The SEC/Big 12 Challenge is a major tentpole event in the college basketball calendar, with high-profile nonconference matchups in late January serving as a brief reprieve from the grind of conference play. Between them, these leagues feature nine of the 25 teams currently ranked in the AP poll, including three of the top five teams and seven of the top 12. Here’s a look at the best matchups in Saturday’s event and what will decide each game.
1. No. 10 Texas at No. 4 Tennessee, 6 p.m. ET
This matchup has the feel of an Elite Eight or Final Four game, and could have major implications on the race for No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament come March. It pits Tennessee’s vaunted defense that ranks as the best unit nationally based on KenPom against a Texas team loaded with veteran weapons on the offensive end.
The Longhorns have some very good wins, but are still looking for that résumé-topping victory, and beating the Vols would certainly qualify as such. Tennessee ranks second in the NET thanks to some whopping victory margins: 13 of its 17 wins have come by double figures, including a 29-point win last time out against Georgia. One major strength of Tennessee’s is forcing turnovers, though it may face some problems doing that against a Texas team with an experienced backcourt that takes care of the ball extremely well. But to pull the upset, the Longhorns likely will need a hot shooting day from beyond the arc. No team defends the three better than Tennessee, with teams shooting under 22% from deep against them this season.
2. No. 9 Kansas at Kentucky, 8 p.m. ET
These teams met last year in this event and produced a result that looks stunning in retrospect: Kentucky trounced Kansas 80–62 at Allen Fieldhouse in a game that wasn’t even as close as the score would suggest. The game vaulted Kentucky into being a potential favorite to win the national championship and served as a warning sign as to what the Jayhawks might look like against an elite team.
Less than three months later, Kentucky was dealing with the all-time embarrassment of losing to Saint Peter’s, while Kansas was on a national championship victory tour. It’s a good reminder not to read too much into individual results during the regular season!
This matchup is fascinating: Kentucky is finally finding its stride after a disastrous start to the season, winners of four straight since the disastrous loss to South Carolina that sent shockwaves through the college basketball landscape. On the other side, Kansas is hitting its first true adversity of the season, losers of three straight including getting trounced at home by TCU on Saturday. The Jayhawks don’t have a true interior presence to match up with Oscar Tshiebwe, but Kansas’s passing ability could cause problems for a Kentucky defense that has really struggled to defend in space.
3. Arkansas at No. 17 Baylor, 4 p.m. ET
Baylor has won five straight in Big 12 play heading into this showdown with the Razorbacks, who are starting to turn things around after a 1–5 start in the SEC. It’s a matchup that pits two of the best freshmen in the country in Baylor’s Keyonte George and Arkansas’s Anthony Black, both of whom have taken on key roles offensively in their first (and likely only) collegiate seasons.
George is wired to score, but has had his share of inconsistent play so far with the Bears. He scored just eight points and had more assists than turnovers in Monday’s win over Kansas, but veterans Adam Flagler and LJ Cryer picked up the slack with a combined 39 points. Black’s strengths are more as a distributor, but with fellow freshman Nick Smith out, Black has scored in double figures in five of the team’s last six games. Whichever young guard wins that battle puts his team in great shape to get a résumé-building win to wrap up January.
4. Florida at No. 5 Kansas State, 6 p.m. ET
This game has added meaning beyond just the stakes on the court. It pits Kansas State star Keyontae Johnson against his former team, which he last suited up for more than two years ago when he collapsed on the court during a game against Florida State. Johnson spent nearly two years rehabbing, transferred to Kansas State in the offseason and now has starred for a Wildcat team that has been among the nation’s biggest overachievers.
Johnson is averaging more than 18 points and seven rebounds per game this season, forming one of the sport’s most fearsome duos with point guard Markquis Nowell. Nowell and Johnson will be a handful for a Florida team that has won five of six after a 7–7 start. The Gators could really use a signature victory for the NCAA tournament hopes, as they currently sit in the Next Four Out of Sports Illustrated’s latest projected field.
5. No. 12 Iowa State at Missouri, 2 p.m. ET
One of the nation’s best offenses takes on one of the nation’s best defenses in an intriguing clash of styles in this one. Missouri’s offense under Dennis Gates is built on taking care of the ball and spacing the floor with lots of threes, a test for an Iowa State defensive unit that thrives on taking you out of your element and forcing turnovers. The Cyclones force turnovers on 28% of their opponent’s possessions this season, the highest mark in the country. That disruptive defense has been the catalyst for Iowa State blossoming into a Big 12 contender and a top-four projected seed in the NCAA tournament come March.
For Missouri, this game serves as a chance to get a marquee victory and solidify its standing as an NCAA tournament team in Gates’s first season at the helm of the program. That would complete quite the turnaround, considering the Tigers lost 21 games last season under Cuonzo Martin. They’ll have a raucous home crowd on their side to try to will them across the finish line, but we’ll see whether they can generate enough offense against such a stingy opponent.