Saturday is the third edition of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge although it feels like the first because in the previous two, games were scattered across various days during the non-conference season. This season, it’s a coherent event, with all ten games taking place this Saturday.
As a bonus, this event occurs right in the middle on conference play. Coaches don’t particularly like it, but people that have ratings systems do because the strength of each conference is based on data collected over a month ago. The relative strength of each conference probably doesn’t change that much during January and February, but when it does we have no way of knowing. With the death of BracketBusters, there’s just the occasional Marquette/Stetson game to provide non-conference information this time of year.
But the minds in charge of programming at ESPN wisely decided to move this event to late January, and so we get sunrise-to-sunset basketball* on Saturday to decide bragging rights between SEC vs. Big 12. (*The only state where it will truly be sunrise-to-sunset basketball is Alaska.)
Just to be clear, there’s nothing that can happen on Saturday that would change my mind that the Big 12 better than the SEC. There’s enough of a gap between the two that I don’t think a sweep of 30-point wins by SEC teams would change their standing relative to the Big 12. But the results could marginally impact the reputations of each league.
One reason there’s not a lot at stake conference-wise is that we have a lot of information on both conferences already and ten games can’t change that too much. But another reason is that the SEC gets to drop four of its bottom-feeders, making the matchup closer than the average strength of each conference would suggest. And furthermore, the challenge is just ten games, and nearly anything can happen over ten games.
But not quite anything. According to my metrics the SEC team is obviously favored in just two games – Texas A&M’s home game against Iowa State and Arkansas hosting Texas Tech – with Tennessee/TCU and West Virginia/Florida being close to coin flips. The Big 12 team is the clear favorite in the other six match-ups. So the odds are stacked against the SEC in such a way that it will not win eight, nine, or ten games. But the good news is that it won’t get swept either. Here’s the probability distribution based on the current ratings.
The Big 12 is expected to win 6.0 games according to the Monte Carlo simulation and it posts the necessary six wins (or more) for victory 65% of the time. The SEC wins at least six games 14% of the time. That leaves a 21% chance of a 5-5 tie. But there are no ties in kenpom-land. I will declare the winning conference based on aggregate free throw percentage and the rest of the world will have to live with it.