SEC/Big East Challenge: Ranking the Matchups

Scott HenryFeatured ColumnistJune 3, 2012

SEC/Big East Challenge: Ranking the Matchups

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    The SEC/Big East Challenge enters its fifth year still lesser-known than the granddaddy of all conference battles—the one between the ACC and Big Ten. That could change if these two leagues could produce 12 compelling matchups every season.

    Unfortunately, the SEC still isn't that deep, and the Big East is forced to cut out some of its strong members to compensate.

    With 16 schools in the Big East and 12 in the SEC before the arrival of Missouri and Texas A&M, some decisions need to be made about Big East teams getting left out. Louisville, West Virginia, UConn and Pitt would have produced compelling games with some of the SEC's mid-level schools, but they've been left out.

    After all, someone has to play the SEC's barnacles, and both conferences benefit when those games are competitive.

    So, we're left to ponder the merits of games featuring DePaul, Providence and Villanova—the Big East's bottom three teams in 2011-12. Next season, though, at least one of those teams could be involved in a solid battle with an SEC side.

    Read on and see which games should move the needle this November and December.

12. DePaul at Auburn

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    DePaul has forward Cleveland Melvin, pictured here driving for a dunk. Melvin should be a candidate for All-Big East honors, no matter how badly the Blue Demons are playing.

    Auburn is bringing in a pair of ESPNU 100 prospects in 6'5" wings Jordan Price and Shaquille Johnson. The fact that both should be immediate starters probably speaks volumes about the rest of the roster, which only returns four scholarship players.

    The announcing team sent to cover this one goes with all due condolences.

11. Villanova at Vanderbilt

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    Last season, this one might have looked more interesting.

    Vanderbilt will enter this game still seeking to firm up its rotation in the wake of losing last season's entire starting lineup. Next season's frontcourt, aside from junior Rod Odom, will have less than 200 minutes of college basketball experience combined.

    Villanova lost guards Dominic Cheek and Maalik Wayns to the NBA, but the burly duo of JayVaughn Pinkston and Mouphtaou Yarou may feast on the Commodores' green post players.

    This is one that could get ugly fast.

10. Seton Hall at LSU

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    The players to watch in the Seton Hall-LSU matchup may be a pair of big men previously overshadowed by better-known teammates.

    Seton Hall's Gene Teague did battle with All-Big East third-teamer Herb Pope every day in practice while he sat out last season as a transfer from Southern Illinois. As a sophomore at SIU, the 6'9", 290-pound Teague averaged 8.6 points and 5.3 rebounds in only 21.3 minutes per game.

    LSU sophomore Johnny O'Bryant averaged similar numbers, with 8.5 points and 6.7 rebounds in 21.4 minutes. The difference is that O'Bryant was a sub-40 percent shooter from the floor, where Teague is a career 59 percent shooter.

    New LSU coach Johnny Jones doesn't return much else aside from O'Bryant and five-foot-something guards Andre Stringer and Anthony Hickey.

    Meanwhile, Pirate skipper Kevin Willard brings back the nation's steals leader, forward Fuquan Edwin (pictured). Also, a potent group of transfers become eligible next season, including Teague, ex-Georgia Tech forward Brian Oliver and former Iona guard—and Willard recruit—Kyle Smyth.

    Both teams will still be getting used to playing together when they face each other in Baton Rouge, but the Hall's greater experience, honed by a season of practice, should see it through.

9. Georgia at South Florida

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    South Florida was a surprising NCAA team last season, making it into the First Four without having a single player scoring more than 10 points per game.

    Georgia lost two of its top three scorers, leaving SEC All-Freshman performer Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to carry a large portion of the scoring burden.

    We can get highly deep and political with this game, painting it as a conflict between the individual and the collective. It's a strangely appropriate analogy, considering that watching USF's games can often be as oppressive and dull as waiting in the bread line for two-plus hours. Anyone who watched the Bulls' Big East tournament game against Notre Dame is still waiting for the refund of those three hours.

    These were two of the 30 slowest-paced teams in America last season. Unless Georgia finds a point guard and USF finds offensive rebounding help to replace Ron Anderson Jr. and Augustus Gilchrist, this game could be effective as nothing more than a sleep aid.

