Ranking the games in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge: Kansas vs. Kentucky highlights impressive lineup

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John Calipari and Bill Self shake hands. (AP Photo/Bill Haber)
John Calipari and Bill Self shake hands. (AP Photo/Bill Haber)

ESPN released the matchups for the 2019 SEC/Big 12 Challenge on Thursday, and there’s a great list of high-profile contests on deck. The series will be played on January 26, 2019 — right in the middle of conference play — and dates back to the 2013-14 season. The Big 12 won the first three challenges, the conferences tied last year, and the SEC won its first challenge last season.

Here are all of the matchups ranked from least exciting to most exciting.

10. Iowa State at Ole Miss

This is a matchup of both conference’s cellar-dwellers. Iowa State slumped to a 13-18 (4-14 Big 12) record while Ole Miss went 12-20 (5-13 SEC). But there’s hope for both squads. The Cyclones feature star do-it-all guard Nick Weiler-Babb, who set career high in points (11.7), rebounds (7.0), assists (6.8) and steals per game (1.3). They may also bring back Lindell Wigginton, who declared for the NBA draft without an agent. He has until May 30 to decide whether he wants to stay in the draft or return. Wigginton averaged 16.7 points per game as a freshman and ruined Khadeem Lattin’s senior night last season by putting him on a poster:

Ole Miss returns three of its top four scorers from least year, led by senior Terence Davis. New head coach Kermit Davis, who led Middle Tennessee State on several NCAA tournament runs and a massive upset over Michigan State two years ago, should help jumpstart this program.

9. Alabama at Baylor

Alabama is losing Collin Sexton to the NBA and Braxton Key to a transfer to Virginia, but don’t sleep on the Crimson Tide, a team that returns sharpshooter John Petty, slasher Dazon Ingram and big man Daniel Giddens. Alabama is coming off its first trip to the Round of 32 since 2006, and Avery Johnson seems to be building something in Tuscaloosa in the shadow of Nick Saban’s football dynasty.

Baylor is also losing several key pieces — including point guard Manu Lecomte and big man Jo Lual-Acuil Jr. — from their NIT team from last year. But the Bears bring in lots of talent, too, including junior college transfer sharpshooter Devonte Bandoo, graduate transfer Makai Mason and four-star freshman Matthew Mayer.

8. Texas at Georgia

With the super-athletic Kerwin Roach returning for his senior year, Texas should be looking to head back to the NCAA tournament, and a disappointing overtime loss to Nevada in the first round should provide all the fire they need to get there. Shaka Smart has a really solid class coming in, and even with the loss of NBA-bound center Mo Bamba, the Longhorns have plenty of perimeter scoring.

They’ll face a Georgia squad under the direction of new head coach Tom Crean. The former Indiana head coach has his work cut out for him for a program that hasn’t advanced past the Round of 64 since 2002 (and even that was vacated), but Crean has experience picking teams up off the mat, just like he did at his last job, at Indiana. The Bulldogs lose star big man Yante Maten to graduation, but Crean should breathe life into Athens.

7. South Carolina at Oklahoma State

One year after going to a Final Four, Frank Martin and South Carolina stumbled to near the bottom of the SEC. The Gamecocks got a big boost when Chris Silva announced he was returning for his senior season. They could get another one if the NCAA grants former Louisville commit Brian Bowen eligibility. Martin should get his team back on track.

In their first year under Mike Boynton Jr., the Pokes beat Florida State, Oklahoma twice and Kansas twice, won 21 games overall and didn’t make the NCAA tournament. Oklahoma State loses its top two scorers — Jeffrey Carroll and Kendall Smith — but the program has momentum that should only continue to build in Boynton Jr.’s second year. Michael Weathers, who averaged 16.7 points per game for Miami (OH) and then sat out last year after transferring, will need to replace some of Carroll and Smith’s scoring.

6. Vanderbilt at Oklahoma

Vanderbilt struggled mightily last season, but the Commodores should be a fun group to watch this upcoming campaign with top-15 recruits Simisola Shittu and Darius Garland headed to Nashville. Bryce Drew’s team was really young last year and will benefit from the addition of former Notre Dame big man Matt Ryan, a great shooter in a 6’8″ frame.

They’ll head to Norman to take on an Oklahoma team that will be completely redesigned following the departure of sharpshooting playmaker Trae Young, who led the nation in usage percentage. Lon Kruger has his work cut out for him, but he returns much of his team and brings in four-star shooting guard Jamal Bieniemy.

5. Arkansas at Texas Tech

Come for Daniel Gafford’s defense and stay for… Daniel Gafford’s offense.

He’ll be playing against a team that just went to the Elite Eight. There’s not a whole lot to dislike here.

4. Florida at TCU

Under Mike White, Florida has won its three SEC/Big 12 Challenge games by an average of over 23 points. They’ll bring another impressive squad with three talented incoming freshmen to this year’s challenge. Andrew Nembhard is a Canadian guard ranked 17th in this class and should see playing time immediately. Sharpshooter Noah Locke and Keyontae Johnson from prep powerhouse Oak Hill round out a terrific recruiting class. But it’s not just the young guys who will help out: Senior guards Jalen Hudson and KeVaughn Allen and senior big man Kevarrius Hayes will lead the way for what could be a very good Florida team.

Jamie Dixon has done a marvelous job building his alma mater into a good program quickly. The Horned Frogs returns five players who saw time as a starter from the school’s first tournament team in 20 years. Replacing big man Vladimir Brodziansky (15.0 points per game) will be tough, but the Horned Frogs are primed to be one of the better teams in the Big 12.

3. Kansas State at Texas A&M

Kansas State is coming off an Elite Eight run. Texas A&M came within a second of getting there. This should be a fantastic matchup between the Wildcats and the Aggies. Bruce Weber returns all five of his starters in The Little Apple, and Dean Wade, who barely played in the postseason due to a foot issue, is a force to be reckoned with. As long as Weber, who took Illinois to a Final Four in 2005, can keep his Wildcats focused, he should have one of his best teams.

On the other side of the coin await Billy Kennedy’s Aggies. Even with big men Tyler Davis and Robert Williams III gone, Texas A&M should be a solid bunch. Talented point guard TJ Starks should grow leaps and bounds in his second year in College Station, and junior college transfer Wendell Mitchell will bolster the guard position. If smooth scorer Admon Gilder returns to school as expected, this will be a good team with a lot of backcourt depth and talent.

2. West Virginia at Tennessee

You probably won’t find a matchup between two tougher teams. The Mountaineers press all game long, and even with guards Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles Jr. gone, they will be tough to beat. Sagaba Konate is a shot-blocking machine who jumps out of the gym, and Esa Ahmad, James Bolden and Lamont West can all fill it up. Add in crafty incoming point guard Jordan McCabe and there’s another very good team brewing in Morgantown.

Most pundits predicted Tennessee to finish near the bottom of the SEC. Instead, they tied Auburn at the top with 13 conference wins. Rick Barnes has turned Volunteer basketball around, and almost everyone is back from last year’s team, including SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams.

1. Kansas at Kentucky

There is no other game that could possibly go here. Two blue-wearing blue-bloods. Kansas and Kentucky. Self and Calipari. The Jayhawks have incoming five-star guards Quentin Grimes and Devon Dotson as well as transfers Charlie Moore, Dedric Lawson and K.J. Lawson. Kentucky, of course, counters with an absolutely loaded recruiting class led by forwards E.J. Montgomery (No. 10 recruit) and Keldon Johnson. This will be a good one.

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