In my estimation, the SEC-Big 12 Challenge has gone from being a new, exciting thing to just being a thing.
Florida hosting Baylor this Saturday (noon, ESPN or WatchESPN) is just another game on the schedule, despite both of these teams making the Sweet Sixteen — at Madison Square Garden, no less — last spring. The Gators are newly ranked, but will be freshly unranked as of Monday, thanks to a dispiriting loss to South Carolina earlier this week; the Bears are 12-8, and 2-6 in Big 12 play. Neither of these teams, at this precise moment, looks like a Final Four outfit.
And, really, apart from a smallish top tier — Kansas, West Virginia, and maybe Auburn and Texas Tech -- there isn’t a deep bench of programs in either conference with that sort of look right now. Florida isn’t what it was when it scorched nets on its scoring rampage to begin the season; Kentucky has not had its youth gel into a team; Oklahoma is thrilling, thanks to Trae Young, but less than tremendous taken as a whole.
That lack of top-tier teams means games like this one in Gainesville are more or less what this Challenge gives us this year: Good but flawed team plays good but flawed team with hopes of incrementally improving its NCAA Tournament standing.
For Florida, this game represents a chance to right the ship after South Carolina’s shooting left it riddled. The Gators gave up 12 threes on 21 tries to the Gamecocks, and while Baylor isn’t particularly great at firing away from distance, Manu Lecomte and King McClure are both right around 40 percent from deep on the year.
The Gators would also no doubt like to get more production inside than they did against South Carolina, something of a tall test considering Baylor’s tallest players. Seven-footer Jo Lual-Acuil anchors a stingy interior defense for the Bears, one that should make it just as tough for Kevarrius Hayes and Keith Stone to score as the Gamecocks did.
And so this game could well turn into what most Florida games have this year: A contest to see which team can generate more points from beyond the arc. When the Gators are hot, that’s usually a style that works; when they’re not, well, they lose to South Carolina and Loyola of Chicago.
Here’s hoping the return of the neon orange uniforms the Gators wore in the PK80 Invitational might help heat them up.