The Southeastern Conference spent the first four Big 12/SEC Challenges trying to seek respect for its struggling men's basketball programs.
This Saturday the well-stocked SEC actually has a chance to win the 10-game extravaganza.
The SEC is just 15-25 in head-to-head matchups against its Big 12 counterparts entering the fifth year of the event, with last year's games yielding a 5-5 split. The Big 12 has four teams — No. 5 Kansas, No. 7 West Virginia, No. 12 Oklahoma and No. 14 Texas Tech — that are ahead of the SEC's highest-ranked team, which is No. 19 Auburn, but the SEC has eight teams projected in the latest NCAA tournament bracket on ESPN, compared to seven for the Big 12.
"Whenever you have a challenge, you want to be on the winning side of it," Tennessee coach Rick Barnes, whose No. 22 Volunteers visit Iowa State, said Thursday. "Last year, I thought some of the matchups favored us, and I'm not so sure they favor us this year. I think they're all going to be good games, and hopefully we can win our share of them and come out on top of it."
The schedule for the fifth Big 12/SEC Challenge, which takes place Saturday:
› Baylor at Florida, noon (ESPN)
› Texas Tech at South Carolina, noon (ESPN2)
› Ole Miss at Texas, 2 (ESPN2)
› Georgia at Kansas State, 2 (ESPNU)
› Oklahoma at Alabama, 2:15 (ESPN)
› Tennessee at Iowa State, 4 (ESPNU)
› TCU at Vanderbilt, 4 (ESPN2)
› Texas A&M at Kansas, 4:30 (ESPN)
› Oklahoma State at Arkansas, 6 (ESPN2)
› Kentucky at West Virginia, 7 (ESPN)
All 10 Big 12/SEC Challenge games will be televised Saturday, with ESPN showing Baylor at Florida at noon, Oklahoma at Alabama at 2:15, Texas A&M at Kansas at 4:30 and Kentucky at West Virginia at 7.
The SEC and Big 12 announced the Challenge partnership in May 2013, replacing a six-year competition the SEC had with the Big East and a four-year deal the Big 12 had with the Pac-12. The first two Big 12/SEC Challenges took place in early December, but this is the third consecutive season in which it has been held in late January on the weekend between the NFL's conference championship games and its Super Bowl.
"I think ESPN has always wanted to put it at this time," Barnes said. "This weekend the focus of college basketball is going to be on the Big 12 and the Southeastern Conference, and I think that was the whole point at having it at this time of year. I'm for anything that's going to improve basketball in our league."
SEC hoops kingpin Kentucky has struggled along with the rest of the league in the Challenge, going just 1-3 the last four years with a win over Texas and with a loss to Baylor and two defeats by Kansas. John Calipari's Wildcats will enter Morgantown with a 15-5 record but are unranked for the first time since the 2013-14 season.
"I don't think this event does anything to hurt what's happening in our league," Calipari said. "The only thing that kind of gets me is that we have teams lose a couple of games, and all of a sudden you just start dropping like a rock. In other leagues, you lose two or three in a row and it doesn't really affect you.
"That's the dregs from the old SEC. We lost to South Carolina, and they just went to Florida and won. We've got really good teams in this league right now."
Florida (3-1) and Tennessee (2-1) are the only SEC programs with multiple wins in the short history of the Challenge.
The most intriguing game Saturday likely will take place in Tuscaloosa, which would be a dream of a football showdown but will have its share of hardwood hype due to freshman point guards Collin Sexton of the Crimson Tide and Trae Young of the Sooners. The 6-foot-3, 190-pound Sexton ranks third in the SEC with 18.5 points per game, but that pales to the 6-2, 180-pound Young's 30.3-point average that leads the nation.
Young went 7-of-9 from the floor and 10-of-12 from the free-throw line Tuesday night, scoring 26 points and collecting nine assists to lead the Sooners to an 85-80 win over Kansas.
"It's exciting for college basketball to have two really high-level young players in Trae Young and Collin Sexton playing in this game," Alabama coach Avery Johnson said. "Both guys are pretty dynamic with the basketball and with foot speed. They both shoot the ball really well, and they're competitive on the defensive end.
"Obviously, we're playing a guy that we know can get 50 points in a game."
The Sexton-Young showdown could be reminiscent of Oklahoma's 77-75 win at LSU two years ago. LSU had freshman guard Ben Simmons, who would become the top overall pick in the 2016 NBA draft, but it was Sooners senior guard Buddy Hield, the eventual sixth overall selection, who made seven 3-pointers in the second half and scored 32 points as the Sooners rallied from a 14-point deficit.
Johnson recognizes the Sexton-Young aspect to this game but insists this will be about Alabama and Oklahoma and trying to protect the home court.
"We'll just try to keep the main thing the main thing," Johnson said. "Our guys understand the formula, because we talk about it every day. We can't worry just about a one-on-one matchup, but we're not running from him, either.
"We understand he's a dynamic player, but if he has 30 points and Alabama wins, that's what we're after."
Due to the SEC having four more members than the Big 12, the SEC's Auburn, LSU, Missouri and Mississippi State are sitting out this year's Challenge. Auburn will host LSU and Mississippi State will host Missouri on Saturday night.
"The bottom four teams based on the results of last year did not get selected," Auburn's Bruce Pearl said. "We finished 11th, so therefore we did not get invited to the party."
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.