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The SEC/Big 12 Challenge highlighted by two sensational matchups


The SEC/Big 12 Challenge announced the schedule for its second season, and while the depth of games are weakened by the lack of intriguing teams in the SEC, it will be highlighted by a Friday night with what should end up being two best games of the season.

On December 5th, Florida will be heading to Lawrence to take on Kansas. The Jayhawks paid a visit to Gainesville last season and were smacked around by Florida for 35 minutes before Andrew Wiggins finally woke up and made the final score respectable. This season, despite Florida losing four senior starters to graduation and Kansas losing two players that could end up being top three picks, both the Gators and the Jayhawks are top 15 teams in the NBCSports.com preseason top 25.

Kansas reloads, as Cliff Alexander, Kelly Oubre and Devonte Graham will join Wayne Selden and Perry Ellis on a team that sits at No. 5 overall. While Florida also brings in a talented recruiting class and returns Michael Frazier and Dorian Finney-Smith, the key to their team is going to be the development of former McDonald All-Americans Kasey Hill and Chris Walker. They are 15th in our top 25 right now, but that could end up being too low is everyone develops like they are expected to.

Florida at Kansas, as intriguing as it is, is only the undercard on Friday as Texas will pay a visit to Rupp Arena to take on the consensus preseason No. 1 team in the country in Kentucky.

We all know how good the Wildcats are supposed to be this season. Not only do they once again bring in a promising recruiting class, but they returned six of the eight guys from last season that had a chance to get drafted this year. The presence of the Harrisons makes Kentucky the way-too-early title favorite, but it is their unbelievably big, talented and deep front line that will terrify opponents.

But here’s the thing: Texas will have one of the few front lines that will be able to matchup with the Wildcats. Cameron Ridley, Jonathan Holmes and Prince Ibeh all return while they add Myles Turner, a top ten recruit in the Class of 2014. With the ability of Holmes to play on the perimeter, the Longhorns are one of the few teams that can match Kentucky’s biggest lineup inch-for-inch.

The rest of the schedule is not quite as intriguing. Iowa State, who is a top 25 team, will host Arkansas, who returned enough talent that they could end up being an NCAA tournament team. With the up-and-down style of both teams, that game will at least be a fun watch. LSU should be another tournament-caliber team in the SEC, but with West Virginia losing Eron Harris, the Mountaineers look to be headed back to the NIT.

Missouri-Oklahoma should probably be the fourth-best game of the event, depending on what kind of team first year coach Kim Anderson fields. That should tell you what we’re working with here.

The Big 12 won the challenge 7-3 last season.

Here is the complete schedule:

Wednesday, Dec. 3

  • Auburn at Texas Tech

Thursday, Dec. 4

  • Arkansas at Iowa State
  • Baylor at Vanderbilt
  • LSU at West Virginia
  • TCU at Ole Miss

Friday, Dec. 5

  • Florida at Kansas
  • Missouri at Oklahoma
  • Texas at Kentucky

Saturday, Dec. 6

  • Kansas State at Tennessee
  • Oklahoma State at South Carolina

No. 1 Kentucky survives without Tyler Ulis in lineup

Tyler Ulis
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Less than a week after giving No. 2 Maryland all they could handle, Illinois State went into Lexington and gave No. 1 Kentucky fits.

The Redbirds never really threatened UK in the second half, but they went into the break tied and were within single digits down the stretch, eventually losing 75-63.

Kentucky was flustered. They turned the ball over 15 times compared to just eight assists, they shot 2-for-12 from three and just 29-for-46 (63 percent) from the charity stripe. They simply did not handle Illinois State’s pressure all that well.

And there was a reason for that.

Tyler Ulis didn’t play.

Sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate just what a player brings to a team until that player is not in the lineup, and that was precisely the case with Ulis on Monday night. It was crystal clear what he provides Kentucky. Beyond leadership and the ability to break a press without throwing the ball to the other team, he’s a calming presence. He doesn’t get rattled when a defender is harassing him and he doesn’t get overwhelmed by a situation like a mid-major threatening the No. 1 team in the country in their own gym.

He’s everything you look for in a pure point guard, and for as good as Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe have looked at times this season, it should be crystal clear who the most important player on this Kentucky team is.

LSU loses to Charleston, eliminates at-large bid margin for error

Ben Simmons
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Ben Simmons scored 15 points and grabbed 18 rebounds, the second time in his six-game career that the LSU freshman has collected that many caroms, but that wasn’t enough for the Tigers to avoid dropping a game on the road to the College of Charleston, 70-58. It was the third straight loss for Simmons’ crew, as they fell to Marquette and N.C. State at the Legends Classic last week.

But here’s the thing: LSU didn’t just lose.

The game really wasn’t close.

LSU was down by as many as 23 points. It was 39-17 at the half, and that was after Charleston had a shot at the buzzer called off upon review. They made a bit of a run in the second half but never got closer than seven. When LSU would cut into the lead, the Cougars would respond with a run of their own, killing LSU’s spirit while keeping them at arm’s length.

[RELATED: Ben Simmons’ one college year a waste?]

Now, there are quite a few things here to discuss. For starters, LSU’s effort was, at best, apathetic, and, at worst, regular old pathetic. The team has a serious lack of leadership that was plainly evident on Monday night; would Fred VanVleet let his team fold against a program picked to finish at the bottom of the SoCon? Would Tyler Ulis? For that matter, would Tom Izzo or Mike Krzyzewski or John Calipari?

Perhaps more importantly, does any of that change when Keith Hornsby and Craig Victor get back?

Simmons did show off his potential — 18 boards, four assists, he even made his first three of the year — but he also showed precisely why there are scouts that are trying to curtail the LeBron James comparisons. Simmons was 4-for-15 from the floor with seven turnovers against a mediocre mid-major team. There are so many things that Simmons does well, but scoring efficiently — particularly in half court setting — and shooting the ball consistently are not on that list.

But here’s the biggest issue: LSU may have put themselves in a situation where they aren’t a tournament team. As of today, they’re 3-3 on the season with losses to a pair of teams that, at best, seem destined to be in the bubble conversation on Selection Sunday in addition to this loss to Charleston. The rest of their non-conference schedule is ugly. The only game worth noting is at home against No. 6 Oklahoma at the end of January.

The NCAA factors in non-conference schedule strength when determining at-large teams. You need to at least try, and LSU didn’t try; they have one of the worst non-conference schedules in the country.

The great thing about being in the SEC — as opposed to, say, the Missouri Valley — is that the Tigers will have plenty of chances to earn marquee wins. Six, by my court: Kentucky twice, Texas A&M twice, Vanderbilt on the road and Oklahoma at home. They probably need to win at least two or three of those games to have a real chance, and that’s assuming they can avoid anymore horrid losses in the process.

The season isn’t over six games in, not by any stretch of the imagination.

But LSU has done a hell of a job eliminating their margin for error.