Big East-SEC Challenge Match-ups Finalized
SERIOUS pairings on deck.
by Jon Jaques / @JJaques25
Are you getting that late summer itch like I am? We’ve gone a little too long without college basketball and the slow crawl toward the season (66 days and counting) makes our wait even more excruciating.
The bad news is we’re not there yet. The good news is we have a ton to look forward to. Today, for instance, the Big East/SEC Challenge pairings, dates and times were made official, as you probably can guess, it looks juicy (these pairings were announced months ago, by the way, but the recent finalization of the schedule gives me an excuse to write this event up).
Even if there is no clear-cut elite team in the conference this season (Syracuse will be the league’s favorite but the Orange are probably just outside the national contender conversation), the Big East’s depth will continue to be its strength. And the SEC West is nowhere close to matching the caliber of its Eastern counterpart, but what was once the conference’s shame is now a steadily improving and competitive group.
You will probably notice that Villanova, Marquette, South Florida and Notre Dame are all absent from the schedule. Only 12 of the 16 Big East teams (and 12 of 17 next season after TCU joins the league) participate in the event each year.
As always with these “challenge”-type events, some match-ups are better than others. But ESPN and the leagues did a nice job of making each game stick out in its own way. A deeper look to keep us basketball eggheads sane (for today at least):
Thursday, December 1
Providence at South Carolina:
Not much is expected of either team. Providence lost practically all of its scoring with Marshon Brooks’ departure, and South Carolina needs much more than exciting two-sport guard Bruce Ellington to compete in the SEC East. But it’s an even match-up, and coach Ed Cooley’s debut on the national stage at his new gig will be worth watching.
St. John’s at Kentucky:
One of the Challenge’s definite highlights. This game will feature the two most buzz-worthy freshmen classes in the country. Kentucky’s group of five-star recruits (Anthony Davis, Michael Gilchrist, Marquis Teague, and Kyle Wiltjer) is superior to Steve Lavin’s noteworthy class on paper. If this match-up was in March, I think Kentucky wins by at least 20. But it’s in December, when the Wildcat pups will have only six or seven games under their belts. I would not be shocked to see the Red Storm steal this one in Rupp.
Mississippi at DePaul:
I have to admit this isn’t one of the tournament’s must-sees. But I am curious to see what Oliver Purnell can do with his roster after a season and an entire summer in his up-tempo system. Rising sophomore Cleveland Melvin is a truly gifted athlete who might steal the Blue Demons a game or two in the league. Ole Miss will have to find ways to replace the production of scoring guard Chris Warren.
Georgetown at Alabama:
Alabama is a basketball school! Not quite (actually, not even close), but this will be the most anticipated season of Tide hoops in a long time. A national ranking and bitter taste from last year’s tournament snub should have people paying close attention to coach Anthony Grant’s team. And Georgetown is a bit of a mystery: If Hollis Thompson can emerge as a go-to scorer, the Hoyas will have some tournament potential. Either way, Georgetown will be a great, early season test for ‘Bama.
Friday, December 2
Florida at Syracuse:
Good team vs. great team = outstanding match-up. Florida’s frontcourt was decimated by graduation and Chandler Parsons’ decision to enter the Draft, but the Gator backcourt is still dynamite. So is Syracuse’s. Scoop Jardine, Brandon Triche, Dion Waiters lead the guards, and the Orange, as usual, have an athletic and long frontcourt. I’m interested to see if Fab Melo develops into more than a shot-blocker/fouler in his sophomore season.
Cincinnati at Georgia:
The Bearcats figure to be very good. If Yancy Gates stays out of Mick Cronin’s doghouse, he should be one of the Big East’s toughest match-ups. People seem to be overlooking Georgia because they lost two NBA players (Travis Leslie and Trey Thompkins), but you can’t dismiss what a winning culture does for a program. Mark Fox may have lost talent, but the players left do know how to win after last year’s tournament berth.
Vanderbilt at Louisville:
This is the premiere match-up in the event. Both are respected, but somehow still underrated as top-10 teams heading into this season. Vanderbilt has one of the country’s best threesomes in John Jenkins, Festus Ezeli, and Jeffrey Taylor, and Louisville has nearly everyone returning from last season’s surprise Big East contender. I love the idea of watching Vanderbilt’s powerful, fundamentally sound offense vs. Louisville’s trademark in your face pressure.
Auburn at Seton Hall:
Call me an optimist, but I look forward to this game as well. Expect two growing teams grinding it out for a confidence-boosting non-conference win. Auburn should be one of the SEC’s most improved teams (nowhere to go but up right?) with last season’s three leading scorers all returning and Frankie Sullivan back from injury. Seton Hall still has Herb Pope anchoring the middle and a host of other notable transfers, but the Pirates success will continue to be based on how well its misfit pieces mesh.
Saturday, December 3
Arkansas at Connecticut:
Jeremy Lamb and the Huskies learning how to win without Kemba Walker against what will be one of the youngest and fastest playing rotations in the country sounds fun to me. Mike Anderson has finally made his long-awaited return to the Razorback bench and has his predecessor Mike Pelphrey to thank for being gifted one of the nation’s top recruiting classes. If the young Hogs want to have a chance at taking down the defending champs on the road, though, they will have to adapt to Anderson’s backbreaking style very quickly.
Pittsburgh at Tennessee:
Expect the same as always from Pitt: solid, mistake-free (unless it is playing Butler in the second round of the tourney) basketball. I don’t know what to expect from the Bruce Pearl-less Vols though, which makes this game appealing. Cuonzo Martin obviously has his work cut out for him in Knoxville. It’s critical he builds some sort of program momentum up early in the season before expected NCAA sanctions send the team crashing back down to earth.
LSU at Rutgers:
This, believe it or not, could be a match-up of each conference’s most improved teams. LSU can’t be labeled a sleeper because the Tigers won’t have enough to challenge for a tournament bid, but they surely be more competitive than last season with rising sophomores Ralston Turner and Andre Stringer in the backcourt. And Mike Rice is making moves at Rutgers. There is just a much better vibe around the program now that the passionate Rice is on the sidelines.
West Virginia at Mississippi State:
What’s not to like about a match-up of two tournament teams in early December? The Mountaineers and the Bulldogs won’t be peaking this early in the season, but by March both should be formidable squads. Renardo Sidney’s first marquee game of the season will also be must-watch TV. Because Sidney’s commitment to basketball and his teammates has been questionable throughout his college career, this season could be the former no. 1 recruit’s last shot to prove his worth.
Jon Jaques is a former starter for the Cornell Big Red and former forward for Israel’s Ironi Ashkelon club.