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Saddle Up: Big night in the Big Apple

12/7/2010

Saddle Up is our daily preview of the night's best basketball action. Tonight's installment focuses primarily on the Jimmy V Classic. Why? Because look at these games! That's why.

No. 14 Memphis vs. No. 4 Kansas, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: Who are the Memphis Tigers? The truth is, even after seven wins in seven games, we still don't know.

That has a lot to do with Memphis' nonconference schedule to this point. The Tigers have played only two teams with a shot at making the NCAA tournament thus far (Miami and Western Kentucky, both at home) and while they handled both opponents with relative ease, they've also struggled at times, especially in a narrow overtime win over Arkansas State last week. Tonight's matchup with Kansas will be, without question, Memphis' first entreé into the realm of the elite, and thanks to a paltry schedule, we have few indicators as to how Josh Pastner's team will perform against top competition. Is this a team destined to win a conference title and little more? Or can this team reach for the Final Four?

It's not just schedule, though. Our questions about the Tigers also have to do with personnel. Pastner's team is heavy on freshmen, which is a little like saying the ocean is heavy on water. The wunderkind coach snared a top-four recruiting class in 2010, and those first-year players have wasted no time claiming the majority of Memphis' offensive responsibilities. Four of the Tigers' five biggest contributors on a per-possession basis are freshmen: Joe Jackson, Will Barton, Chris Crawford and Tarik Black all average between 28.1 and 20.0 percent in usage rate. Jackson, who owns that 28.1 percent, has especially dominated the ball.

Those freshmen have been effective, but on an inconsistent basis. In fact, the most efficient offensive player on the team has been junior Wesley Witherspoon, who has combined an impressive ability to get to the line -- Witherspoon shoots free throws more often than any other player in the country -- with highly accurate shooting from the field.

What does all this mean? It means a team dominated by freshmen should think about getting its junior forward involved as often as possible. That could stand as a general rule, but it makes extra sense tonight (in so far as something can make "extra sense," I guess). Memphis is forced to make up for its lack of interior size and experience with athleticism on the wing. That won't change against Kansas, which has a handful of viable forwards (Marcus and Markieff Morris, Thomas Robinson, Jeff Withey) who excel on the defensive glass but are sporadically foul-prone. To have a chance against a team like KU, the Tigers have to do what they do best on offense: get to the free throw line.

Meanwhile, Memphis' biggest task on defense will be finding someone to deal with the aforementioned Morii. The Morris twins are almost perfectly complementary: Marcus is the elite stretch-post scorer, Markieff the standout rebounder, particularly on the defensive end. Until Josh Selby finishes his NCAA-mandated suspension, KU's forwards will continue to key the team's success on both ends of the floor. That's been going well so far -- Kansas is No. 1 in Ken Pomeroy's overall adjusted efficiency ranking, after all -- but as UCLA showed us Thursday, the Jayhawks are far from complete, and far from invincible.

Still, they'll be by far the biggest challenge these Memphis freshmen have faced so far. So how good are they? How good are the Memphis Tigers? We're about to get a pretty good idea.

(For more on Memphis and Kansas, read Dana O'Neil's preview here.)

No. 8 Michigan State vs. No. 7 Syracuse, 9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN: Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present reason No. 5,498 that rankings don't matter.

Syracuse is ranked a spot higher than Michigan State in the latest coaches' poll, but few would consider Syracuse the better team right now, or the better prospect to make the Final Four by the end of the season. Michigan State's diminished ranking is due to two losses -- vs. the Connecticut Kemba Walkers in Maui, and at Duke last Wednesday night -- that hardly indict the Spartans as pretenders. Meanwhile, Syracuse is undefeated at 8-0, but six of those wins came at home, and at least four of them came after nail-biting affairs with so-so teams like William & Mary (63-60), Michigan (53-50), Georgia Tech (80-76), and NC State (65-59). There might not be a tourney team in that bunch. It's not exactly the most glittering résumé.

What's wrong with Syracuse? Why hasn't Jim Boeheim's team been blowing opponents out? Start with shooting: Syracuse is averaging 29.7 percent from 3, 49.8 percent from 2, and 63.0 percent from the foul line. Absent anyone with consistent outside shooting ability -- Andy Rautins and Wesley Johnson are not walking through that door -- the Orange have been getting by on a steady diet of offensive rebounds and low-turnover hoops. And, of course, Boeheim's fabled 2-3 zone. The zone is working yet again; Syracuse almost never fouls opposing shooters -- it ranks No. 5 in opponent free throw rate -- and the Orange have contained outside shooting and forced enough turnovers to squeak by against mediocre competition.

Michigan State, as you might have heard, is not mediocre. The Spartans are already quite good at pretty much -- key phrase there -- everything. They shoot the ball well, both from beyond the arc (41.7 percent) and inside it (52.3 percent). They stifle opposing scorers. They clean up on the glass, especially on defense. Draymond Green is as versatile and effective as big men get. Kalin Lucas has already showed plenty of his pre-Achilles tear self. Durrell Summers can be an unstoppable scorer. The Spartans' front court is deep and physical. Korie Lucious might be the best reserve point guard in the country. (Given his usage rate, Lucious barely qualifies as a reserve.) The list goes on and on.

The only thing holding Michigan State back? (Here's where that "pretty much" rears its ugly head.) Turnovers. The Spartans are one of the worst teams in the country at wasting possessions with turnovers. Izzo's team turns the ball over on 25.8 percent of its possessions, ranking it No. 325 in the stat; the only major-conference teams giving the ball away more frequently are Baylor and Florida State.

That sounds bad enough on paper, but it was evident in action Wednesday night at Duke. Michigan State turned the ball over 20 times on the road against the best team in the country, and somehow still had a chance to win. Turnovers have been a recurring blight on Izzo's otherwise brilliantly coached teams in recent years, and if Michigan State wants to accomplish its goals -- this year, that means national title or bust -- it has to find a way to cut down on giveaways.

How does this play out tonight? If recent trends hold, Michigan State should take, and make, a lot of 3-pointers. It will stifle Syracuse's sputtering scorers from the outside-in. And the game will be close, because the Spartans will give the ball away far too often.

Both teams need to break the cycle of self-defeating tendencies. What better time than now?

(For more on Michigan State and Syracuse, read Andy Katz's preview here.)