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Joe Boozell | | January 26, 2018

11 things to look for in the Big 12/SEC Challenge

Here are 11 things that should excite you about Saturday's Big 12-SEC Challenge.

RELATED: Full TV schedule

Trae Young vs. Collin Sexton

Young and Sexton are the two best rookie point guards in the country (rookie may be unnecessary depending on who you ask, though there are some veterans you’d likely take over Sexton).

Both players are a joy to watch and will battle head-to-head on Saturday. You know all about Young – the long-range bombs, the wicked handles, the slick passes. Sexton is a totally different kind of player — the Russell Westbrook to Young’s Steph Curry, if you will. Young isn’t Curry, and Sexton isn’t Westbrook. But this matchup is as close as college hoops gets to that type of matchup. 

RELATED: Young vs. Sexton film study

For entertainment purposes, hopefully they guard each other. Lon Kruger slotted Young on Devonte’ Graham to start the Kansas game but wound up switching him to less-threatening wings. A not-so-bold prediction: Sexton is more likely to guard Young than vice versa.

This will be fun.

A bunch of freshmen trying to survive Press Virginia

Veteran guards can (justifiably) get spooked when trying to break through the forest of arms that is the West Virginia defense — so watching a batch of freshmen try to navigate through it will be fascinating.

Kentucky has just two non-freshmen in their rotation — Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones — and both of them are bigs. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Quade Green have seen nobody like Jevon Carer.

The Mountaineers force turnovers on 26.1 percent of their opponents’ possessions; Kentucky coughs it up on 20 percent of theirs, which ranks 230th.

Both teams are struggling, for what it’s worth. The Wildcats have a chance to earn their first signature win of the season, but winning in Morgantown will require discipline.

DI Men's Basketball: Kentucky defeats Mississippi State, 79-65
Florida continuing its mission back to prominence

Florida – a top-10 team earlier this season — fell off the radar due to defensive woes and inconsistency on offense. But the Gators are starting to look like the team that folks fell in love with earlier in the year — a well-coached, 3-point jacking machine that has too many ball-handlers to count on one hand.

The Gators are 6-1 in the SEC with wins over Kentucky, Arkansas and Missouri. Their defense, which sputtered in three straight losses in late November/early December, is back on track — the Gators have yet to allow 80 points in conference play.

These guys made the Elite Eight last year with similar personnel. A win over Baylor on Saturday would be a nice resume-booster.

Sagaba Konate rude rejections

West Virginia's Konate is averaging 3.3 blocks per game in 24.6 minutes of action – an elite clip – but the way in which he blocks shots is more impressive than the stat itself.

File this under, ‘things that make a basketball nerd smile:’ an opponent thinks it’s beaten the vicious West Virginia press for an easy layup, only to have its dreams erased at the rim by the Konate — the guy is the college basketball version of Whac-A-Mole, just popping up time after time after time:

Konate is a star on the back line of Mountaineers' press.

Jamuni McNeace swallowing shots?

Konate might not even be the best shot-blocker in his conference. Well, to be fair, McNeace doesn’t technically block shots. He catches them. This is normal when watching Oklahoma.

This is not normal when watching other games. McNeace’s shot-gobbling technique looks awesome, but it’s also better than swatting an attempt into the third row – McNeace gains possession for the Sooners. He’s a ridiculous athlete with impeccable timing.

Seriously, last Big 12 center – Mo Bamba blocks

Bamba is the best shot-blocker in the conference – perhaps the country – even if he lacks the same pizzazz as Konate and McNeace.

His 7-9 wingspan is well-documented, but he’s a cerebral defender – Bamba knows where to be, and when to arrive. He’s averaging a whopping 4.4 rejections per game.

Bamba’s offense has come on lately, too. He scored 24 points against Iowa State and has reached double figures in eight of his last nine outings.

Given the tragic Andrew Jones news, Bamba is being asked to carry even more of a load than he did before. He’s one of the most talented players in the nation – but his motor doesn’t always run as hot as you’d like. If Bamba is engaged against Ole Miss, the Rebels are in for a long game.

Brady Manek blossoming into a star

Manek is an ideal Young sidekick — he doesn’t need the ball to make an impact, but when it finds him, he delivers. Manek hit a dagger 3-pointer on Tuesday night against Kansas and is the prototypical combo forward that carries so much value in today’s game.

Manek’s numbers may not scream “superstar” — he’s averaging 11 points and five rebounds — but he’s shooting 43 percent from 3 and can guard multiple positions. The Young-Manek pick-and-roll remains devastating, as the Jayhawks know. Once Young moves on, Manek has all-Big 12 potential.

There’s likely a happy medium in Young’s shot selection. Thirty-nine is too many. Nine isn’t enough. But as long as he’s looking to distribute more, Manek will get opportunities. Look for that scoring average to creep up as the season progresses.

Malik Newman living up to the hype

After a brutal start that resulted in a benching from Bill Self, Newman has played great lately — he’s scored 20 or more points in three of his last five games.

Part of the reason why folks were high on Kansas coming into the year despite losing Frank Mason was Newman. Graham would slide into the lead ball-handling role, while Newman would play second-fiddle. He was an elite prospect when he arrived at Mississippi State.

But Newman struggled with shot selection with the Bulldogs and kept the same bad habits early on with the Jayhawks. He’s made real progress in Big 12 play. Newman, who’s a good athlete with a muscular build, is starting use the drive to set up his jumper. That used to be flipped. He’s getting better 3-point looks as a result and is up to 38 percent from range.

Texas A&M is reeling after a fast start. Fear the Jayhawks if Newman becomes the player we all expected a few years ago.

Funky John Calipari lineups

Gabriel, Killeya-Jones, P.J. Washington, Nick Richards and Jarred Vanderbilt are all power forwards — and it’s Kevin Knox’s optimal position. That’s six power forwards. People point to youth as the reason Kentucky has struggled, but how about a lack of roster balance?

Anyway, this has resulted in some funky lineups. The Wildcats are at their best when Gilgeous-Alexander and Green play together, but they can’t play 40 minutes per game, and Hamidou Diallo is the only other guard/wing in the rotation. So at times, you’ll get four of the six guys mentioned above on the floor at once. Most teams lean towards using four guards before trotting out four bigs together.

Calipari would be wise to try to avoid this if at all possible. Either way, when Washington is playing at the top of a 2-3 zone, it will make you look twice.

So much defense in Texas Tech vs. South Carolina

Texas Tech ranks 59th in offense and fourth in defense. South Carolina ranks 162nd in offense and 25th in defense.

If a defensive struggle gets your basketball juices flowing, this game is for you. Both teams rank outside of the top 175 in pace, too — so there may be even less scoring than you’d think. If neither team cracks 55, don’t be shocked.

MORE: Full college basketball scoreboard

Part of what makes college basketball great is the diversity of styles. We see Texas Tech go up against offensive juggernauts like Oklahoma and Kansas, and South Carolina try to hold down Florida and Kentucky. This game will be like looking in a mirror. It should be fun – in a hoops hipster kind of way.

A ranked team playing at Hilton Coliseum

DI Men's Basketball: Tennessee defeats Vanderbilt, 67-62
Hilton is always a riot, and Tennessee is much better than expected. The Volunteers have some nice true road wins — they just won at South Carolina — and the Cyclones are 2-6 in the Big 12.

But this is no gimme. Iowa State beat Texas Tech by 18 in Ames. It’s going to be rocking.

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