    And yet, there's still more talent here than in several of the other games on the schedule. Go figure.

8. Rutgers at Ole Miss

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    Are these two teams in the national spotlight? Not for a long time now.

    Can they produce a competitive game? Absolutely.

    Rutgers will miss transfer Gilvydas Biruta, who's left to play for his prep coach Dan Hurley at Rhode Island. A replacement is coming, however, with former McDonald's All-American Wally Judge eligible after leaving Kansas State.

    With Judge, 6'9" sophomore Kadeem Jack and senior Dane Miller, RU could have a solid, athletic front line. In addition, the backcourt trio of Myles Mack, Jerome Seagears and Eli Carter got baptized by fire as freshmen last season.

    Ole Miss has a veteran front line of their own, spearheaded by seniors Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner. They also have a slew of young perimeter players including double-digit scorers Nick Williams and Jarvis Summers.

    The Rebels have made five NIT appearances in the past six seasons, including two trips to New York. Considering Ole Miss didn't lose a lot from a 20-win team and Rutgers returns nearly all of a 14-18 side, Ole Miss should currently be considered the favorite.

7. Mississippi State at Providence

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    Like Auburn, Providence will be spurred by freshmen. Unlike Auburn, the Friars are bringing in two guys who both played in the Jordan Brand Classic, and one (Kris Dunn, pictured) was also a McDonald's All-American.

    With Dunn and Ricardo Ledo joining a backcourt that returns double-digit scorers Bryce Cotton and Vincent Council, the Friars may be able to run all night.

    As for Mississippi State, new coach Rick Ray inherits a roster with approximately 13 points per game returning among three players with game experience. The Bulldogs will also be relying on freshmen, but MSU's aren't quite on the same level as PC's class.

    Here lurks a potential blowout, but it rates well because it may be the nation's first introduction to the Dunn-Ledo duo.

6. South Carolina at St. John's

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    This game is primarily important because of the guys in suits, not the ones in shorts.

    St. John's coach Steve Lavin expects to be back on the sideline for this season after a battle with prostate cancer. He and all of the Red Storm's fans can hope that stabilizing his health can help settle a roster that has seen more fluctuation than any in America over the past two seasons.

    South Carolina welcomes new coach Frank Martin in from Kansas State, just in time to watch three of the team's top four scorers bail. The team's other leading scorer, guard Bruce Ellington, may not be available thanks to football commitments.

    Martin will need to prove that he can build a program after arriving at Kansas State with a loaded recruiting class on the doorstep. Lavin will need to bring calm to his Red Storm.

    As long as no one else bails between now and then, St. John's has the superior talent.

5. Tennessee at Georgetown

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    Tennessee made a late-season surge behind the inside duo of Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon. Maymon came alive once Stokes joined the roster, carding 14 points and 8.6 rebounds per game after averaging 10.6 and 7.5 through the first half of the season.

    The burly pair didn't see too many teams with the sheer length of Georgetown, though. Even without last season's three top scorers, the Hoyas are likely to return six players taller than 6'8" on next season's roster. That doesn't even include a pair of tall freshmen—6'8" Brandon Bolden and 6'11" Bradley Hayes.

    Georgetown's Otto Porter may be one of the best in America at his position, but he's not yet renowned as a scorer, and neither are most of his returning teammates. None of these Hoyas have great experience in carrying the scoring load, while UT coach Cuonzo Martin returns nearly his entire roster from last year's NCAA bubble team.

    This game will be a referendum on the coaches. Martin can prove that he can kick a team into another gear after having a little bit of success, while Georgetown's John Thompson III will need to assemble a rotation and find his go-to guys quickly. The results should be fun.

4. Marquette at Florida

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    The Gators and Golden Eagles battled in a tough Sweet 16 matchup, but there will be a much different look to both sides.

    Florida loses veteran point guard Erving Walker and freshman sharpshooter Bradley Beal. Marquette carries on without its only double-figure scorers—Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom.

