Saturday’s Big 12/SEC Challenge is college basketball’s marquee event this weekend, with six ranked teams, including top-five outfits Baylor and Kansas, taking part in the festivities. With that in mind, ESPN.com’s college hoops experts evaluated the Jayhawks’ challenge in moving past the chaos of the past week, identified the top players and coaches in the event, and attempted to sort pretenders from contenders in this season’s vast group of No. 1s.
How does Kansas (vs. Tennessee, Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, ESPN) move on from the ugliness at Allen Fieldhouse on Tuesday? Where does the incident fall on your ‘black marks for college basketball’ scale?
John Gasaway, college basketball writer: As ugly as it gets, no doubt, though the ugliness might prove fleeting for the Jayhawks, for Kansas State, and the sport. The fact that we have to reach back to the Cincinnati-Xavier fight or even “Malice at the Palace” for parallels might be a good sign — those incidents took place eight and 15 years ago, respectively.
So many either-or forks in the road had to all go the wrong way, in sequence, for that fight to start. If DaJuan Gordon doesn’t steal the ball with 3 seconds left in a game his team’s about to lose by 22, we’re not doing this. If Silvio De Sousa doesn’t then taunt Gordon after blocking his shot, we’re not doing this. Even if De Sousa is taunting Gordon, but doing it in front of his own bench instead of in front of K-State’s, we might not be doing this. De Sousa and James Love, among others, made reprehensible decisions, of course, and they were afforded the opportunity to do so by a highly idiosyncratic series of events.
Myron Medcalf, senior college basketball writer: I think the difference between Cincinnati-Xavier and Tuesday night’s brawl is that Kansas-Kansas State has a bigger spotlight. And they’re conference rivals who face off twice each season. They can’t end this series over the melee. Remember, Kansas and Kansas State will play again in Manhattan, Kansas, on Feb. 29. One source close to the program said he expected “beefed up” security detail for the rematch. Once Cincinnati-Xavier ended, that was it. We’re going to replay and reconsider every image from Tuesday about four weeks from now. That’s why I believe this stain for the sport will last for a long time.
Whenever you think of this rivalry going forward, a rivalry that already had such past incidents as when a fan confronted Jamari Traylor in 2015, we’ll go back to Tuesday’s game and that moment. Also, this might not be the end of the fallout. On Tuesday, Jayhawks coach Bill Self said he has been in contact with spectators who got caught in the middle of the fight, which occurred in a section of the arena where people with disabilities sit at Allen Fieldhouse. This also happened in the social media era, during a down season for college basketball. For some people, this is the first time they’ve cared about college basketball in 2019-20. Insiders? Yeah, we’ll forget it. The sport will need time to move past it, though.
Jeff Borzello, college basketball insider: The photo of De Sousa holding a chair over his head is going to be the lasting image from Tuesday night’s fracas. And the fact it spilled into the crowd, into the disability seating section, makes things even uglier. If the brawl happened on the court instead of among fans (and chairs), it’s a totally different look for college basketball. But like John said, we have to go all the way back to Cincinnati-Xavier to find a brawl like this one. And while that one was ugly, too, it did provide the phrase “zip ’em up” and lasted as a storyline for only that rivalry, not for college basketball as a whole.
Jordan Schultz, insider/analyst: You move on by taking full responsibility. Where was the coaching staff during this melee? What has been the subsequent message to your players? Transparency is key, not only with the media but with KU fans and college basketball fans as well. Look, this is a terrible situation; there’s no way around that. But there is a positive takeaway: the opportunity to send a stern message that this type of behavior will not be tolerated. Time will heal the rest.
You can select one coach from any of the 20 teams participating in Saturday’s Big 12/SEC Challenge, and you also get to select one player to build a team around. Your objective is winning one game. Who ya got?
Medcalf: Give me Kansas coach Bill Self and Baylor guard Jared Butler. I would trust Self’s experience in a moment like that. He has dominated one of the best conferences in America, and that’s the most difficult task in the entire sport. When I did my story about the toughest matchups in college basketball this week, multiple coaches told me they didn’t know how to handle Butler, arguably the most important player on the best team in the country. He’s worth an additional 10 points per 100 possessions on offense and defense. He also has made 38.1% of 3-pointers. He’s a leader for Scott Drew’s team. He’d be a great catalyst in this situation.
