News that Tennessee basketball would face the Texas Longhorns for the second straight year in the 2023 SEC/Big 12 Challenge drew mixed reactions. A rematch of a one-point loss in Austin last year makes sense to a degree, and Rick Barnes facing his former school again is a great story.
However, as we wrote on Thursday, this matchup was clearly much more about the headline itself than what made sense. Based on where the Vols finished last year and the expectations for this year, they should have faced the Baylor Bears or Kansas Jayhawks.
Not getting that draw hurt. The Kentucky Wildcats drew Kansas, and the Arkansas Razorbacks drew Baylor. David Cobb of CBS Sports ranked those as the top two games in the challenge for next year. Tennessee basketball and Texas were third. Here’s what he wrote about them.
Texas welcomed Rick Barnes back to Austin in last year’s event by squeaking out a 52-51 victory over its old coach. It wasn’t the prettiest game to watch, but it did feature the most dramatic finish of any game in the 2022 SEC/Big 12 Challenge.
Honestly, although the Vols should have drawn Baylor or Kansas, all three of these matchups are interchangeable. If one of them were to belong outside of the top three, it would be Kentucky and Kansas. That’s based on the blowout last year, with UK winning by 18, and the lack of knowledge of how good John Calipari’s team will be by this point.
Although they return some talent, Kentucky will still be relying on a new recruiting class, this time of two five-stars, to be integrated into their lineup, and that could take them some time to mesh. As a result, there are numerous ways that game could go.
We know Arkansas and Baylor is likely to be a good matchup, as both teams are top 10 caliber. Meanwhile, Tennessee basketball and Texas each enter this year with similar expectations, and given how close the game was last year, all signs point to that being a thriller.
As a result, while it made more sense for the Vols to play Baylor or Kansas instead, they still drew a matchup that should be entertaining. If it’s anything like last year, it would actually be the best of all the games to watch, and that still may end up being the case.
One drawback is that in a couple years, Rocky Top will be playing Texas every season after they join the Big 12. That would have made playing Baylor or Kansas more exciting this year since it’s not an annual thing for Barnes’ team. Still, the Texas matchup should be a thriller.
When these two teams last met at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tenn., Barnes was coaching Texas. The Vols came back from 17 down in the second half to win in overtime, and Chris Lofton had a famous three-pointer where he dropped off Kevin Durant from 35 feet out.
Taking that into account, if this game is anything like Tennessee basketball’s most recent matchup with Texas in general or most recent matchup with them in Knoxville, where it will be played, it’ll be the best game in the challenge. Either way, it should be a thriller.