The conference schedule will be interrupted this week for 10 SEC teams that are participating in this weekend’s Big 12/SEC Challenge.
The matchups present a slew of opportunities and challenges for the SEC. The Big 12 currently has the strongest RPI among conferences in the country and is arguably the best conference in the nation from top to bottom. The series will give the SEC a chance to earn some respect on the national spotlight, but the timing of the clash is questionable. In most cases, these conference showdowns are usually played at the beginning of the season rather than during the middle of conference play.
Mississippi State won’t be participating in the challenge this weekend, but coach Ben Howland said he won’t be disappointed about missing out on the action this year.
“It’s fine,” Howland said on Monday’s SEC teleconference. “I never liked that concept… Here in one of the five power conferences, it takes away from the focus of the conference race in my mind. I think it’s great for notoriety for the conferences and all that, but I think it’s just tough so I have no problem with it.”
South Carolina coach Frank Martin also won’t be playing a Big 12 foe this weekend. But he gave a dissenting opinion to Howland’s take on the challenge and said it’s an opportunity for teams to take a break from the routine of conference play.
“I think it’s two leagues that kind of mirror one another,” Martin said. “Unfortunately one league gets a lot of credit, the other gets no credit… Playing in the middle of the conference season I don’t see why not. The monotony of playing your conference foes game after game after game after game for 18 games makes it real hard because you’re so familiar with one another.”
UGA will have a tough week ahead of itself with trips to LSU on Tuesday and Baylor on Saturday. Coach Mark Fox isn’t too thrilled about the opportunity to face the Bears and thinks his team got the short end of the scheduling stick.
“I’m not jumping up and down about it,” Fox said. “I think it’s probably good for publicity, but our team has to travel all the way over to Louisiana, come home, then travel all the way back to Waco, Texas.
“If I had a home game beforehand, maybe I’d be a little bit more excited about it. I look at it as one small component of our non-league scheduling more so than I do a weekend event. I think in the grand scheme of things it is a plus.”
Another question coaches faced on the timing of the Big 12/SEC Challenge was how to keep the players motivated in a rare game outside of the conference. Auburn coach Bruce Pearl doesn’t think that will be a problem.
“I think that anytime you can create good matchups in the non-conference I think the players are going to get excited about it,” Pearl said. “I think some players are going to embrace the SEC mantra more than others.”
The biggest key to this inter-conference competition for Pearl is establishing pride and respect for the SEC. Pearl said he hopes this challenge helps the conference command similar respect on the hardwood as it already garners on the gridiron.
“I always enjoy and appreciate that in football when our conference wins a big bowl game – when Alabama wins a big national championship game this year you hear the crowd chanting S-E-C, S-E-C,” Pearl said. “I’ve heard that at Auburn before and it matters. There’s been a level of dominance in football where our fans recognize that and embrace it. We’ve got to try and create some of that same attitude and pride within the framework of our basketball programs.”