The ACC/Big Ten Challenge isn’t the only interconference college basketball extravaganza this week. The SEC and Big East stage their own Challenge over three nights starting Thursday.
The SEC/Big East Challenge has been around only since 2007 and used to include just four teams from each conference at neutral sites. However last year, it was switched to feature all 12 SEC teams versus a select 12 of the 16 Big East clubs on campuses – Notre Dame, Marquette, Villanova and South Florida were left out.
The Big East could accurately claim it was the deepest conference in college basketball for the past several years, while the SEC has been down other than Kentucky and Florida for the most part. Thus last year, the Big East routed the SEC 8-4. Missouri and Texas A&M are new to the SEC this year, but they won’t be competing in the Challenge. Also conspicuously absent is No. 5 Louisville, along with Pitt and UConn of the Big East.
Of course the Cards, Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame are all headed to the ACC in the next year or two and certainly that will strip the Big East of its title as deepest conference in the country. That is if there is a Big East going forward.
Thursday’s schedule is Marquette at No. 7 Florida, No. 8 Kentucky at Notre Dame, South Carolina at St. John’s and Seton Hall at LSU.
The Gators and Golden Eagles met in last year’s Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament and seventh-seeded Florida upset No. 3 Marquette 68-58 to reach the Elite Eight. Marquette is semi-rebuilding after losing stars Jae Crowder, the Big East Player of the Year, and Darius Johnson-Odom off that club. Bradley Beal led the Gators with 21 in that game and he was the No. 3 overall pick in this year’s draft by the Wizards.
This year’s Gators started the season without suspended starting point guard Scottie Wilbekin, but he had career-highs with 17 points, eight assists and five rebounds in Florida’s last game, an easy win over UCF. However, coach Billy Donovan says Wilbekin will continue to come off the bench for now. Donovan has moved Kenny Boynton from shooting guard to the point, Mike Rosario from small forward to shooting guard and Will Yeguete from sixth man to starting small forward. With the Gators having won all five games by at least 13 points, including a rout of then-No. 22 Wisconsin, Donovan likely don’t want to disrupt the team’s rhythm.
Marquette’s lone loss came in Hawaii by a point to a very good Butler team. The Golden Eagles will welcome back second-leading scorer Vander Blue (11.8 ppg) on Thursday. He missed the team’s last game with a sprained knee. MU is an 11.5-point underdog at the book.
Kentucky has destroyed three opponents since losing to Duke in the Georgia Dome. The young ‘Cats lead the nation in field-goal percentage (.558) and are No. 11 in scoring (85.2). UK may get back a key player against the Irish. Transfer Ryan Harrow was penciled in as the starting point guard before the season, but hasn’t played since the season opener for various reasons. He has been practicing and will travel to South Bend, but it’s not clear if John Calipari will use him yet. It appears Harrow will now back up Archie Goodwin. The freshman is averaging 25.0 points, 6.5 assists and 7.5 rebounds in the past two games.
UK is an opening one-point favorite at Notre Dame, which is a very veteran squad. The Irish have only been beaten this far by St. Joseph’s in overtime in Brooklyn. Notre Dame’s Joyce Center is one of the toughest places to win in the country. UK and the Irish have met 60 times, last in December 2010 in Louisville.
On Friday, the SEC/Big East schedule is Georgia at South Florida, DePaul at Auburn, No. 6 Syracuse at Arkansas and Tennessee at No. 20 Georgetown – those latter two games will have Live Betting at the book.
Originally the Orange balked at being included in the Challenge because Syracuse rarely plays non-conference true road games. In fact, earlier this summer when the schedule was announced, Syracuse AD Daryl Gross wrote in a leaked email to some Big East colleagues that the Orange were “overcommitted and can’t play at this point.” However, things were eventually worked out.
The Orange are the Big East’s highest-ranked representative in this field. It’s their first true road game of the season, although Syracuse already has a quality win over then-No. 20 San Diego State on November 11 on an aircraft carrier in San Diego. Orange guard Michael Carter-Williams is leading the nation in assists as 9.3 per game. SU is 2-0 in the brief history of the Challenge, both times beating a ranked Florida team. The Razorbacks enter on a two-game skid, falling to Arizona State and Wisconsin in the Las Vegas Invitational. Arkansas was soundly beaten by ranked Connecticut in last year’s Challenge.
Georgetown has perhaps the most impressive “loss” so far this season, an 82-72 overtime defeat to No. 1 Indiana in Brooklyn. That loss looks even better with the Hoosiers’ destruction of North Carolina on Tuesday night. The Hoyas upset then-No. 11 UCLA before facing Indiana in the Legends Classic. The Vols’ lone loss came at the hands of Oklahoma State, 62-45 in Puerto Rico. They will be a sizable dog as Georgetown is 18-1 in home games dating to the start of last season.
The Challenge concludes Saturday with Mississippi State at Providence, Rutgers at Mississippi, Alabama at No. 17 Cincinnati and Villanova at Vanderbilt.
One other Big East game to watch Saturday is Louisville hosting Illinois State team. The Cardinals haven’t taken the floor since last Saturday when they lost 76-71 to Duke. Since then, Louisville has learned it will be without starting center Gorgui Dieng for 4-6 weeks with a broken wrist. Dieng, who didn’t play in the Duke game, was one of most imposing defensive players in the nation. Last year, he led the Big East and was No. 8 in the nation in blocks (3.2 per game) as well as third in the conference in rebounding (9.1). The 6-11 Dieng was averaging 8.2 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks this year before injuring the wrist in a win over Missouri.