The Big 12 has never lost a men’s basketball challenge series to the SEC.
Saturday’s fifth challenge — 10 nationally televised matchups between the leagues — looks like the toughest yet for the Big 12, the nation’s top-rated conference, according to all the computers.
More than a tour de force in football, the SEC is vastly improved and has moved up in the RPI from No. 6 to No. 5 to No. 4 over the past three seasons.
“The SEC is on a serious uptick,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “Kentucky and Florida are national contenders. Arkansas is usually near the top. Teams like Alabama and Auburn that haven’t been in the tournament lately are making a dent.”
The fifth-ranked Jayhawks face dangerous Texas A&M in Allen Fieldhouse. The Aggies, who opened 7-0 and 11-1, were ranked as high as seventh this season before being torn apart by injuries and suspension. A&M is 2-6 in its last eight games but is starting to get its best players back.
“They present challenges because what they do great is what we don’t do well,” Self said. “They’re big, they crash the glass, and we’re not a big rebounding team. They are long with guys who can stretch it around the arc. They’ve got the pieces, and we’re very aware of that. Once they have it all together, they will make a real strong push.”
The Big 12 is 25-15 in the challenge series with the SEC and 53-35 in challenge series over the past decade, although it managed only a split with the SEC last year.
The one flaw with this year’s setup is that 19th-ranked Auburn won’t be involved. The SEC, which has 14 teams, takes the top 10 from last year, when the Tigers were a bottom feeder.
Ranking Saturday’s 10 games, from best to worst:
1. Kentucky at West Virginia, 6 p.m. (ESPN): John Calipari and Bob Huggins are old friends, but this figures to be a brawl. The Wildcats have something to prove after falling out of the Top 25 for the first time since 2014. The seventh-ranked Mountaineers have dropped three of their last four, and Huggins is grousing about having “clueless players.” Expect a 62-60 tug-of-war.
2. Oklahoma at Alabama, 1:15 p.m. (ESPN): It’s not football, but it’s pretty good stuff. Darn strong. The Tide, coached by Avery Johnson, puts four players in double figures, headlined by Collin Sexton, averaging 18.5 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.4 assists. Oh, by the way, the Sooners have a pretty fair freshman guard, too.
3. Texas A&M at Kansas, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN): Any team with a front line of 6-10 Tyler Davis, 6-10 Robert Williams and 6-9 D.J. Hogg cannot easily be dismissed. An upset in Lawrence would be an enormous boost to the Aggies’ tournament chances.
4. Baylor at Florida, 11 a.m. (ESPN): The Bears are in similar shape to the Aggies — underachieving for various reasons, yet with enough talent to win most nights. The Gators are one of the slickest 3-point shooting teams in the country.
5. Texas Tech at South Carolina, 11 a.m. (ESPN2): Frank Martin’s balanced Gamecocks have beaten Kentucky and Florida in the past two weeks, so the 14th-ranked Red Raiders are likely to be slim underdogs.
6. Tennessee at Iowa State, 3 p.m. (ESPNU): Our old pal Rick Barnes takes a Top 25 team into Hilton Coliseum, where the rebuilding Cyclones destroyed Texas Tech by 18 points in their last home game.
7. Oklahoma State at Arkansas, 5 p.m. (ESPN2): The Razorbacks are hellbent on avenging last year’s 99-71 blowout loss to the Cowboys in Stillwater.
8. Ole Miss at Texas, 1 p.m. (ESPN2): The Rebels are kind of a nondescript, middling team, but they do own wins over Florida, Alabama and South Carolina.
9. Georgia at Kansas State, 1 p.m. (ESPNU): Teams headed in opposite directions. The Bulldogs have lost four of five; the Wildcats have won four of five.
10. TCU at Vanderbilt, 3 p.m. (ESPN2): Too bad the Horned Frogs aren’t playing Auburn (17-2). The Commodores (7-13) are a mess.
BIG 12 POWER POLL
Rnk (prv) Team;W-L (conf.);Next opponent;Comment
1. (1) Kansas;16-4 (6-2);vs. Texas A&M (13-7), Sat.;Aggies have brute strength to dominate Jayhawks under the basket, but KU’s sharpshooters should have final say.
2. (2) Oklahoma;15-4 (5-3);at Alabama (13-7), Sat.;Baker Mayfield vs., uh, Tua Tagovailoa would have been sweet. We’ll settle for Trae Young vs. Collin Sexton.
3. (4) West Virginia;16-4 (5-3);vs. Kentucky (15-5), Sat.;One of oldest teams vs. one of youngest. Can you believe Calipari might not have a single lottery pick?
4. (3) Texas Tech;16-4 (5-3);at South Carolina (13-7), Sat.;Wondering whether Red Raiders might be getting stage fright, having lost 3 of 5 after 14-1 start.
5. (7) Kansas State;15-5 (5-3);vs. Georgia (12-7), Sat.;Baylor’s Scott Drew says Barry Brown and Dean Wade are ‘playing like pros. We couldn’t guard them.’
6. (6) TCU;15-5 (3-5);at Vanderbilt (7-13), Sat.;SEC Challenge doesn’t serve Frogs well: A win over crummy Vandy doesn’t help; a loss would be brutal.
7. (5) Texas;13-7 (4-4);vs. Ole Miss (11-9), Sat.;Longhorns, like TCU, stand to gain little from beating Rebels, No. 71 in Sagarin and No. 77 in KenPom.
8. (9) Oklahoma State;13-7 (3-5);at Arkansas (14-6), Sat.;Cowboys need to deal with Razorbacks senior guard Jaylen Barford, SEC’s 2nd-leading scorer at 19.4
9. (8) Baylor;12-8 (2-6);at Florida (14-6), Sat.;Fun-and-gun Gators are No. 2 in NCAA 3-pointers per game and No. 4 in 3-point accuracy.
10. (10) Iowa State;11-8 (2-6);vs. Tennessee (14-5), Sat.;Give it up for Rick Barnes, who has done terrific job molding 3-star recruits into Top 25 team.