John Clay

John Clay: Despite coaches’ gripes, the Big 12-SEC Challenge is a good thing

Coaches are creatures of habit who love routine as much as they love a crisply executed pick and roll. It’s hardly surprising, then, that more than a few basketball coaches from the SEC and the Big 12 are not in love with the idea of Saturday’s Big 12-SEC Challenge.

“I don’t necessarily like it all,” Kansas Coach Bill Self said this week. “I don’t like the disruption at all. I think a majority of the coaches would agree with that.”

Probably so.

“I’m not jumping up and down about it to be honest with you,” said Georgia Coach Mark Fox, whose team plays Baylor on Saturday. “I think it’s probably good for publicity, but our team has to travel all the way over to Louisiana, come home, then travel all the way back over to Waco, Texas.”

But what if Georgia knocks off Baylor? What if LSU upsets No. 1 Oklahoma? What if Texas A&M gets the better of an Iowa State team that owns wins over Oklahoma, Kansas and Iowa? What if Kentucky can snap Kansas’ 34-game home winning streak at Allen Fieldhouse.

That’s the second-most positive aspect of this single-day feast. There is opportunity for teams from both leagues to pick up a non-conference marquee win. That’s especially true for the SEC, the inferior basketball conference of the two and the one trying to raise both its level of play and its hoops profile.

The most positive aspect is the attention. Unlike the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, spread over three days in early November, right in the heart of the college football season, the Big 12-SEC Challenge is being held after the shoulder pads have been returned to the equipment room.

In our neck of the woods, the excitement centers around the matchup between the two winningest programs in college basketball. Any time Kentucky goes to Lawrence or Kansas comes to Lexington, it’s a big deal. It is not Saturday’s only big deal, however.

The Pete Maravich Assembly Center down in Baton Rouge will play host to two of the nation’s best players when Buddy Hield and Oklahoma meet LSU and Ben Simmons. Hield is the favorite for national player of the year. Simmons is the likely first pick in the NBA Draft. Hield is a senior. Simmons is a freshman. Both are spectacular.

In College Station, Texas, No. 14 Iowa State has a chance to pick up a road win against a top-10 team in Texas A&M. On the flip side, the host Aggies can show they are indeed legit by hanging with a team that was ranked as high as No. 4 this season and is one of the best teams in the best league.

Even those coaches who are not crazy about the idea of disrupting the conference race admit they see benefits.

“We’ll see if stepping outside the league and playing some really good teams from a really great league can help us in our standing for the pursuit of NCAA Tournament berths,” said Vanderbilt Coach Kevin Stallings, whose team travels to Texas.

“The Southeastern Conference has a bunch of opportunities to help increase the attention that our league could receive nationally and continue to earn respect,” said Florida Coach Mike White, whose team plays host to West Virginia.

“I was one of the guys who said, ‘Let’s do this,’” said Arkansas Coach Mike Anderson, whose Hogs play Texas Tech. “I may say after the game maybe we ought to do it another time.”

“It’s made for TV,” said West Virginia’s Bob Huggins.

Correct. ESPN and its family of networks are showing all 10 matchups Saturday, starting at noon and continuing on through the Kansas-Kentucky matchup at 7 and Oklahoma State-Auburn at 8.

“The Challenge provides a great opportunity to increase awareness and elevate the stature of SEC basketball,” Mark Whitworth, the SEC associate commissioner and the league’s basketball czar, said Friday. “It has also generated compelling cross-sectional matchups that are consistent with our scheduling strategy and exciting for our student-athletes and fans.”

It’s new. It’s different. It should attract attention. Where basketball is concerned, the SEC should be all for that.

SEC/Big 12 Challenge games on Saturday

Noon: No. 9 West Virginia at Florida (ESPN)

Noon: Vanderbilt at Texas (ESPN2)

2 p.m.: Tennessee at TCU (ESPN2)

2 p.m.: Ole Miss at Kansas State (ESPNU)

2 p.m.: No. 14 Iowa State at No. 5 Texas A&M (ESPN)

4 p.m.: Texas Tech at Arkansas (ESPNU)

5 p.m.: No. 1 Oklahoma at LSU (ESPN)

6 p.m.: Georgia at No. 17 Baylor (ESPN2)

7 p.m.: No. 20 Kentucky at No. 4 Kansas (ESPN)

8 p.m.: Oklahoma State at Auburn (ESPN2)

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