It's a weird thing, this Big 12/SEC Challenge.
For starters, it's just three seasons old. The Big Ten/ACC Challenge is working on its second decade and carries all the gravitas of the Rose Bowl by comparison. This weekend's challenge is also a slightly awkward fit. Without touching on the acrimony resulting from the recent realignment that brought Missouri and Texas A&M from the Big 12 to the SEC, the Big 12 has 10 teams and the SEC has 14. Which means that every year, just to make the numbers work, four SEC teams simply ... don't show up.
Like most three-year-olds, the Big 12/SEC Challenge is only just beginning to understand itself and explore the world around it. In its inaugural run, it spread 10 games out over the entire early-season calendar -- from as early as Nov. 14 to as late as Dec. 21 -- in what was less of a "challenge" and more of a loosely confederated series of nonconference games. A season ago, things tightened up, and the event was condensed to a single week in early December.
Now, in year three, this event will start and finish on a single day -- smack in the heart of late-January conference play. If you were looking at the weekend's basketball schedule and wondering why all these nonconference games were happening on the same day, Saturday's Big 12/SEC Challenge is why.
See? Kind of weird.
Also? Kind of awesome. The scale and timing of this thing are basically unprecedented, which is already enough to make the event interesting. More awesome, though, is that the Big 12/SEC Challenge is responsible for creating some of Saturday's most-anticipated matchups. So, this weekend's homework assignment: A thorough breakdown -- and ranking -- of this odd and exciting competition's most interesting matchups:
OK, fine: Texas A&M's road loss at Arkansas Wednesday rubbed some of the shine off the hot Cyclones' visit to College Station. Kentucky making an uber-rare trip to Allen Fieldhouse for a true road matchup with fellow blueblood Kansas is a massive brand-name draw. Happily granted. Now that that's out of the way, can we go ahead and admit that Iowa State-A&M matchup is still the best game of the Big 12/SEC Challenge and, therefore, the entire weekend of hoops? Cool.
The Cyclones are fresh off home wins over No. 1 Oklahoma and Kansas on back-to-back Big Mondays. After a lackluster start to conference play, Georges Niang, Monte Morris and the rest are back to playing trademark Cyclones hoops, which is to say they're getting out on the run, whipping the ball around the floor, generating (and draining) a whole mess of shots, and treating their fans to some of the most visually enjoyable -- and effective -- offensive basketball the college game has to offer.
Which makes them almost a perfect matchup for Texas A&M. Before Wednesday, the Aggies had won 11 straight, usually in blowout form -- rocketing up the polls and mock brackets all the while -- thanks to a high-intensity pressure defense that forces opponents into devastating turnovers without fouling. On offense, center Tyler Davis has been one of the most intuitive and efficient freshman bigs in recent memory, and the Aggies' beautiful passing (just four teams in Division I average more assists per made field goal) is the perfect complement to Davis' angled work in the post.
In other words: If you want to watch two very good teams pass and move and play in space at an extremely high level in a crucial nonconference game -- in short, if you want to watch great basketball -- this is the game of the weekend.
Just in case you didn't believe in the strength of the convictions outlined above, well, here's your No. 2 game, which means the first one has to be good.
Iowa State vs. Texas A&M is for the aesthetes; Kentucky at Kansas is for the historians. Yes, these two literal blue bloods meet fairly regularly these days, thanks to their rotating matchup in the Champions Classic. That's all well and good. But the Wildcats have visited Allen Fieldhouse just 11 times since the building opened in 1955 and just once since 1990. John Calipari would never schedule this game. The reverse is true of Bill Self. Understandably so. Yet here we are, in late January, preparing to see just this unlikely faceoff. The sheer nostalgia and pomp will be worth the price of admission alone.
Whether that will be the only draw remains to be seen. The Jayhawks almost never lose in their own building. This is a pretty good but hardly vintage Kentucky team, one just three games removed from Jan. 16's road loss at Auburn. The odds of a convincing KU win are high. Yet Self's team has struggled lately too, dropping its past three road games, all by double digits. Meanwhile, Calipari may have finally found the right mix of players. His insertion of stretch-shooting forward Derek Willis into UK's starting lineup after the Auburn disaster prefaced three straight blowout wins and the Wildcats' best basketball of the season. Who knows? Maybe this matchup, whose attraction feels so deeply rooted in blueblood past, will tell us something about the (immediate) future, too.
Real talk? As excited as we are about the duel between the 2015-16 Wooden Watch's reliable Nos. 1 and 2, as stoked as we are to see two players this good on the same court at the same time, and for all of the hype this fateful date will generate in the next 24 hours, it's no cliche to say this game is about much more than two guys. Or, to be more precise, this game is about LSU. Just two days before February (and Bubble Watch season!) begins, the Tigers' hopes of giving the future No. 1 pick his lone crack at the NCAA tournament have only marginally improved. Which, considering their 7-5 start (admittedly, with a banged-up lineup) against a schedule that everyone but coach Johnny Jones agrees was terrible, is not great.
Chances to knock off a great team with a great résumé on your own floor are rare even in conference play; shots to salvage your hot nonconference mess with a visit from No. 1 -- in late January -- are literally unheard of. Buddy meets Ben is awesome and all, but for real? LSU desperately needs this game.
