Saddle Up: Border battle already big

December, 28, 2010
12/28/10
4:50
PM ET
Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action. It wishes modern medical science could find a cure for sneezing.

No. 13 Minnesota at No. 24 Wisconsin, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2: If every other portion of the college hoops Internet broke, and the only information you had about either of these teams was the ESPN/USA Today Coaches' Poll ranking next to their name -- or you were the sort of casual fan that looks at rankings and not much more, which is like, your journey, man -- you would think Minnesota was favored to beat Wisconsin Tuesday night.

Fortunately, the Internet is not broken, you pay attention to more than rankings, and you know the opposite is true: This is going to be a major challenge for Minnesota. There's no two ways around it.

How so? For one, Wisconsin is always incredibly tough to beat at home. The Badgers have played 154 home games in Bo Ryan's tenure. They've lost exactly 11 of them. That's a remarkable home-court advantage, and the sort of thing that typically keeps Wisconsin in the Big Ten title picture even when its talent lags behind the conference's elite.

Unfortunately for Minnesota, that doesn't appear to be the case this year. See, the Badgers have this guy named Jon Leuer, who happens to be one of the best (and also one of the most underrated) players in the entire country. Thanks to Leuer's all-around excellence and some solid supporting play from guard Jordan Taylor and forward Keaton Nankivil, Wisconsin has amassed a top-15 profile in Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings. They aren't a perfect team, and there is plenty of season left to play, but Wisconsin appears to be its typically tough self yet again.

What is Minnesota? To be honest, we don't know. In today's Big Ten primer -- shameless plug alert -- I called Minnesota the Big Ten's "big unknown." Self blockquote alert:
Which Minnesota team will compete in the Big Ten? The one that began the season with an impressive title in Puerto Rico, a run that comprised wins over Western Kentucky, North Carolina and West Virginia? Or the one that lost in convincing fashion to Virginia at home, the one that advanced numbers see as barely among the 50 or so best teams in the country? The point is, we don't know. It's too early to indict Minnesota -- especially as guard Al Nolen just begins to return from injury -- based on unimpressive tempo-free stats. It's also too early to consider wins over UNC and West Virginia proof that this team can challenge Ohio State and company for the Big Ten title. We'll just have to wait and see. (And we won't have to wait long: Minnesota visits Wisconsin on Tuesday night.)

Synergy!

Anyway, you get the point. Minnesota has the look of a potential top-three Big Ten team. They have a pair of notable wins (hence that No. 13 ranking) and one bad loss. They have plenty of positive signs, and also some clear flaws. We're not sure what we're going to get from Tubby Smith's team as conference play begins. Really, everything is on the table.

Which brings us back to the original point: It's early in the season, and this is only one of 16 Big Ten games the Gophers will play. But it's as good an opportunity as Minnesota will have in the coming weeks to prove it's less fringe NCAA tournament team and more real-deal conference contender. In a weird way, Minnesota's season begins today.

Everywhere else: There was already some Big Ten basketball today; In a holiday week matinee, Purdue went to Crisler Arena, made a bunch of 3-pointers, kept Michigan from doing the same, and eventually pulled away for a blowout win ... North Carolina plays Rutgers in Madison Square Garden ... Providence will subject its semi-surprising 11-2 record to the meat-grinder that is the Carrier Dome and Syracuse's 2-3 zone ... Kentucky will host Coppin State ... Cincinnati will try to stretch its undefeated record to 13-0 with a home date against DePaul ... and Ball State will travel to Valparaiso for a solid mid-major bout.

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