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Open Letter to ESPN: The Big 12-SEC Challenge Sucks

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Teams with a lot on the line are playing all risk-no reward games this weekend

NCAA Basketball: Kansas State at Kansas Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Kansas is playing Kentucky tomorrow, and at least on the Kansas side, hardly anyone is talking about the game. Between Carlton Bragg’s newest suspension and the McCarthy Hall investigation, little media attention has been paid to KU’s non-conference scramble with Kentucky, haphazardly slotted into the middle of the Big 12 schedule.

But let’s put aside the distractions on KU’s side. Do any Jayhawk fans actually want this game to happen? Bill Self certainly didn’t sound excited Tuesday when he publicly admitted that the Big 12-SEC challenge is about TV and that he doesn’t believe coaches are excited about interrupting conference play to take part.

And why would they be? I can see some benefit for the SEC teams. While the conference as a whole is looking better this year, it’s still at or near the bottom of the power conferences in terms of top-to-bottom quality (KenPom has them ranked below all but the Pac-12 right now). The SEC has a spate of teams already pushing ten losses, and the chance for a resume-boosting win in the middle of a conference schedule that will do little to boost their profile has some appeal.

On the Kansas and Big 12 side however, it’s harder to see the benefit. The Big 12 schedule is a grind. Seven of the ten teams in the conference have a legitimate shot at getting to the NCAA tournament, and unlike the SEC, there are no true bottom feeders that give the teams at the top an automatic victory (just ask West Virginia, who lost to last place Oklahoma at home last week).

Now, in the middle of that grind, teams are asked to put aside the most important part of the regular season, and focus on nationally-televised games that have little to no bearing on their postseason resumes. Kansas, for example, is right in the middle of the toughest part of their Big 12 slate. They’re coming off a game against West Virginia, preparing for a game against Baylor, which is followed by games against three tournament contenders, with rubber matches against West Virginia and Baylor coming around again after that. Even if Kansas were at full strength and not dealing with any distractions off the court, this game couldn’t come at a worse time.

And for what? At the end of the season, the outcome of this game will mean little to the seeding committee. They’ll have 18 games against the toughest conference in the country, plus non-cons against Duke and Indiana they can use to judge this team. Maybe a win over UK gives the Jayhawks that one more “big win” that pushes them from a 2 seed to a 1 if the circumstances are just right, but is that worth the risk?

Kansas has multiple players on the court for more than 30 minutes per night. The same was true last year. To have them running up and down the court with one of the better teams in the country, with nothing more on the line than bragging rights, puts them at risk for further fatigue and even potential injury.

This isn’t limited to this year and Kansas’ injury and suspension situation, either. Last year, the Jayhawks were off to a 5-3 start in Big 12 play. The last thing they needed was to divert their focus to a high-pressure primetime game on national television that had no bearing on a tight Big 12 race. Granted, the UK game hardly hurt them in the long run, as they reeled off ten straight wins afterward, but what if Perry Ellis had twisted an ankle or Frank Mason had knocked knees with Tyler Ullis?

This challenge, or more specifically, the timing of it, takes away the traditional “bye week” for each Big 12 team, and forces them to play a meaningless game in the heart of the most important part of the season. Move it to December like every other similar competition between two basketball leagues, or get rid of it.