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How the Big 12 Conference Can Improve the Big 12-Big East Challenge

NCAA Basketball: Oklahoma State at Texas Tech

The Big 12 Conference didn’t bring the heat when it came to the Big 12-Big East Challenge in its first season, as the Big 12 finished 2-8. Baylor (beating Butler) and Iowa State (beating Seton Hall) carried the flag for the league this season. Compared to the Big 12-SEC Challenge, it’s a step back. The Big 12 has won or tied that challenge all but one season since it began in 2013-14. 

But, aside from the win-loss record, I think the challenge accomplished what Big 12 Conference leaders wanted.

If you remember from last year, the Big 12 touted the challenge as an opportunity to get another “de facto” conference game. Commissioner Bob Bowlsby and the league felt they were at a potential disadvantage since leagues like the SEC, Big Ten and ACC play a 20-game league schedule and the Big 12 can’t (since the Big 12 plays a double round-robin, the league only plays 18 games). Adding the SEC challenge games gave the Big 12 a 19th “league” game, or at least one that looked good come tournament selection time. 

 

The Big 12 is treating this Big East Challenge game as a 20th “league” game. To Bowlsby and league brass, playing a guaranteed SEC and Big East game is basically the same as adding two games to its own league schedule, since the league’s profiles from a rating standpoint are similar. For instance, RPI rankings (which are no longer used by the NCAA for tournament selection decisions but still remains a good barometer for quality of teams and conferences) had the Big 12 at No. 1 (.601) and the Big East (.597) at No. 2 when I checked those rankings on Jan. 16. The SEC was at No. 6 (.571). 

So you could argue that a slate of games with the Big East this season might mean a bit more than the slate of SEC games. But in combination they provide additional ammunition to the Big 12 when it comes to proving the worth of its bubble teams to the committee.

Further proof came in the AP rankings this week. Four Big 12 teams are in the Top 25 (Baylor, Kansas, West Virginia and Texas Tech). The Big East had four teams (Butler, Villanova, Seton Hall and Creighton). 

And, ESPN’s own Basketball Power Index rankings last week showed the Big 12 occupying 10 of the Top 103 spots, while the Big East had 10 of the Top 88 spots. Think about that. The Big 12 and the Big East accounted 19 of the Top 100 teams in ESPN’s BPI rankings. 

The SEC? It’s BPI ranged from No. 17 (Auburn) to No. 171 (Texas A&M).

While the Big 12 didn’t win the Big East Challenge, it may have helped potential bubble teams when it comes to the NCAA Tournament. If it comes down to three teams for two spots and it’s a team each from the Big 12, the Big East and the SEC, who might the committee choose? Perhaps the two teams that have the better RPIs as a league and a narrower range of rankings in ESPN’s BPI. 

If that’s the case, then this arrangement will have had the intended ramifications the Big 12 was hoping for.

 

WHAT TO DO DIFFERENT?

Here are a couple of ideas I think could help the arrangement:

MOVE IT TO FEBRUARY. Part of what makes the Big 12-SEC Challenge an attention grabber is that it happens the final weekend of January. Conference play in both leagues stop and ESPN gives the challenge a full day of coverage. If you’re a basketball fan, it’s a great opportunity to pause and watch great games. If you’re a team in the Big 12 or SEC participating, you get a chance to measure yourself against a comparable opponent in another league at a time when that sort of measuring stick is useful. If you move the Big 12-Big East Challenge to February, you can get similar attention. It would mean the Big 12 moving up the league openers about a week to accommodate it, but I think the attention would be worth it. Did you even notice a Big 12-Big East Challenge game in December? Probably not.

PLAY IT AS A CLASSIC. One of the things that I love about this is the potential to use some of basketball’s most impressive venues. As part of the Big 12-Big East Challenge West Virginia played St. John’s at Madison Square Garden. But let’s think about expanding on that. What if, one year, the entire Big 12 and Big East descends on the Big Apple for a weekend classic, with MSG as the main venue and other venues throughout the other boroughs as satellite venues? Kansas and Villanova played in Philadelphia this season. What if the Wells Fargo Center — the home of the Philadelphia 76ers — was the anchor site? Then the two conferences could use the other historic “Philly 5” venues as satellite arenas, including the Palestra. There are plenty of great venues in the Washington D.C., area, where Georgetown is located. And this isn’t a Big East thing, either. Have it in Kansas City one year, where you can use the two arenas that house the Big 12 Tournaments. Use Allen Fieldhouse and the Octagon as dual hosting sites in Lawrence and Manhattan, Kan., one year. Or head to Dallas-Fort Worth and use sites like the American Airlines Center, Moody Coliseum (the home of SMU) and Schollmaier Arena (home of TCU) as venues. There are opportunities to turn this into something special.

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