The 2012 SEC-Big East Challenge will feature a Sweet 16 rematch, a clash of perennial bubble teams and a pair of challenging road games for two likely preseason top 10 teams. Here's a look at the pairings released by ESPN on Friday and some very early thoughts on the matchups:
Must-see TV: Kentucky at Notre Dame (Nov. 29)
The Wildcats may not be playing Indiana next year, but they will will play a difficult true road game against one of the Hoosier state's other top teams. With Jack Cooley, Jerian Grant, Eric Atkins and the rest of the core of last year's surprising NCAA tournament team returning next season, Notre Dame promises to pose a stiff challenge for a freshman-heavy Kentucky team playing its first real road game.
Three others worth watching: Syracuse at Arkansas (Nov. 30), Marquette at Florida (Nov. 29), Tennessee at Georgetown (Nov. 30)
Even though four of Syracuse's top six scorers from last year's Big East championship team have departed, the Orange may begin the season in the top 10 anyway because of all the depth last year's team had. The visit to hostile Bud Walton Arena to play an improved Arkansas team promises to test whether Syracuse's returners can adjust to new roles.
As for the Marquette-Florida contest, it's a rematch of last March's Sweet 16 matchup in Phoenix. The Gators won that one because of their defense, but both teams will have a vastly different look next season with Darius Johnson-Odom, Jae Crowder, Erving Walker and Bradley Beal all having departed.
Tennessee at Georgetown doesn't feature a preseason Top 25 team, but both the Vols and Hoyas are NCAA tournament contenders. Tennessee returns the core of a team that nearly parlayed a late surge into a surprising NCAA bid last year, while Georgetown will rely on sophomore standout Otto Porter to help overcome the loss of Hollis Thompson, Jason Clark and Henry Sims.
Missed opportunity: (Mississippi State at Providence, Dec. 1)
Hopefully Providence has some other marquee non-conference games on its schedule because this matchup with depleted, rebuilding Mississippi State doesn't qualify. That's a shame too because it would be nice to catch an early glimpse of Providence's talented freshman class in a showcase game.
Sounds better on paper than in real life: (Villanova at Vanderbilt, Dec. 1)
These are two marquee programs that will likely be in the midst of rebuilding seasons next year. Villanova loses Maalik Wayns and Dominic Cheek from a team that really wasn't all that good last year, while Vanderbilt must replace its entire starting lineup including future NBA draft picks Jeff Taylor, Festus Ezeli and John Jenkins.
Cruel and unusual punishment: (DePaul at Auburn, Nov. 30)
Ah, the SEC-Big East Challenge's answer to Wake Forest-Nebraska and Penn State-Boston College in the Big Ten-ACC event. In Hell's most fiery torture chambers, they play these three games on a loop.