The Big 12-SEC Challenge has become one of the most anticipated Saturdays of the college basketball season, pitting two of the best conferences in college basketball against each other with both bragging rights and resume boosts on the line.
Other conferences take place in inter-league challenges, but many of them happen during the non-conference portion of the season and it’s easy to forget they’re taking place. The Big 12-SEC Challenge happening in the middle of the conference season makes it stick out and puts it on a major stage, a savvy move by the league officials who coordinated that way.
On Thursday morning reporter Jon Rothstein announced the matchups for this season’s Challenge. Florida will head to Manhattan, Kansas to take on the Kansas State Wildcats, confirming some suspicions around both programs.
Kansas State has had some recent success making an Elite Eight in 2018, but since then has had some disappointing seasons. Longtime head coach Bruce Weber announced his retirement following Kansas State’s loss in the Big 12 Tournament. To replace him, the Wildcats hired respected Baylor assistant Jerome Tang, a highly sought-after candidate who had been in the mix for high-major jobs for multiple years. He knows the league as well as anyone and was Scott Drew’s right hand man for what became a dominant program at Baylor and it appears to be an excellent hire for Kansas State.
This is certainly a transition year for the Wildcats who leaned hard on the transfer portal to put together a roster that they hope can be competitive in year one of the Tang era. One familiar name to Gators fans will be Desi Sills who played three years at Arkansas, time he largely spent dogging opposing ball handlers the length of the court and making their lives difficult. The offensive side of the game has never come particularly easy to Sills but he is a disruptive defender who is no fun to play against. That isn’t the only former SEC player Tang will have on the roster as he also brought in 6’10” post Jerrell Colbert from LSU and 6’3” combo guard Cam Carter from Mississippi State. Both were seldom-used but have high pedigree and Tang will be hoping that their potential is realized in Manhattan. He also grabbed 6’9” David N’Guessan from Virginia Tech, another player who didn’t get much run at his previous stop but a player that Tang thinks he can unlock.
Perhaps the most interesting player on Kansas State’s roster is 6’10” Nae’Quan Tomlin, a junior college All-American who has ball handling and shooting skills at 6’10”.
With a roster largely filled with players that were solid recruits out of high school that haven’t yet been able to contribute at the high-major level it’s tough to project exactly what Kansas State will look like, but it’s likely they’ll be picked to finish at the bottom of the Big 12. Fortunately from a resume standpoint for Florida, this game will be played on the road at Kansas State, boosting the value and hopefully giving the Gators a bit of a boost in the NET Rankings.
This will be the tenth year of the Big-12 SEC Challenge, and it’s unknown how long the challenge will go on for. With Texas and Oklahoma leaving the Big 12 for the SEC the SEC may choose to eliminate the challenge in order to get more league games, and there is also a chance that losing Texas and Oklahoma could shift the competitive balance of the leagues to a point where the Big 12 is less interested in competing in a head to head challenge with the SEC.
Through 9 years of the Big 12-SEC Challenge the Big 12 leads the series four to three, with the leagues tying twice. Adding up all the individual games, the Big-12 leads 48-41. However, much of the Big 12’s work was done in the early years of the Challenge when the SEC wasn’t as strong as it has been recently. The Big 12 won the first three years of the Challenge, and since then has only won once in six seasons. Over the last five seasons the SEC has won three times with the Big 12 winning once, with the leagues also tying once.
Florida has been the most successful SEC team in the history of the challenge with a record of 6-3. Not only do they have the most wins of any SEC team, but they are the only team who has competed in the Challenge every single year* (*Kentucky would have also competed in every season if not for a COVID cancellation in the 2020-21 season). Due to the Big 12 only having 10 teams, each year there are four SEC teams that can’t partake. It’s usually the bottom four teams in the league, so Florida getting to play in every Big 12-SEC Challenge speaks to how they haven’t bottomed out in the last nine seasons in a way that a few other conference foes have.
The Big 12-SEC Challenge has been and will continue to be a highlight of Florida basketball’s season for as long as it goes on, and this year will be no different even against an opponent that’s expected to finish near the bottom of the Big 12. The SEC-Big 12 Challenge will occur on January 28th.