    Florida's frontcourt provides its veteran stability, with Patric Young and Erik Murphy both returning as double-figure scorers. The backcourt either needs Kenny Boynton to expand his ball-handling responsibilities or get leadership from Mike Rosario or Scottie Wilbekin. Otherwise, freshman Braxton Ogbueze may be tossed into the point guard position.

    Marquette's most valuable player next season may be a newcomer—Arizona State transfer Trent Lockett. Lockett blends defensive effort, rebounding hustle, smart shot selection and academic discipline. He can be expected to be a leader from day one.

    Lockett and fellow guards Junior Cadougan, Vander Blue and Todd Mayo will stage a memorable tilt with the Gators' backcourt. Young's low-post matchup with the 290-pound Davante Gardner could decide the winner here.

3. Alabama at Cincinnati

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    Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin was disappointed that his team didn't get matched against Kentucky. In a case of "be careful what you ask for," Cronin's team will still get matched up against a team featuring one of America's top 25 recruits.

    When Devonta Pollard committed to Alabama, he made all of the Tide's games that much more interesting. The 6'7" forward has the ability to fill the shoes of the departed JaMychal Green, providing a springy rebounder and shot-blocker with solid interior scoring ability.

    If Yancy Gates was returning for Cincinnati, the idea of Pollard trying to drive on him would be tempting. Alas, Gates is gone and UC now has to decide if Cheikh Mbodj, Kelvin Gaines or Justin Jackson can keep Pollard from attacking the rim.

    Both teams have three-deep experience in the backcourt. If there's an advantage, UC's group of Sean Kilpatrick, Cashmere Wright and JaQuon Parker have more experience in carrying a game than Alabama's guards, with Cronin often employing a four-guard lineup in the wake of the Xavier brawl.

    This game should be very close, but when in doubt, go with the best player on the court. In this case, that should be Pollard.

2. Syracuse at Arkansas

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    Syracuse and the Big East continue to struggle through a contentious relationship, and the SEC/Big East Challenge might be caught in the crossfire.

    Syracuse athletic director Daryl Gross sent an email to the league office (and nearly everyone affiliated with the conference down to the Joyce Center janitors) claiming that the Orange were "overcommitted" and could not play against Arkansas.

    That's a shame, because this is a case of a team with some returning talent catching a national power in a period of turnover.

    The Orange return two starters and key reserves like James Southerland and Michael Carter-Williams, all of whom could play for anyone in America. The Hogs, however, return their top four scorers, nearly 70 percent of their scoring and 55 percent of their rebounding.

    All-SEC guard B.J. Young and conference three-point percentage leader Mardracus Wade could stage a shot-for-shot battle with Brandon Triche. Rising sophomore center Hunter Mickelson would relish a chance to swat a few layups from the likes of C.J. Fair and Rakeem Christmas.

    The only other time these two programs met, Syracuse was victim No. 2 in the Hogs' run to the 1995 national championship game. The game hinged on a play so epic; the Cuse faithful now refer to the game as the "Lawrence Moten Brainfart Game."

    Hopefully, cooler heads will prevail, and this game can come off, because it could be a lot of fun.

1. Kentucky at Notre Dame

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    Finally, a road game in Indiana that John Calipari won't try to weasel his way out of.

    At least, not yet.

    If rumors begin circulating that he's tried to move this game to Madison Square Garden, though, consider this writer unsurprised.

    Kentucky brings in its annual chunk of the McDonald's All-American roster, including Alex Poythress, pictured here. Notre Dame, for its part, has a more veteran crew led by senior-to-be Jack Cooley and guards Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant.

    The matchup pitting the workman-like Cooley and his backup, Michigan State transfer Garrick Sherman, against the Wildcats' freshman twin towers Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley should be entertaining.

    The even more important battle, though, may be Grant and Atkins dueling with NC State transfer Ryan Harrow, who comes in slightly less heralded than many of Calipari's previous point guards. If Grant and Atkins can harass Harrow into a rash of turnovers, the Irish have a chance to stay in the game.

    When the best matchup of the Challenge is one where the underdog needs to do work just to "have a chance to stay in the game," it doesn't say much for the fit between the two conferences.

    Events like these are still more entertaining than the other non-conference fixtures that we'll see, with the Big East feasting on MAAC sides and the SEC touring leagues like the SWAC.