As early-season competitions go, the Big Ten/ACC Challenge is pretty darn good. It features meaningful games, cross-conference competition, regional bragging rights -- all things worth baking into the part of the hoops calendar that does battle with college football, the NFL and the NBA. Plus, it's just fun. That helps, too.
In other words, cross-conference competitions are almost always a good idea.
It is in that spirit that we greet the announced list of matchups for the first-ever Big East/SEC Challenge, which will be played Dec. 1-3, just a few days after the Big Ten and ACC wrap things up. You may be thinking: "Hey, Eamonn, haven't the SEC and Big East been competing for like four years now?" This is true, friend. The SEC/Big East Invitational, first held in 2007, pitted four teams from each conference in quasi-road and home arenas near each respective team's campus. The Challenge format is much bigger (it has 12 games, not four) and, like in the Big Ten and ACC, these games will played at actual home and road arenas and tallied against a larger count to ... well, you know the drill.
But enough with logistics. Get to the games! Let's have a look, shall we?
Thursday, Dec. 1
St. John’s at Kentucky
Georgetown at Alabama
Providence at South Carolina
Mississippi at DePaul
Friday, Dec. 2
Vanderbilt at Louisville
Florida at Syracuse
Cincinnati at Georgia
Auburn at Seton Hall
Saturday, Dec. 3
Arkansas at Connecticut
Pittsburgh at Tennessee
West Virginia at Mississippi State
LSU at Rutgers
Which games are most intriguing? Vanderbilt-Louisville and Florida-Syracuse are obvious selections, and not just because they're the teams ranked highest in Andy Katz's (very) early preseason poll. Those games will also offer us early chances to look at teams with highly touted incoming recruits (Florida's Bradley Beal, Louisville's handful of touted players), potential breakout-candidate sophomores (Syracuse's Fab Melo and Dion Waiters among them) and, in Vanderbilt's case, a trio of veterans (Jeffry Taylor, John Jenkins and Festus Ezeli) that all spurned the NBA draft in the hopes of contending in the SEC and improving on last season's disappointing first-round NCAA tournament loss.
Oh, and speaking of highly touted incoming recruits: St. John's will have a massive hurdle to clear at Kentucky. It's never easy to win at Rupp Arena, and that UK team is going to be scary. But for St. John's, more important than an early season win will be the chance for Steve Lavin to take his batch of young ballers into one of the nation's most hostile environments.
Lavin has six ESPNU top 100 players entering as freshmen this season; collectively, those players form the No. 3 recruiting class in the country. Guess who's No. 1? We'll get to see pretty quickly whether Lavin's top class will need time to grow, or if it will arrive this fall ready to take on the biggest challenges college hoops has to offer.
At the risk of delving too deep into the individual matchups, the recipient of this year's first-ever, "Man, that game could have been so much better" award goes to Pittsburgh at Tennessee. Even so, it's fair to say Pitt may be looking for a little payback after last year's surprising early-season loss to the Volunteers in Pittsburgh.
There are some clunkers in there, sure, but there are also some underrated affairs. I'd say that title applies to West Virginia-Mississippi State. Talented but troubled Mississippi State forward Renardo Sidney made a surprisingly good decision to stay in school this spring; tracking his progress (or lack thereof) could become appointment viewing come fall.
Anyway, there you have it: The first-ever Big East/SEC Challenge. You may begin predicting these results ... now. Check back in seven months -- ugh -- to see how you did.
In the meantime, the SEC can work on adding four teams to its league so everyone in the Big East -- like 2011 absentees Notre Dame, Villanova, Marquette and South Florida -- can join the fun, too. A 16-team early-season cross-conference challenge? Let's make it happen, folks.