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Mike Lopresti | | January 29, 2016

Big matchups highlight Big 12/SEC Challenge

  The Big 12 and SEC will take an unusual break from conference play this weekend.

We interrupt the regularly scheduled games in the Big 12 and SEC for one special Saturday.

Time to slip back into the non-conference mode, guys. And if that seems a bit odd on January 30, just when the league races are reaching baking temperature -- well, consider the ratings.

Here comes the Big 12/SEC Challenge, and that means . . .

Kentucky at Kansas, the two winningest programs in the game, meeting just down the road from James Naismith’s grave.

Oklahoma and Buddy Hield at LSU and Ben Simmons. Mano a mano between player of the year favorites. They might as well call it the Wooden Bowl.

Iowa State at Texas A&M, and two coaches almost like brothers who would never dream of playing against one another on their own.

OK, maybe all the league champion wannabes have bigger fish to fry this time of year. Kansas’ Bill Self exemplified the split minds about Saturday. He’s trying to get the Jayhawks to a 12th consecutive title in a brutal conference, but now suddenly has to focus on an impending invasion by the Big Blue Nation.

"I don’t necessarily like it all. I don’t like the disruption of the league play – and I think the majority of the coaches would probably agree with that. But for our league, I think it’s going to be a great exposure day. Certainly this is what we agreed to do, and I think the bonuses, or advantages, probably outweigh the negatives, even though I know nobody really likes to step out of conference this late in the conference season."

The ACC and Big Ten, for example, knock heads in early December. But the cusp of February? Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione – who, by the way, is also chair this year of the Division I Men’s Basketball Committee that selects the NCAA Tournament field – said the timing is precisely one of the appeals.

In December, college football and the NFL tend to hog the spotlight. Most of the doings in basketball, Castiglione said, "just sort of get lost. We collectively believed this would be innovative and allow these types of interconference games to occur at a time when more people may notice them."

Another plus, Castiglione said, was offering an NCAA tournament-style of matchup against an outsider only seven weeks before the real thing. Not that it’s easy to free space at this time of year for 20 teams. "It made the schedulers in each league work some magic," Castiglione said.

But in the end, Saturday should be lively, with the word "challenge," most appropriate for the SEC. This isn't football. The Big 12 has five teams in the top 19 of the latest NCAA RPI, and eight in the top 53. The league is 98-20 this season in non-conference play. Now comes a 12-hour window to show its steel, with the marquee lit up.

Take Kentucky at Kansas. How often do you get the two teams with 4,363 victories between them on the same floor? More than you might think, actually. This will be their 29th meeting, with Kentucky leading 22-6.

If the Wildcats think Rupp Arena is imposing to visitors, wait till they get a whiff of Allen Fieldhouse, where Self is 200-9, and the Jayhawks have won 34 in a row. Each team has had some damage control to do in league play. Kansas has lost three of five, while Kentucky has won by 14, 19 and 34 points since being shocked at Auburn. "We’re playing desperate now," John Calipari said.

Then there’s Oklahoma at LSU, the Sooners putting their Associated Press No. 1 ranking on the line at a place where the home team is 11-1 this season, including an 18-point thumping of Kentucky. The two programs haven’t met since 2004, and never before in Baton Rouge.

But at its core, this game is a heavyweight bout. In one corner, the senior Hield, with his 25.9 average. In the other, the freshman Simmons, at 19.8 points, 12.7 rebounds and nearly five assists a game.

A coach with a team trying to hold on to No. 1 – and also unseat Kansas for the Big 12 title – probably doesn’t need such a high-voltage non-conference trip. But Lon Kruger is taking the philosophical road.

"I’m not the decision maker on it, so I never worry too much about things I’m not going to decide on. So we’re going to do what we need to do, and do it with enthusiasm. It’ll be good exposure. It’s something we can live with."

Saturday’s 10-game docket also includes Florida at home, dealing with a West Virginia team that forces more turnovers (19.8) than any defense in the country. Vanderbilt going to Texas, both teams showing better mid-season form. Two confusing teams meeting at Auburn. The host Tigers have lost five of seven, but beat Kentucky. Visiting Oklahoma State has dropped six of seven, but beat Kansas.

And finally, the game that was never supposed to happen. Steve Prohm will be taking his Iowa State team to face the man he considers a mentor, Billy Kennedy at Texas A&M.

They worked together at three different schools, and Prohm succeeded Kennedy as head coach at Murray State. A face-to-face showdown has never been in their plans, but here they are. Iowa State has beaten three of the top four teams in this week’s rankings – Oklahoma, Kansas and Iowa  -- while Texas A&M tries to recover from having a 10-game winning streak sliced at Arkansas.

"We’re probably each other’s biggest fans," Prohm said. "But we’ve got to go play the game Saturday and it is a big game for both teams.

"It’s really surreal."

Call it a one-game break from the conference slog. Won’t feel much like a break, though. 

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