January Jabroni-ness: The Big 12-SEC Challenge

With the NFL taking a week off to gear up for Super Bowl LII, Quibbl Sports turns its sights, uh, elsewhere.

Well, that sucked. When the Jaguars were up 10 with the ball in the 4th quarter, I dared to hope that they might actually win the dang ball game. But, as we’ve been taught painfully over the years, you can never count out Touchdown Tom. Football’s greatest quarterback ever (I’d link to that part in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life where the guy vomits for like five minutes but I’ve always found that scene too gross to ever rewatch) methodically sliced through Jacksonville’s defense for two late touchdowns while the Jaguars offense completely lost its imagination. When Stephon Gilmore’s outstretched hand (amazing play, seriously) denied Blake Bortles’ fourth down pass with two minutes to play to secure the 24-20 victory, I slumped into the couch and sadly said, “Well, the Eagles are definitely going to win now.”

They did. It wasn’t close. And now we have a matchup something akin to the USSR warring against the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s; sure you want to oppose the Evil Empire, but wishing for the underdog’s success could really come back to bite you later. Anyway, next week we’ll have a full Super Bowl preview, as well as PROP QUIBBLS. This week I’m turning my eye to college basketball, which, contrary to some beliefs, starts before March.

Massive money (…but of course none for the players) and realignment have led to a frequently changing and rather counterintuitive conference situation in college basketball; for example, there are 10 teams in the Big 12, 14 teams in the Big 10, and Creighton (Nebraska) is in the Big East. One result of the hegemonic accumulation of power in a few conferences has been the development of challenge series between two conferences, in which over the span of a few days (or sometimes even one) several teams from one conference play several teams from the other. This Saturday, there will be ten matchups between teams from the Big 12 and SEC. Let’s drop in on them, and see if we can get some insight for the future or at least find out about some cool player names.

OK, You Can Skip These Ones

Georgia (12-7, 3-5 SEC) at Kansas St. (15-5, 5-3 Big 12)

There are 351 teams in Division 1 men’s college basketball. Kansas Sate ranks 297th in adjusted tempo. Georgia ranks 332nd. There aren’t even that many great player names to entertain you here, although Kansas State has a fantastic movie basketball player name in Xavier Sneed. I’m gonna be skipping this one. Heck, it’s not even on ESPN or ESPN2; it got the ESPNU relegation.

Oklahoma St. (13-7, 3-5 Big 12) at Arkansas (14-6, 4-4 SEC)

Oklahoma State has already played their game of the season, winning a thrilling overtime match against then-No. 4 Oklahoma last weekend. Other than that, they have had fairly predictable results, beating teams they should beat and losing to teams they should lose to. They have an unusually deep bench for a college team, with seven players averaging more than 20 minutes per game and three others averaging more than 10 — which honestly kinda sucks for me because I can’t pick out a particularly dominant player. On the other hand, it is clear that Arkansas is driven by their senior backcourt, Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon. (Or, if I had my way, Daylen Marford and Jaryl Bacon.) I’d pick Arkansas in this game, if only because this is one of the few games in this series for which the SEC team has had a stronger schedule than the Big 12 team.

Tennessee (14-5, 5-3 SEC) at Iowa St. (11-8, 2-6 Big 12)

Twelve. That’s the number of games started for Iowa State last season by non-seniors. This was always going to be a rebuilding year, and it is. Meanwhile, Tennessee is ranked in the top 25 for the first time in seven years, and they have starters named Jordan Bone (!!) and Admiral Schofield. Big BIG edge for the Volunteers of Tennessee.

TCU (15-5, 3-5 Big 12) at Vanderbilt (7-13, 2-6 SEC)

Vanderbilt has a respectable basketball history, making thirteen NCAA tournaments (though they have only reached one Elite Eight and no Final Fours); unfortunately, they are bad this year. They are outside the top 100 in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings (my personal favorite, though of course there are many rating systems out there), and have virtually no shot to make the tournament.

