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Thursday, January 3, 2013
Saddle Up: Big Ten, Pac-12 in action

By Eamonn Brennan

Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action. It is glad its neighbors don't participate in this tradition.

No. 2 Michigan at Northwestern, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2: Winning on the road in the Big Ten is (almost) never easy, and the Wolverines will be missing star off guard Tim Hardaway Jr.

Northwestern's Welsh-Ryan Arena can be a tricky place to play, even if your fans make up half of the crowd. Michigan's strength is offense, and offense can occasionally abandon you on the road.

I could probably go on like this for a little while, listing off all the reasons why Michigan could lose at Northwestern tonight. And you know what? Yeah. Sure. Maybe. It could happen. But I sincerely doubt it will.

Were Michigan traveling to Welsh-Ryan to play a Northwestern team that included Drew Crawford (who suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in December), JerShon Cobb (who was suspended for the season this fall) or even Reggie Hearn (who is likely to miss Thursday night's game with an injury), then this game might be a legitimately scary one for Michigan fans. With Crawford and Hearn, as well as some solid big-man play from Louisville transfer Jared Swopshire and impressive 7-foot freshman Alex Olah, Northwestern was playing pretty well to start the season. With Cobb, this team might have been the one.

Alas, that always seems to be the talk in Evanston -- if only X were true! The Wildcats team that Northwestern fans are faced with is considerably undermanned on both sides of the ball but particularly on defense, where Michigan plays some of the sweetest and most efficient hoop in the country.

Even without Hardaway -- who cooled off a bit after he scored 18.3 ppg in three straight November wins over Pitt, Kansas State and NC State -- the Wolverines offense features the nation's best shooter, freshman Nik Stauskus, great size and depth with Jordan Morgan and Mitch McGary and the immense athleticism of freshman Glenn Robinson III, whose offensive rating of 129.1 (on 18.1 percent usage) is outstripped only by Trey Burke's (133.5, 27.1 percent) and Stauskus, who makes everything (136.7, 17.1 percent).

Burke is smart, hard-charging, Big Ten-tested and totally capable, and he leads the most talented group of players John Beilein has ever coached. The offensive result is a joy to watch.

Colorado at No. 3 Arizona, 8 p.m. ET, ESPNU: ESPN Insider's John Gasaway was tasked with discussing the Oklahoma State Cowboys, whose resurgence has been timed perfectly with the emergence of a Big 12 that, other than Kansas, looks anywhere from mediocre to downright bad. At the risk of giving up too much of our Insider content -- pony up, kids! -- one of John's points not only applies to Oklahoma State but to Arizona too. Under "Don't apologize for your 'down' league, dominate it," John writes:

The Cowboys' resurgence comes at a time when the non-Kansas Big 12 looks about as weak as we've seen for a good long while, at least on paper. But how much weight does that paper really carry when it comes to actual games? Good question. Note for example that in recent years the Pac-12 has tended to sport a very bad conference-wide number for average team strength, and I've been quick to mount what might be called the "Hey, it's not Washington's or Cal's fault the Pac-12 commissioner added Utah for football" defense. In other words, one or two unusually bad teams can bring down a whole league's "average" strength.


This was half of the problem with the Pac-12 last season, the year in which it became the first power six league to crown a regular-season champion that was not awarded an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. That statistic, embarrassing as it may be, came about because A) the Pac-12 didn't beat anyone in the nonconference season, and B) by the time its best teams needed NCAA bubble help, there was nothing to distinguish the regular-season champ. The whole season was a big pile of blah salad.

That will not be the case in the Pac-12 this season. Stanford and Cal are decent teams. Colorado, UCLA and Oregon have Top-25 potential, and if UCLA ever figures out how to play a lick of defense with its talent, it could still prove scary good.

Then there's Arizona. The Wildcats appear to be a bona fide national title contender. You can cast doubt because the important wins have been so very close -- beating both San Diego State and Florida on the final possession of the game -- but when you consider the fact that Arizona went ahead and won those games despite being so young and so reliant on a transfer point guard (Mark Lyons), well, I don't care how tight those wins were. They were wins, and they hint at a potential that only a handful of teams across the country can look to match.

That is how the Pac-12 is different this season. Not only are there more good teams, there is at least one with a shot to cut down the nets in March. Arizona doesn't have the 2012 Pac-12 to apologize for anymore; tonight's matchup with a good Colorado team is no walk in the park, and if the Buffaloes spring the upset, that will say as much about Tad Boyle's team as Sean Miller's. The Wildcats don't need that excuse, anyway. They just need to dominate.

Elsewhere: UCLA begins conference play by hosting Cal. Let's see if the Bruins have figured out how to guard opposing guards yet, because Cal's Allen Crabbe is one of the conference's best (20.9 ppg). … The other Pac-12 game is Stanford at USC. Remember when Kevin O'Neill sold his USC team as a potential tournament squad? That was fun. His team is now 5-8 with losses to Nebraska, UC Irvine and Georgia. But hey, at least USC football is in good hands. … The truly good mid-major stuff is at a minimum Thursday night, but Fairfield's trip to Canisius -- the same Canisius team that won at Temple a few days before Temple beat Syracuse on the road -- is an interesting one. (That Canisius-Temple-Syracuse thing is going to lead us down some truly awesome transitive property rabbit holes by the time the season is over. Just you wait.)