It’s rare for us to get high-profile non-conference games at this stage of the college basketball season. But as always, the Big 12-SEC Challenge provides an exception to that, giving us nine intriguing matchups Saturday.
Both conferences have acquitted themselves this season, as the Big 12 is arguably the deepest league in the country outside of the Big Ten while the SEC has surpassed most outside expectations despite a down year from Kentucky.
In the end, the SEC surprised many by winning the competition 5-4. After a few surprising results and some fantastic finishes, as most games of the nine games were competitive for 40 minutes, let’s take a look at 10 things we learned from Saturday’s Big 12-SEC Challenge.
Kentucky is Done
The Wildcats had to cancel their game with Texas because of COVID-related concerns at Kentucky. In a way, that cancellation is just one more nail in Kentucky’s coffin this season.
A home game against Texas was an ideal opportunity for the Wildcats to add a quality win to their tournament resume, especially after blowing a lead mid-week against Alabama. As it stands, Kentucky has nine games left in the season and the Wildcats need to win eight of them just to enter the SEC Tournament with a winning record.
The canceled game with Texas is a bad omen for John Calipari’s team and a sign that Kentucky isn’t going to turn things around this year.
Oklahoma Will Be Interesting in March
Pundits and pollsters have been bullish on the Sooners this season, as Oklahoma is ranked No. 24. However, the Sooners made a statement Saturday by beating Alabama despite playing without leading scorer Austin Reaves and key reserve Alondes Williams, who both missed the game because of COVID-related issues.
It turned out to be Oklahoma’s third straight win over a top-10 team, coming on the heels of victories over Kansas and Texas. It’s probably too late for the Sooners to challenge Baylor for the Big 12 title, But Oklahoma’s three conference losses this season have all come by five points or less, including a loss to Baylor.
The win over Alabama was proof that the Sooners can play with anyone and that they have the depth to be dangerous in March.
Florida Has Found the Formula
Florida’s road win over West Virginia was arguably the biggest surprise of the Big 12-SEC Challenge.
A few weeks ago, most people were counting out the Gators, who had lost three of four games and will be without leading scorer Keyontae Johnson for the rest of the season. However, Mike White has done an incredible job of adjusting to Johnson’s absence and changing the way the Gators play.
Tre Mann and Tyree Appleby have steadied the backcourt with Scottie Lewis starting to emerge as well. Florida has also made it more of a point to play through big man Colin Castleton, contributing to the team’s new winning formula.
Winning in Morgantown was proof that a blowout win over Tennessee wasn’t an aberration. The Gators have now won four in a row and now look like a team that will not only be in the NCAA Tournament but will have a chance to make a deep run.
Mac McClung Needs More Help
The Red Raiders should be counting their lucky stars after Saturday’s win because they looked like they would lose before an utter collapse by LSU in the final minutes.
Not surprisingly, it was Mac McClung making big shots and even creating a crucial turnover late in the game. But the near loss made it obvious that McClung is going to need help if Texas Tech is going to be a threat in March.
Terrence Shannon came off the bench to give the Red Raiders 23 points Saturday, but he’s not been the most consistent player. In a recent loss to Baylor, he scored just two points. Frontcourt scoring can be hit and miss for the Red Raiders, who also lack the guard play to move McClung off the ball more often, freeing him up to chase his shot.
At times, the Red Raiders have put everything together, but Saturday’s win was a reminder that they need more from their supporting cast moving forward.
LSU Will Be a Nightmare to Play in March
The Tigers are an unconventional and flawed team, as we saw while they were getting outscored 12-0 down the stretch in their loss to Texas Tech. The collapse deprived LSU of a win that could have gone a long way toward securing an NCAA Tournament selection. But if the Bayou Bengals can rebound and secure a spot in the Bid Dance, they’ll be a team that nobody wants to play.
The Tigers have four high-level scorers, led by freshman Cameron Thomas, who averages over 22 points per game. While the team’s defense is not always a strength, the Tigers can fill it up.
With four elite scorers, opposing defenses have to be sound with their one-on-one defense, enabling the Tigers to pick out favorable matchups. At 11-5, they can be beaten, but they don’t make it easy on their opponents.
Arkansas is Not an NCAA Tournament Team
The Razorbacks are right on the bubble for a spot in the NCAA Tournament and Saturday’s loss to Oklahoma State was a strong sign that they don’t belong.
Arkansas has lost all of its head-to-head games with the top teams in the SEC, most by lopsided margins. Playing Oklahoma State was another chance for the Razorbacks to earn a win over a bonafide tournament team. However, they failed to capitalize on their chances despite Oklahoma State committing 19 turnovers.
The Hogs have some talent and can be dynamic offensively. But they don’t have a signature win and if they couldn’t beat Oklahoma State, it’s unlikely that they’ll be able to add a quality win to their resume before the end of the season. Unless that happens, they don’t belong in the Big Dance.
Baylor is Something Special
To be fair, we already knew this before the Big 12-SEC Challenge. But it never hurts to be reminded. The Bears were practically somnambulant for large stretches of the first half, but when they cranked it into high gear, they were unstoppable.
Baylor led Auburn by as many as 21 points before coasting down the stretch. They have depth, versatility, experience — everything you hope to find in a title contender. The Bears remain undefeated this season with Saturday’s win being a good reminder that outside of Gonzaga, it’s difficult to find a team that can hope to contend with Baylor when the Bears are anywhere close to their best.
Kansas is Lost Offensively
Bill Self’s problems aren’t getting any better after another lopsided and embarrassing loss to Tennessee on Saturday. The Jayhawks have now lost four of their last five games, which is a rarity at a program like Kansas.
Offensively, there is no consistency from one game to the next. David McCormack has started to turn things around but now Ochai Agbaji is struggling. Marcus Garrett occasionally shows up offensively but not often enough. Jalen Wilson has lost his spot in the starting lineup while Christian Braun has been ice cold in three straight games. Until Self can find a lineup that works or the Jayhawks play with more consistency, Kansas is going to look like a team with little chance of making any noise in March.
Cade Cunningham Can Carry a Team in March
Cade Cunningham came off the bench against Arkansas on Saturday after missing two games, but it didn’t take him long to find his rhythm and remind everyone why he’s one of the best freshmen in the country.
With the game in the balance in the closing minutes, Cunningham took charge for the Cowboys and looked confident doing so. He finished with 21 points, seven rebounds and five assists, pulling all of the strings for Oklahoma State. Keep in mind that was his first game in nearly three weeks.
With more experience, he’ll only get better, and by the end of the season, Cunningham will have a chance to carry Oklahoma State to the Sweet 16 and beyond.
Tennessee Has the Highest Upside in the SEC
Some questions were starting to be asked after Tennessee lost back-to-back games to Florida and Missouri. But after the way the Vols dismantled Kansas on Saturday, it’s clear that they have the best upside of any team in the SEC.
While Tennessee lacks a true 15-20 points per game scorer who can take the lead in crunch time, the Vols have an incredible balance with seven players averaging at least eight points per game. They are strong defensively and play unselfishly with Saturday’s game being an example of how good Tennessee can be when everything’s clicking.
Even with Alabama undefeated in league play and Missouri and Florida coming on strong, the Volunteers look like the SEC’s best bet on having a team make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
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