Late season, nonconference basketball really is the best. Like every sports season, the end of the regular season can drag on at times. We see these conference matchups every season and there haven’t been a lot of great ones this year. There just aren’t many high level teams in each conference to produce intense matchups.
Enter the Big 12/SEC Challenge. It’s a collection of matchups that we don’t see a lot between 20 high-level teams that gives off an NCAA Tournament-type energy. I’m a big fan and I want to see every conference participate in one of these late in the season. There are six power conferences. Match them up each season, put each conference in a hat and see which matchups happen. It’s one day, it usually isn’t a bad loss and gives each conference an opportunity to boost its resume. It’s a win-win, and it’s a lot of fun.
With that being said, this year’s Big 12/SEC Challenge went the way of the southeast by a tune of 5-4. Tennessee dominated Kansas, but Alabama couldn’t get it done against a shorthanded Oklahoma team and Missouri needed overtime to beat TCU. Baylor was Baylor and I ended up feeling the same way about both conferences that I did before the weekend started. Let’s dive into some more specific topics from Saturday’s slate.
1. This wasn’t really a needle-moving weekend for the SEC.
We know what the Big 12 is. It has the second-best team in the sport at the top of the conference followed by six other NCAA Tournament level teams. If Oklahoma State was tournament eligible we’d see seven Big 12 teams dancing without hesitation. This weekend wasn’t about the Big 12 proving anything, but the same can’t be said for the SEC. Yes, it won the event 5-4, but it wasn’t exactly impressive. Missouri escaped TCU at home, Alabama wasn’t able to get it done in Norman and Arkansas missed an opportunity to get a really solid win in Stillwater against Cade Cunningham and the Pokes.
The SEC didn’t hurt its reputation on Saturday, but it didn’t take full advantage of the opportunity to make a conference wide statement before the last push toward the end of the season. Thankfully for SEC teams on the bubble, Alabama, Tennessee and Missouri have solidified themselves as top 25 teams that offer chances to get great resume-building wins. The conference just isn’t on the same level as the Big 12. We already knew that, but the SEC didn’t really do anything this weekend to suggest that has changed.
2. Alabama is a good team, not a great one.
There are a lot of things that separate the good teams from the great ones. Here’s one reason, in particular: great teams find ways to beat good teams even when they don’t shoot it well. Good teams don’t. Therefore, Alabama is a good team. What happened on Saturday was the culmination of something that’s been happening for the last week and a half. When the Tide don’t shoot it well, they aren’t all that scary. To be clear, that’s not a knock, it’s just true. When Alabama went 23-for-43 from the 3-point line, they beat LSU by 30 (by the way, they had eight more 3-point FGs than 2-point FGs in that game). When they shoot just 38.9% from the field, they lose to a Sooners team that is missing its best player. They got past lesser teams like Kentucky with poor shooting, but weren’t able to do enough to beat Oklahoma.
3. Tennessee won the battle of struggling giants in these two conferences.
A couple months ago, I would’ve expected this matchup to headline the Big 12/SEC Challenge with little resistance. Instead, it was the game between two teams that aren’t as good as advertised before the season began. Both teams badly needed a win and the Volunteers got it in convincing fashion, shooting 52.8% from the field and 61% from beyond the arc. The box score tells most of the story and outlines an issue the Jayhawks have had all season. They really struggle to score enough.
Only three players had more than three points on Saturday as Bill Self’s squad stumbled to 37% from the field and just 25% from beyond the arc. Kansas doesn’t really have a go-to scorer like the Devon Dotsons or Devontae Grahams of recent years. Marcus Garrett, Ochai Agbaji and Jalen Wilson have all been inconsistent in that role and they also don’t have incredible scoring depth. Christian Braun is effectively useless if he isn’t shooting it well and David McCormack is a very hot or cold contributor.
The Jayhawks are currently a five seed in Jerry Palm’s bracket from CBS Sports and might be headed to their worst seeding in the tournament since Self took over in Lawrence. They’ve lost four of the last five and still have a game at West Virginia, and a game each against Texas Tech, Texas and Baylor left on the schedule. They certainly could win those games and end up improving their stock before the tournament, but I wouldn’t bet on it right now. In the preseason, I picked the Jayhawks to win the Big 12. Clearly I was wrong about that one for many more reasons than I thought I could be.
- Mac McClung is the clutchest player in college basketball this season. What he did to lead Texas Tech back at the end of their game against LSU was incredibly impressive. Put the ball in Mac Daddy’s hands at the end of the game.
- Miles McBridge didn’t shoot it well, so West Virginia lost at home to Florida. That’s just the way it goes in Morgantown this year.
- The SEC won the battle of the bad basketball teams as Texas A&M beat Kansas State and Mississippi State destroyed Iowa State.
- There’s part of me that is happy for Texas that their game against Kentucky got postponed. Either Texas beats the Wildcats like they should and does nothing to help their resume or they lose in Rupp Arena and have a major blemish on their record. No outcome really helps the Longhorns all that much.
Photo by: Gamecock Central / Wikimedia Commons