There may not be a team that is simultaneously a) less talked about and b) more beloved by laptops than the Florida Gators. Even at 13-7, with their one semi-noteworthy win coming against Saint Joe's (on a neutral court), the Gators have a top-30 RPI, a top-10 strength of schedule, and a projected single-digit tournament seed. Meanwhile, KenPom.com's adjusted efficiency formula loves the Gators' defense, which it ranks No. 4; Florida is in the top 30 in the site's overall rankings as well. And almost no one is talking about them! This might be a good opportunity to generate some interest ... if Florida's lagging offense, which has coughed it up on 19 percent of its SEC possessions, can prevent a relentless West Virginia press from churning it into a fine turnover-flavored paste.
Hey, remember Vanderbilt? Sure you do. If you're anything like us, you talked yourself into the Commodores' ascendancy narrative this summer. All those freshman guards, a year older. NBA-prospect big man Damian Jones, a year wiser. Stretch-center Luke Kornet, a year, um, stretchier. Few teams played as well down the stretch last season. By October, some eminently knowledgeable folks were putting the 'Dores in the Final Four. Now Kevin Stallings' team is 12-8, its lone notable win came at home over Florida, it just got demolished by a Kentucky team that lost at Auburn, and a win at Texas is suddenly looking like a major step in the right direction. Yikes.
Georgia Bulldogs at No. 17 Baylor Bears (6 p.m. ET, ESPN2)
Ole Miss Rebels at Kansas State Wildcats, (2 p.m. ET, ESPNU)
Texas Tech Red Raiders at Arkansas Razorbacks (4 p.m. ET, ESPNU)
Oklahoma State Cowboys at Auburn Tigers (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2)
Tennessee Volunteers at TCU Horned Frogs (2 p.m. ET, ESPN2)
Best game that has nothing to do with the Big 12, SEC or challenges
Virginia's absolute miracle of a win at Wake Forest Tuesday -- when they trailed 64-54 with 1:23 left to play and won 72-71 on a banked Darius Thompson prayer -- may have helped the Cavaliers break their hesitant tendencies on the road. It certainly broke their winless ACC road streak. Either way, it's good news, because the next road test is their toughest yet. Probably, anyway. We know that Rick Pitino has his Louisville Cardinals playing ferocious, nationally elite defense, and we know U of L gets just enough from guards Damion Lee and Trey Lewis and super-underrated center Chinanu Onuaku to get by on offense. What we don't know, even at this late date, is whether Louisville's impressive per-possession numbers are a function of a soft nonconference and a backloaded ACC schedule. We'll (finally) get a better idea here.
Most notable absence
Duke has the weekend off. Obviously, that omission wouldn't be all that interesting on its own. Sometimes teams have weekends off. What is interesting is that because the Blue Devils don't have a game this weekend, they don't have an opportunity to pick up a win that might ameliorate Tuesday night's loss at Miami. Losing to Miami isn't a big deal; dropping your fourth of five outings is. And it means the Blue Devils are almost certain to find themselves unranked in Monday's Associated Press poll for the first time since -- get this -- 2007.
Best opportunity to catch Ivy League fever
After a four-year stranglehold on the league's lone NCAA tournament bid, Harvard is finally not the obvious class of the Ivy. (Crimson fans will have to console themselves with their $38 billion endowment and immensely valuable degrees.) Who will fill this vacuum? Why, the plucky upstarts at Yale! The Bulldogs rank No. 1 in conference play in both points scored and allowed per possession, and while they didn't knock off a notable team in nonconference play, they were just two points away from an upset at SMU. Princeton is the only other KenPom top-100 team in the conference, and the only clear thing standing between James Jones' Bulldogs and the NCAA tournament. The two meet Saturday. That the Ivy League's auto-bid is awarded to its regular-season champion imbues games like this with life-and-death implications -- even with so much of that season left to play.
Best chance to officially turn things around
One of 2015-16's most disappointing teams -- no, sit back down, Vanderbilt, we already talked about you -- the Hoyas have recently flickered every so slightly back to life. Georgetown knocked off Xavier (which just beat Providence on the road) in its own building, and it played respectably in tight losses to Villanova and UConn. The Hoyas' jubilance after Tuesday's win over Creighton was remarkable to see. Granted, it was a close (74-73) game, but still: If in October you'd said that Georgetown would be that happy to beat Creighton by one point in Washington, D.C., no one would have believed you. What does that mean? Maybe nothing. But, if John Thompson III's team can knock off Providence on Saturday, we may officially have a turnaround on our hands.
Most incomprehensible conference
On Thursday afternoon, Washington was tied for first place in the Pac-12. Four teams had five wins, four teams had four, two teams had three. Among the three-win teams was UCLA, which beat Kentucky and Arizona. Oregon snapped Arizona's 49-game home win streak on Thursday. Just one team (Washington State) ranked outside the top 100 in adjusted efficiency. It's not a bad league! Yet everyone keeps beating everyone, and -- well, seriously, just look at this. You make sense of it. We give up.