. But Tuesday’s 16-point victory over Kansas and Saturday’s victory -- in which Aggies star Robert Williams was held to eight points -- showcased West Virginia’s unique ability to control the pace of a game when it creates chaos with its pressure.
Challenge tie does not mean leagues are equal, but SEC exceeded expectations
Vanderbilt’s come-from-behind win over Iowa State and Auburn’s win over TCU were the SEC’s most impressive victories in the challenge. Bruce Pearl coached the Tigers to a victory over a TCU squad that had played its way into the NCAA bubble conversation. And Bryce Drew’s Commodores beat a Cyclones squad ranked among the top 25 of ESPN’s BPI. But you can’t take the 5-5 challenge tally and suggest the SEC and Big 12 (eight teams in BPI’s top 50), arguably America’s strongest conference, are equals. They’re not.
The league’s title contenders -- Kansas, West Virginia and Baylor -- all won. Two of the Big 12’s mid-level teams -- Kansas State and Iowa State -- lost road games. But Ole Miss’ effort against Baylor, Vandy’s win, Auburn’s road victory and Texas A&M’s late rally all enhanced the perception of the league, which should please SEC commissioner Greg Sankey and the league’s supporters.
Subpar records masking top talent in both leagues
Oklahoma State's Jawun Evans (16 points, 8 assists, 7 rebounds against Arkansas), Texas A&M's Tyler Davis (19 points, 18 rebounds against West Virginia), Ole Miss' Sebastian Saiz (20 points, 10 rebounds against Baylor), Georgia's Yante Maten (21 points, seven rebounds against Texas) and Vanderbilt's Luke Kornet (21 points against Iowa State) are all talented athletes excelling for teams outside the BPI’s top 30. It can be difficult to get national attention, but they all dominated in their challenge matchups.