FAYETTEVILLE - They say you can’t get ahead getting even, but SEC basketball did last year.
Finally matching the Big 12, 5-5 in last winter’s annual SEC vs. Big 12 Challenge proved a SEC preface to an excellent NCAA Tournament. South Carolina reached its first-ever Final Four upon beating fellow SEC member Florida in the Elite Eight final while Kentucky reached the Elite Eight, and Arkansas went two rounds deep into the Big Dance losing to eventual national champion North Carolina.
The previous three years of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge were dominated 7-3, 6-4, 7-3 by the Big 12.
So given last year’s stalemate and the continued SEC upswing while the Big 12 is so strong that all 10 of its teams are believed in the NCAA Tournament hunt, the national basketball focus rivets on the heartland and its various landscapes for Saturday’s 10 SEC vs. Big 12 Challenge games.
“I think this year when you are talking about having the opportunity to really showcase it’s because of what these teams and leagues have done in the nonconference schedule,” Arkansas Coach Mike Anderson said Thursday. “So I think for that weekend and that day, a lot of eyes will be glued to watching these teams play. And who knows? It could be a prelude to some of the games that hopefully will take place in postseason as well. I think it’s big. I think it’s big in a lot of ways. I think it’s great for us, it’s great for our league. It’s great for TV and it’s even better for the fans.”
Especially SEC fans as the too often disrespected basketball league aside from Kentucky started flexing muscle in last year’s SEC/Big 12 Challenge.
Of course you wouldn’t have known that SEC trend off last season’s Arkansas’ SEC/Big 12 Challenge matchup.
The Oklahoma State Cowboys, 13-6, rematched with the Razorbacks, 14-6, in Saturday’s 5 p.m. ESPN2 televised game at Walton Arena, routed the Razorbacks, 99-71 last season at OSU’s Gallagher Hall in Stillwater, Okla.
“We are looking forward to the matchup with Oklahoma State, a team we played last year and they put it on us pretty good,” Anderson said on Thursday’s SEC Coaches/Media teleconference. “So we get a chance to play at Bud Walton Arena in front of a sellout crowd.”
While observing the obvious that Arkansas took a 28-point shellacking in Stillwater, Anderson at his Thursday press conference at Walton Arena minimized any revenge motive.
“We went down there and they just took us to the woodshed so to speak,” Anderson said. “But that has no bearing on this game here. In terms of last year, that game is over with. There’s nothing we can do about it. This is a different year and they are a different team and we are a different team.”
Each team shares an experience that while their game last year meant game-day elation for Oklahoma State and game-day embarrassment for Arkansas, it ultimately didn’t alter either team’s path. The Cowboys of former Coach Brad Underwood, now head coaching Illinois with OSU assistant Mike Boynton promoted to replace him at OSU, and Arkansas both went to the NCAA Tournament with the Razorbacks advancing a round farther than OSU.
Boynton, with experience in both leagues as a player at South Carolina and coach at OSU, implies it’s an important game but not the ultimate game.
“I think the importance can be overstated a little bit,” Boynton said on Thursday’s Big 12 teleconference. “Because we are both playing really quality teams this time of year every night. However if is another opportunity to play a quality opponent outside your league that you don’t always get in the nonconference. So for all 10 teams on both sides that are involved it’s an opportunity to prove your mettle for March.”
And to march on regardless.
“It is of course for the pride of the league,” Lon Kruger, the Oklahoma Sooners coach and a former Final Four coach at Florida, said of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge with his Sooners Saturday visiting Alabama. “It’s not something we’ll dwell on for long win or lose it either way because we all bounce back next week in conference play.”