We’re still a few weeks shy of the beginning of conference play in the Big East, but this past week gave us some of the best tests these teams will see in the nonconference season with the SEC-Big East Challenge.
These interconference events are great hooks for college basketball fans trying to get out of the malaise of colder weather and bad local football teams. ESPN dreams up match ups that force some teams (cough, cough, Cincinnati) to play at least one decent team before they get into the rough and tumble life of conference play.
This year, the Challenge expanded from its normal eight-team, two-night format to include 24 teams in 12 games over the span of three nights.
Another change included the venues where the games were held. Since 2007, the first year of the Challenge, the event was held on two neutral courts with two games taking place each night a la a conference tournament setting. This year, there were no neutral sites as the SEC hosted eight of the games, and the Big East held home court in the other four.
Taking place on Dec. 1, 2 and 3, many of these big boys from the BCS conferences have been honing their skills while feasting on inferior mid-major competitioin. The SEC-Big East Challenge is designed to snap the players into midseason form, putting them up against competition that they might regularly see in the NCAA or NIT tournaments at the end of the year.
Coming into the week, both conferences had five teams ranked in the AP Top 25, with Marquette being the only team ranked to not take part in the Challenge.
The folks who draw up the schedule did a pretty good job of giving us some solid games, not the least of which was a Top-10 match up between Florida and Syracuse.
The Cuse, which has been mired in a season during which everyone wants to talk about their now-former assistant coach Bernie Fine, has been going about their business pretty impressively, winning their first seven games by an average margin of 26 points.
Of course, the Orange wouldn’t have an easy go about it when No. 10 Florda came calling at the Carrier Dome on Dec. 2. Neither team was able to pull away in the first half with a lead never growing larger than six.
The Gators’ calling card has been the long-range jumper, hitting 43 percent of their three-pointers, but Florida could only manage 3-of-12 in the first half.
Behind solid games from Brandon Triche’s 20 points and Scoop Jardine’s 16 points and seven assists, Syracuse claimed their eighth win of the year 72-68, although the game was an afterthought as coach Jim Boeheim continued to face questions about his former assistant.
The other highly touted matchup was between Louisville and Vanderbilt. Vandy put the Cardinals in a couple bad spots throughout the night. First, with 8:45 remaining, Louisville found themselves down nine points, but then went on a 13-4 run to tie the game at 47 with just over two minutes left in regulation.
Louisville had a good look to win as Peyton Siva dropped a pass off to freshman Chane Behanan who missed a layup as time expired.
The Commodores jumped out to another lead – this time by five points – in overtime. But the Cards, in front of their home crowd, were able to get back into the game on the back of some stellar play from Siva and Kyle Kuric, who hit a three with just under a minute remaining to give the Cards a one-point lead.
Tied at 60 with under 10 seconds remaining, Siva drove and decided to take the shot himself, making the game-winning layup with 1.4 seconds left on the clock. Louisville won 62-60 in OT.
Other games of note were Georgetown’s impressive 57-55 win over No. 12 Alabama. Hollis Thompson hit a long three with 1.8 seconds remaining to give the Hoyas their sixth win of the season. Cincinnati finally showed that they do have a decent team, going on the road to beat Georgia in Athens, 57-51. Seton Hall beat Auburn 81, 59; UConn beat Arkansas 75-62; and Pittsburgh beat Tennessee 61-56.
The Big East won eight of the 12 games, winning the Challenge for the second time. Over the five-year span of the Challenge, the Big East leads the series 2-1-2.