By Nathan Keil | Sports Editor
Baylor men’s basketball will look to keep its Big 12/SEC Challenge record blemish-free as the Bears travel to Gainesville, Fla., to take on No. 20 Florida at 11 a.m. Saturday.
The two schools have only met once before, with Baylor earning a 72-71 win as part of the Cabrillo Classic in San Diego in 1981. However, the teams got a look at each other in the 2017 Sweet Sixteen, with both schools falling victim to South Carolina. Baylor head coach Scott Drew said he knows the Gators will pose a significant challenge.
“The Big 12/SEC Challenge is a special weekend for both conferences,” Drew said in May following the news of the matchup. “Our teams got a chance to see each other in New York during the Sweet 16 last year, and we know that they’re a great team. Coach White has done a tremendous job at Florida, and we’re excited about another great matchup in this series.”
The SEC/ Big 12 Challenge presented by Sonic was established in 2013, highlighting the two conferences in the weekend before the Super Bowl.
Despite the opportunity to showcase the conferences in a football off-weekend, not all coaches have been supportive of challenge’s timing.
In a Jan. 27, 2017 story in USA Today, Kansas head coach Bill Self said that as important as the non-conference schedule is, the conference schedule should take precedence and having this challenge in January takes away from the importance of conference play.
“The conference season trumps your nonconference season, big time,” Self said. “I mean we’re happy to go. We’re excited. We’ll go there and let it ride. But the bottom line is I think the only reason we’re doing it (in late January) is for exposure for our respective leagues.”
For the first two years of the challenge, the games spread out over a two-day span, but in 2016 the two leagues decided to make the challenge a one-day event in attempt to bring more attention to it and the matchups it presented.
Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl told USA Today that the move to make the challenge the weekend before the Super Bowl was a brilliant decision by the two conferences and he thinks other conferences who do similar events may look to do the same in the future.
“To be able to have (it on) this weekend when the NFL is off was just brilliant by the SEC and Big 12,” Pearl said. “I would think if I was another conference, I would say, ‘Gosh, the SEC and Big 12 have really done something here.’ Everyone’s going to be paying attention to these matchups now.”
Other Big 12 and SEC schools have voiced their support of the move of the challenge to late January, including Florida head coach Mike White.
The Big 12 has established its dominance in the history of the series. The league has a combined 25-15 while going 3-0-1 in its first four seasons. The two conferences spit 5-5 in 2017.
Baylor is the only Big 12 school yet to lose since the challenge’s inception. The Bears earned a neutral court 62-62 win over Kentucky in 2013, a 66-63 win over Vanderbilt in 2014, an 83-73 win over Georgia in 2016 and a 78-75 win over Ole Miss in 2017.
Florida is 3-1 in the challenge, including 2-0 under Mike White and wins over West Virginia in 2016 and Oklahoma last season.
However, due to the unbalanced number of teams in each conference, four SEC teams do not participate each season. The four teams left out of this year’s challenge are LSU, Auburn, Missouri and Mississippi State.
Baylor (12-8, 2-6) and Florida (14-6, 6-2) will tip from Exactech Arena at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center at 11 a.m. Saturday with the game airing on ESPN.
Other matchups on Saturday will include Oklahoma at Alabama, Georgia at Kansas State, Texas Tech at South Carolina, TCU at Vanderbilt, Oklahoma State at Arkansas, Kentucky at West Virginia, Ole Miss at Texas, Tennessee at Iowa State and Texas A&M at Kansas.