The Big 12/SEC Challenge arrives better late then never

Dedric Lawson’s three-pointer late in Monday night’s game helped seal the deal for the Jayhawks, who went on to beat Iowa State, 80-76 at Allen Fieldhouse.
Dedric Lawson’s three-pointer late in Monday night’s game helped seal the deal for the Jayhawks, who went on to beat Iowa State, 80-76 at Allen Fieldhouse.

There are reasons not to be on board with the Big 12/SEC Challenge, set for Saturday. Among them, the interruption of the conference season, some huffiness that the event isn’t played before the holidays like most other challenge series, and, on a local note, no Missouri in the series for the fourth straight year.

But the bottom line is the event works. ESPN and conference officials have done a solid job arranging matchups, aligning Kansas and Kentucky in years it’s not part of the Champions Classic. Saturday’s game is in Lexington, Ky.

“The negatives are it comes at a bad time of the season,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “It’s not a great game for Kentucky and it’s not a great game for us. But it’s a great game because to the kids we get to play Kentucky and to their kids, they probably feel the same thing about playing us.”

This marks the sixth year of the series, and a power shift has occurred over the last two. The Big 12 won the majority of games of the first three years. The leagues split in 2017 and the SEC won last season’s matchup.

The conferences have produced a Final Four team in each of the last five years, although one of them, South Carolina in 2017, was among the SEC four that don’t get to participate every year.

The Big 12 holds a 29-21 lead in the series history, and the pairings are once again enticing. Six participants are ranked in the AP Top 25. Four are matched up against one another and top the list of games ranked by interest.

Kansas (9) at Kentucky (8), 5 p.m. ESPN

The Wildcats are hot, looking for their third straight victory over a ranked opponent. But the Jayhawks have won three straight against Kentucky and Bill Self is 6-3 in games against the Wildcats. (Kentucky was 19-3 before that run.) Winner: Kentucky.

Iowa State (24) at Mississippi (20), 11 a.m., ESPN

Cyclones big man Marial Shayok is one of nation’s biggest surprises, leading the Big 12 at 19.8 points and shooting 40 percent on threes. Ole Miss will counter Iowa State’s tempo with physicality. Winner: Mississippi.

Florida at TCU, 11 a.m., ESPN2

The Gators are coming off a phenomenal shooting performance, making 18 three-pointers in a comeback victory over Texas A&M. KeVaughn Allen and Noah Locke combined to go 15 for 23. The Horned Frogs have the Big 12’s second-best three-point defense. Winner: TCU.

Alabama at Baylor, 11 a.m., ESPNU

The Bears’ three-game winning streak includes a victory over Texas Tech. Alabama is as perplexing as any team in the SEC, beating Kentucky and blowing out Mississippi but falling to Texas A&M. The Tide’s John Petty has been on fire lately; so has Baylor guard Makai Mason, with 29 at West Virginia. Winner: Baylor.

West Virginia vs. Tennessee (1), 3 p.m., ESPN

The top-ranked Vols needed overtime to subdue Vanderbilt on Wednesday for their 13th straight victory. Grant Williams, with 41 at Vandy, is playing like an All-America. It’s been a bummer of a season for the Mountaineers and the lingering knee injury to Sagaba Koante hasn’t helped. Winner: Tennessee.

Arkansas at Texas Tech (14), 5 p.m., ESPN2

The Red Raiders, who lead the Big 12 in field-goal and three-point defense, look to break a three-game losing streak against an Arkansas team that likes to pressure. Winner: Texas Tech.

Texas at Georgia, 1 p.m., ESPN2

Sugar Bowl on the hardwood. The Bulldogs are struggling under first-year coach Tom Crean. Winner: Texas.

Vanderbilt at Oklahoma, 1 p.m., ESPNU

It’s a tough year for the Commodores, who are winless in the SEC but have played competitively. The Sooners have cooled after a fast start. Winner: Oklahoma

Kansas State at Texas A&M, 1 p.m., ESPN

With five straight victories, the Wildcats are the Big 12’s hottest team. The Aggies are struggling. Winner: Kansas State

South Carolina at Oklahoma State, 1 p.m., ESPNU

Frank Martin returns to Big 12 country with a blazing hot team and takes on his former Gamecocks assistant Mike Boynton. Winner: South Carolina.

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