Starting Five: Tennessee-Texas, Kansas-Kentucky headline best games of college basketball weekend
The SEC/Big 12 Challenge series is a bit of a curiosity in the men’s basketball realm. Most such made-for-TV events between power conferences take place before league competition begins. This one, by contrast, lands near the midpoint of the league slate.
But even though this set of games interrupts the quest for all-important positions in the standings, there are quality matchups to be found on the lineup that could provide valuable resume boosters come Selection Sunday. We’ll highlight three of these inter-conference clashes, as well as a couple of key contests involving the leaders in the Big Ten and Big East, in this week’s edition of the Starting Five.
No. 10 Texas at No. 4 Tennessee
TIME/TV: Saturday, 6 p.m. ET, ESPN
In terms of current rankings, this is the most attractive pairing in the Big 12/SEC series. Both programs will in a few weeks be seeking their first title in the sport – at least on the men’s side – and a win here could bolster the case for a No. 1 regional seed. Tennessee’s games are often on the not-so-pretty side as the Vols rely on defense, limiting opponents to nation's-best 53.7 points a game and a shooting percentage of 33.9. The Longhorns can fill it up from three-point range, especially when they bring Sir’Jabari Rice off the bench for a smaller lineup, but that perimeter success can come at the expense of rebounding.
No. 9 Kansas at Kentucky
TIME/TV: Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN
It was undoubtedly anticipated that this would be the top-10 showdown when the series lineup was chosen. But even though both these name-brand programs have had their struggles this year, it will still attract plenty of observers. The Wildcats, despite their current four-game winning streak that began with a huge win at Tennessee, could nevertheless still use another positive result to offset some earlier bad losses. The Jayhawks are certainly not in panic mode, as none of their three consecutive losses were especially damaging, but they’d nonetheless like to pick up a victory against a name-brand opponent on the road to restore some confidence. Rebounding was an issue for the Jayhawks in their most recent setback at Baylor, which might not bode well the way Oscar Tshiebwe and Jacob Toppin can dominate the glass for Kentucky. The Wildcats’ half-court offense, however, remains a work in progress, so a comeback could prove difficult if Jalen Wilson and Co. can stake Kansas to an early lead.
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No. 13 Iowa State at Missouri
TIME/TV: Saturday, 2 p.m. ET, ESPN2
The Cyclones, coming off a huge win against Big 12 leader Kansas State, now renew acquaintances with a former conference foe. The Tigers have come back to earth a bit after a 12-1 start but got to .500 in SEC play after beating Mississippi. Mizzou was happy to have Kobe Brown back in the lineup for the win at the Rebels following his absence due to an ankle injury was keenly felt in a blowout loss to Alabama. Iowa State’s balanced attack is led by Jaren Holmes, who arrived as a grad transfer from St. Bonaventure along with big man Osun Osunniyi.
No. 12 Xavier at Creighton
TIME/TV: Saturday, 12:15 p.m. ET, CBS
The Musketeers put their one-game lead in the Big East on the line with this trip to Omaha, where the Bluejays seem to have found their footing after stumbling out of the gate thanks to injuries and a challenging pre-conference schedule. Xavier prevailed in a 90-87 track meet in Cincinnati on Jan 11, so another entertaining contest figures to be in the offing for this rematch. Neither of these teams is particularly deep with the starters playing a vast majority of the minutes, so the foul situation could get dicey late if the game is tightly officiated. Xavier can get points from a number of sources, but Souley Boum (16.8 ppg, 5.0 apg) is the offense’s engine. Creighton, as usual, has its share of perimeter threats but is more effective when center Ryan Kalkbrenner gets involved.
Michigan State at No. 1 Purdue
TIME/TV: Sunday, 12:15 p.m. ET, CBS
If you enjoyed that MLK Day matinee in East Lansing that came down to the wire, you won’t have to wait long for the sequel. Unfortunately for the Spartans, that one-point loss to the Boilermakers was a huge missed opportunity to bolster a spotty resume that lacks high-end victories and features a bad loss to Notre Dame. Michigan State’s rugged defensive style keeps most games in striking distance, but coach Tom Izzo might rethink his policy of not doubling Purdue standout Zach Edey in the post. Though the Boilermakers have had their share of close finishes, opponents usually need to sink a lot of treys in order to hang around.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Tennessee-Texas, Kansas-Kentucky lead men's college basketball weekend