Saddle Up: Contenders or pretenders?

Saddle Up is a quick preview of the basketball your TV wants you to watch tonight. Here is Thursday night's rundown.

My mind is big on finding themes where perhaps there are none. I recognize this is foolish. But if there is any sort of theme to be drawn out of tonight's action, it's whether the teams on hand are real or fake, about which side of their personalities are the real deal. It's like figuring out a girlfriend after a couple of months; that's when things start to get familiar and real, whether you like it or not.

All right, that analogy was terrible. Sorry. Let's just get to previewin':

No. 16 Clemson at No. 18 Georgia Tech, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2: Can either of these teams win the ACC? It's not looking good: Despite Kyle Singler's odd senior-year struggles, Duke is looking like an efficient beast unlikely to yield many conference losses. This is Duke's conference to win. But Georgia Tech and Clemson have proved themselves more than capable of beating the conference's usual powers. So which team is a contender? Which team can unseat Duke? If anyone can do it, it's probably Clemson; the Tigers are one of only four teams (Duke, Maryland, and Virginia being the three others) with a positive efficiency differential, and they have the ACC record to show for it. A win at Georgia Tech -- something Duke couldn't accomplish last week -- would go a long way toward proving the Tigers are more than just another footprint in Duke's path to an easy conference title. A loss means ... well, not a whole lot. It means Georgia Tech can win home games against solid teams, and it means Clemson probably isn't as good as their 20-point win over North Carolina. It's a confusing conference, this ACC. Let's see how it plays out.

No. 15 Purdue at Illinois, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: Can Purdue right the ship? After a 14-0 nonconference tear, the Boilermakers are looking suddenly vulnerable, having lost three straight Big Ten games, one of which came in a come-from-behind loss to Ohio State at home -- the kind of thing this Purdue team would have seemed incapable of three weeks ago -- and an upset loss to Northwestern in Evanston on Saturday. (Which was an awfully nice, résumé-building win for the Wildcats, for what it's worth.) Purdue doesn't look like the defensive buzz saw that took down a full-strength Tennessee team in one of the best games of the young season in November. They don't look like the team that beat West Virginia by 15. Ever since they hit conference play the Boilermakers look like a mediocre defensive team, and this Purdue team can't afford to be mediocre on defense. It's, like, their thing. They need to be good at it, or all hopes of a Final Four will be gone faster than Conan O'Brien. (Topical humor! What, are people not still talking about Conan O'Brien? Have we moved on?)

Meanwhile, Illinois is 4-1 in the Big Ten and is looking a little more coherent than in their disappointing non-conference start, but that start has just as much to do with playing Iowa, Indiana, and Penn State than anything else. Tonight is Illinois's chance to prove they deserved their preseason top 25 ranking, or at least some reasonable slice of it. It would be a quality Big Ten win. Heck, it would be a quality win, period. Illinois doesn't have nearly enough of those this year.

No. 22 Northern Iowa at Wichita State, 9:05 p.m. ET, ESPNU: If the above options don't excite you, how about a little quality hoops from the Missouri Valley? Northern Iowa is ranked for a reason: The Panthers have won their last 15 games and have only been challenged a couple of times during that stretch, quietly going from MVC unknown to national mid-major power in the course of a couple of months. (In the meantime, if anyone can figure out how this UNI team lost to DePaul on Nov. 20 -- beyond "It was November and weird things happen in November" -- feel free to fill me in.) Tonight is the country's chance to get acquainted with the Panthers. While doing so, enjoy the Wichita State Shockers, who have racked up their own impressive record (16-3, 5-2 MVC) and appear to be UNI's most relevant challenger. At the very least, the Shockers can prove that the MVC is more than a one-bid league in 2009-10.

Everywhere else: Is Tennessee ripe for a letdown? You would have said that before their handy win over Auburn and their gutty overtime victory over Ole Miss, and that didn't work out so well. But now the Vols must take their underhanded show on the road, where a rebuilding Alabama team awaits ... Can Northwestern follow up its home win over Purdue with a road win over the Evan Turner-energized Ohio State Buckeyes? It doesn't seem likely, but neither did Saturday's victory ... Miami built a gaudy nonconference record before it got into ACC play, and things have headed downhill from there; tonight's match up with Boston College in Miami should be a brief respite from the losing.