TCU, which joined the Big 12 in 2012 on the strength of their football team, has had a tough slog of it basketball-wise, winning only 8 conference games in their first four seasons. They finally broke out this year, winning their first 12 games and reaching a peak ranking of 10th in the country, before coming down to earth in the conference schedule. Regardless of losses both understandable (Kansas, Oklahoma twice) and infuriating (Texas in double OT), their win over then-No. 7 West Virginia is enough to suggest that they are substantially superior to Vanderbilt.

It’s cliched to talk about college basketball’s “coaching carousel,” but it sure is a real thing. TCU’s coach is Jamie Dixon, in his second season with the team after 13 seasons with Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is now coached by Kevin Stallings, who departed Vanderbilt two years ago, leaving them to be coached by Bryce Drew, who left Valparaiso to take the job and is best known for hitting a buzzer-beating gamewinner in the 1998 tournament while being coached by his father (and predecessor as the team’s coach) Homer. Incidentally, Bryce’s brother Scott is a coach at Baylor, who will appear later in this column. Third base!

Now We’re Getting Somewhere

Texas Tech (16-4, 5-3 Big 12) at South Carolina (13-7, 4-4 SEC)

Texas Tech, like TCU, is much better known for football than basketball and, like TCU, has had an up and down conference schedule highlighted by a victory over West Virginia. Not only did Texas Tech beat WVU (by 1 point!), they also beat Kansas on the road by double digits on national television… and then last week lost by 18 to Iowa State. College basketball is weird; I don’t know what to tell you.

South Carolina lost a lot of players from last season’s Final Four Cinderella squad, notably the impeccably named Sindarius Thornwell. They have a very nice ranking in KenPom (right above 70th!) and two good wins against Kentucky and Florida — but some bad losses as well, including early season games against Temple and Illinois St., neither of whom have a winning record despite playing in weaker conferences.

This game will be intense and low-scoring; unlike their free-wheeling football counterparts, Texas Tech basketball relies on defense, also South Carolina’s calling card under the animated Frank Martin. (He used to coach at Kansas State. The carousel strikes again!)

Ole Miss (11-9, 4-4 SEC) at Texas (13-7, 4-4 Big 12)

This game is notable to NBA fans because Texas has Mohamed Bamba, who with an incredible 7 foot 9 inch wingspan is considered one of the top prospects in the NBA draft. It is notable to me because Ole Miss has players named Marcanvis Hymon, Dominik Olejniczak, Illya Tyrtyshnik, and Justas Furmanavicius. But the best teams in the Big 12 are are actually a bit more Furmana-vicious than the best teams in the SEC, so Texas’s conference record is more impressive.

Baylor (12-8, 2-6 Big 12) at Florida (14-6, 6-2 SEC)

Baylor, coming off a 3 seed and Sweet 16 appearance, started the season ranked and were rolling along reasonably well until Big 12 play hit them like a bowl of oatmeal (but like, really heavy and gross oatmeal). Texas Tech blew them out by 24, TCU nipped them at home a couple days later, and it’s been all bad news since then save for home victories over Texas and Oklahoma State. Once an apparent lock to dance in March, the Bears now need a substantial turnaround — but it seems unlikely to come against Florida, arguably the best team in the SEC.

The Gators have had an up and down chomping season, reaching No. 5 in the polls before home losses to Florida State (fine) and Loyola Chicago (ouch!). They’ve bounced back with road wins over then-ranked Texas A&M and Kentucky… but just lost to South Carolina at home. So who knows? What I do know is that Baylor’s four leading scorers are named Manu Lecomte, Jo Lual-Acuil Jr., King McClure, and Nuni Omot. And that their university has a shameful history of concealing sexual assault. I know those two things.

Texas A&M (13-7, 2-6 SEC) at Kansas (16-4, 6-2 Big 12)

Texas is in the Big 12. Texas Tech is in the Big 12. Texas Christian is in the Big 12. But Texas A&M, after being in the Big 12 since its inception, is now in the SEC. Go figure.

