For the SEC, it’s a chance to enhance its brand as an improving basketball conference.
For No. 20 Florida, it’s a chance to bounce back after a disappointing home loss Wednesday to South Carolina.
The Gators will try to get the conference off to a good start today when they host Baylor in the first wave of SEC-Big 12 Challenge matchups at the O’Connell Center. Both Florida and Baylor have had their share of inconsistencies after making deep runs in the NCAA Tournament last season. The schools could have met in the East Region’s Elite Eight last season, but South Carolina knocked off Baylor in the Sweet 16, then beat the Gators in the Elite Eight en route to its first Final Four appearance in school history.
Coach Scott Drew has led the Bears to seven NCAA Tournament appearances and two Elite Eights in 15 seasons at Baylor.
“Defensively, their program has been unique in that they’ve won with terrific man-to-man and they’ve won with terrific zone, a couple different ways,” Florida coach Mike White said. “They’ve been perimeter-oriented, they’ve been post-oriented.”
Offensively, the engine that makes Baylor go is senior point guard Manu Lecomte. A native of Belgium and a transfer from Miami, Lecomte shot 40.8 percent from 3-point range last season and is shooting 39.2 percent from 3-point range this season. For Florida senior point guard Chris Chiozza, the 5-foot-11 Lecomte will present another defensive test.
“He’s a scoring point,” White said. “He’s fast, he’s strong, he’s smart, he’s durable. He plays with great confidence and change of pace. And he can really shoot it. He’s got the whole package. He’s a terrific point guard with a lot of experience, and we’ve got one as well.”
Another concern for Florida is keeping Baylor off the offensive glass. Baylor leads the Big 12 in offensive rebounding percentage and boasts a physical frontline that includes 7-foot, 225-pound senior center Jo Lual-Acuil Jr. and 6-9, 240-pound freshman forward Tristan Clark.
“We can’t worry about transition offense,” White said Thursday. “We can’t. And we’ve gotten better at that. I thought we hurried a couple possessions there last night, trying to get out and run and don’t have the basketball. We have to rebound with five, especially when we’re playing small.”
Overall, the SEC-Big 12 Challenge will pit two of the top four conferences in college basketball in league RPI. The Big 12 is first, per RealTimeRPI.com, followed by the ACC, Big East and SEC. Five Big 12 teams in the Top 22 in RPI, while six SEC teams rank within the RPI Top 35.
The Big 12 is 25-15 all-time against the SEC since the series began in 2014, though the SEC and Big 12 split the series at 5-5 last season.
“It provides ample opportunity for this league to continue to improve our brand, potentially make a statement,” White said. “And for each program individually it’s the same thing. Opportunity for us to get better, to compete against a really good program, to potentially improve our numbers, and I guess specifically for us more than anything, to get back on a winning track.”
While Florida has won four games against ranked opponents on the road and at neutral sites, the Gators have already dropped three games at the O’Dome and are 8-3 at home this season. Protecting home court will be important for the Gators in order to stay in contention for a conference title.
“We don’t think about that,” Florida senior guard Egor Koulechov said. “A loss is a loss, no matter where you play. Obviously we want to play better in front of our home fans. But at the same time we take everything into perspective, try to play the best we can wherever we are.”
Who: No. 20 Florida Gators (14-6, 6-2 SEC) vs. Baylor Bears (12-8, 2-6 Big 12)
Where: O’Connell Center, Gainesville
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850
FLORIDA PROBABLE STARTERS
G;KeVaughn Allen;6-2;Jr.;11.5 ppg; 2.3 rpg
G;Chris Chiozza;6-0; Sr.;12.2 ppg;6.2 apg
G;Egor Koulechov;6-5; GSr.;14.5 ppg;7.2 rpg
F;Keith Stone;6-8; RSo.;8.1 ppg;3.9 rpg
C;Kevarrius Hayes;6-9; Jr.;5.4 ppg;5.5 rpg
BAYLOR PROBABLE STARTERS
G;King McClure; 6-4;So.;9.8 ppg;2.7 rpg
G;Manu Lecomte;6-1;Sr.;16.6 ppg;3.4 apg
G;Mark Vital;6-5;Fr.;7.2 ppg;5.3 rpg
F;Tristan Clark;6-9;Fr.;8.6 ppg;5.9 rpg
C;Jo Lual-Acuil Jr.;7-0;Sr.;15.3 ppg;9.4 rpg
Notes: Florida is 0-1 all-time against Baylor. It’s the first meeting between the schools since Dec. 30, 1981, when Baylor won 72-71 in the Cabrillo Classic. …. The Gators are 3-1 all-time in SEC-Big 12 Challenge games, while Baylor is 4-0. … Florida coach Mike White is 2-0 in SEC-Big 12 Challenge games with wins over West Virginia (88-71) and Oklahoma (84-52). … Florida leads the SEC in turnover margin (plus-4.5) while ranking second in the league in free-throw percentage (76.3) and 3-pointers per game (9.6). … Florida graduate guard Egor Koulechov leads the SEC in free throw percentage at 94.6 percent. … The Gators are looking to break out of a recent perimeter shooting slump. Florida is just 23.5 percent from 3-point range (12-51) over its last two games. … Florida junior guard Jalen Hudson ranks fifth in the SEC in scoring at 16.5 ppg. … Florida senior point guard Chris Chiozza leads the SEC in assists (6.2 apg) and is second in steals (1.9 spg). … Baylor senior point guard Manu Lecomte has made a team-high 58 3-pointers, while senior center Jo Lual-Acuil Jr. has a team-high 37 blocked shots.
— Kevin Brockway