Borzello: Texas Tech coach Chris Beard and Kansas guard Devon Dotson. To build a program, I would take Kentucky‘s John Calipari. But one coach to win one game? I’ll go with Beard. He has done it at a variety of places at different levels of basketball. And in relation to this question, he’s maniacal with his game prep. I’ve spent a few day-before-a-big-game sessions with Texas Tech over the past couple seasons, and the Red Raiders’ game prep and attention to detail are as good as I’ve seen. Beard has done it on short turnarounds, too; Texas Tech is 8-2 in the NCAA tournament over the past two seasons.
For a player, can certainly make a case for Butler or Jayhawks center Udoka Azubuike, but Dotson is having a tremendous season and I just love his two-way ability. He’s quick with the ball in his hands and getting to the rim off the bounce, and he takes care of the ball and distributes. He can also guard at the other end. His outside shot has fallen off this season, but I’ll still go with Dotson.
Gasaway: Calipari and West Virginia forward Oscar Tshiebwe. Let’s not overthink this: Calipari has one national championship and six Final Fours to his name. That’s a lot of huge wins against elite opponents. No other coach in the Challenge has been to more than three national semifinals. Tshiebwe might already be the best offensive rebounder in the country, even though he’s still learning. On paper he’s foul-prone, but he hasn’t been whistled for a fourth personal in over three weeks. I’ll go with these two guys any day.
Schultz: Where’s the love for Scott Drew? Baylor is perennially one of the most undervalued programs, with one of the most undervalued coaches — never afraid to play anyone. Plus, I like Drew’s switching defenses in a one-game format. Meanwhile, Dotson is in the midst of an All-America-caliber season. After testing the draft waters, he returned to school for his sophomore year and has become a much more consistent scorer (up from 12.3 points per game to 18.2), decision-maker and overall floor general. Dotson is the country’s fastest player from end line to end line and the main reason why KenPom slots the Jayhawks at the top of the rankings.
Baylor this week became the seventh team in college basketball to be ranked No. 1, joining Michigan State, Kentucky, Duke, Louisville, Kansas and Gonzaga. Which of these seven teams are you most sure about reaching the Final Four, and which would you be most surprised to see in Atlanta?
Medcalf: I talked to the coach of one of those teams this week and asked him that question. His response: The winner of this year’s national title will be the team that gets hot late in the season, a la UConn 2011 and 2014. I agree with that philosophy. That’s why I pick Gonzaga. The Bulldogs could enter the NCAA tournament on a wild win streak and use that momentum to make a run to Atlanta. Every team on that list has the potential. But I’d be most surprised to see Duke in Atlanta. I’m just not convinced the Blue Devils have a “closer” in tight games. You have to win those games, sometimes multiple times, to reach the Final Four. I could see the Blue Devils spending the second weekend at home.
Gasaway: Kansas will be in Atlanta. Azubuike, Dotson and Marcus Garrett form the best three-player nucleus in the country, one that can beat you with either offense or defense. Speaking of multiple players, plural, can Michigan State really get there with an offense that’s so statistically, visually and aberrantly reliant on Cassius Winston alone? I’m keeping an open mind, but that hasn’t been the usual look for Final Four teams, at least not since the Kemba Walker days.
Schultz: Kansas has 6-1 odds to win the national title, and for good reason. Duke, however, is the most complete team in America, thanks to the stellar play of Tre Jones, Vernon Carey Jr. and Cassius Stanley. Even those he’s a question mark with a broken hand, I really like Wendell Moore as well. Like Stanley, he plays above the rim and can change any game with his infusion of speed, athleticism and overall energy. Assuming Moore returns to the floor, it’s the Blue Devils who possess the most flexibility and talent on both sides of the ball. Plus, you can never go wrong with coach Mike Krzyzewski, particularly after he missed out on the Final Four last season.
To the second question, and to echo John, depth has been a problem all season for Michigan State. Winston has been very good, and this is nothing against Tom Izzo, but I’ve seen what I need to see: The Spartans simply don’t have the horses.
Borzello: I’m really high on Baylor. The Bears have just been rolling since the three-point loss in Alaska to Washington on the first Friday of the season. They have elite guard play, two go-to guards in Jared Butler and MaCio Teague, and they defend as well as anyone in America. There’s also some hope that Tristan Clark, the team’s best player last season, is starting to play a consistent role after being hampered by injuries all season.
On the other side, I’m going with Michigan State, too. It’s more a process of elimination, but I just think the other teams have higher ceilings. The Spartans rely so heavily on Winston and Xavier Tillman, and we’ve seen what happens when one or both have difficult games. I know it’s generally not smart to bet against Izzo and Winston, but it’s where I am right now.
ESPN.com expert picks for this weekend’s top games
(Lines, when available, from Caesars Sportsbook. Predictors do not have access to lines when making score predictions.)