The Aggies were supposed to be good this year; they started the season ranked No. 25, and jumped to No. 16 after annihilating West Virginia (which is in the Big 12 now because why not) on, uh, an Air Force base in Germany. Further impressive victories took them to a peak ranking of 5th in the nation… and then, as with Baylor, conference play brought the good times to a screeching halt. A&M lost their first five SEC games and only have two home victories against mediocre Missouri and Mississippi to put in the W column. They’re still 35th in KenPom’s rankings due to an excellent strength of schedule, but they’ll need to make major improvements to stand a chance of making the NCAA tournament.

Death, taxes, money in the banana stand, and Kansas winning the Big 12 regular season conference championship. The Jayhawks have won 13 straight conference championships, tied with John Wooden’s great UCLA teams, and once again are at the top of the table. This Kansas team is balanced; they are one of seven teams in KenPom’s top 30 both offensively and defensively, and all five starters average double figures in scoring. However, they’ve been escaping close games a lot lately; despite a 6-2 record in-conference, they’ve only outscored those opponents by a combined 7 points.

Actually Important Matchups

Oklahoma (15-4, 5-3 Big 12) at Alabama (13-7, 5-3 SEC)

If you don’t know who Trae Young is, Google him. If you do, you’ll know what I mean when I say the following Smart Basketball Analysis™: …damn. Young is a true freshman averaging 30.3 points and 9.6 assists per game, both of which lead the entire country. Since I prefer NBA comparisons for advanced statistics, Young’s Player Efficiency Rating (PER) is higher than any NBA player season ever recorded, and his usage rate is higher than any season except Russell Westbrook’s absurd performance last year. What I’m saying is that he’s good as hell and you should watch him.

Alabama’s basketball team is obviously third fiddle to their football program (where second fiddle is… also football), but they’re having a solid season so far, including wins over then-No. 5 Texas A&M and fierce football rival Auburn (who, despite a 6-2 record in-conference, are not participating in the Big 12-SEC challenge). The Crimson Tide also have an electrifying freshman guard in Collin Sexton, who leads the team in scoring and assists. You should watch him too.

Kentucky (15-5, 5-3 SEC) at West Virginia (16-4, 5-3 Big 12)

The final game of the night is, fittingly, the headliner, as West Virginia look to stop a recent skid. I’ve mentioned all four of their losses, as they’ve all come against teams in this preview: one early against Texas A&M, and three more in WVU’s last four games, against Texas Tech, Kansas, and TCU. They have a fearsome defense led by senior guard Jevon Carter, whose 3.4 steals per game ranks him second in the nation (not to mention his 17 points, 5 rebounds, and 7 assists) but “only” 39th in KenPom’s offensive efficiency.

You know what you’re going to get with John Calipari’s Kentucky teams: an overabundance of young talent. When they gel, you get the championship team of 2011-12 and the national-semifinal-losing juggernaut of 2014-15. When they don’t, you get relative disasters like the 2012-13 team, which didn’t even make the NCAA tournament. (And lost to Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT, which my god how do you lose to just one guy… but I digress.)

This season’s Wildcats appear to be somewhere in the middle; they aren’t (yet) in danger of missing the tournament, but they have lost to every ranked team they’ve played and several unranked ones, including two recent losses to South Carolina and Florida that knocked UK out of the top 25 for the first time in nearly four years. They have nobody of the stature of, say, Anthony Davis or John Wall. Their best hope for a game-changing star is freshman forward Kevin Knox, who leads the team in scoring but has struggled from three-point range, shooting just 33% (although he did go 4 for 4 in Tuesday’s win over Mississippi State).

Two great teams with shaky recent pasts. In the end, I lean toward the home squad.

Check back next week for not one but TWO Super Bowl preview articles with quibbls, one covering the game itself and one covering the dizzying array of prop bets and box pools that come out this time of year.

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