Saddle Up: Lone Star superiority on the line

January, 19, 2011
1/19/11
5:17
PM ET
Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action. If you'll allow this brief bit of seriousness, I ask that you consider making a contribution to your cancer charity of choice in honor of a family friend who lost his battle with the disease in Bettendorf, Iowa, this week. Thanks.

No. 10 Texas A&M at No. 11 Texas, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2: College hoops picked a pretty great week to be awesome. After all, this game -- a huge, ranked in-state rivalry with hoops bragging rights on the line -- isn't even the biggest of the week thus far. (That honor would go to Syracuse-Pittsburgh, followed closely by UConn-Villanova, and on down the line.) Now that college football is really, finally behind us, the college sports fans of the world can unite. When the offerings are this consistently good, casual hoops heads won't need much convincing.

Why is this game so great? Let's count the ways:
  1. It features two highly ranked teams buoyed by a host of impressive performances to date.
  2. It pits in-state rivals with similarly gigantic mid-court Texas logos in a battle for hoops superiority.
  3. It has major implications for the Big 12's title race, including the three-team chase (between Texas, Texas A&M and Missouri) to dethrone Kansas at the top of the league for the first time in six years.
  4. It's the first time Texas A&M will be truly tested on the road.

Of those four, I think the latter is, at least in the short term, the most intriguing. If there's one hole you can poke in A&M's 16-1 start, it's that the Aggies have yet to notch a truly marquee win on the road. Their biggest wins of the season came against Temple, Washington and Missouri. Two of those (Missouri and Washington) came in the comforts of College Station, while the Temple win came in late November on a neutral floor.

To be sure, there is very little reason to dislike Mark Turgeon's team. The Aggies defend well, rebound the ball on both ends of the floor as well as any team in the nation, and have a bonafide star in forward Khris Middleton. Middleton's sophomore leap has given Mark Turgeon a deadly scoring option when the rest of the good-but-not-great Aggies offense stalls.

In other words, this Texas A&M team has been impressive in nearly every regard, and last Saturday's win over Missouri -- led by Middleton's 28-point outburst -- propelled A&M into the national spotlight so frequently denied this perpetually underrated program. Now all the Aggies have to do is get a big win on the road.

Tonight's test at Texas certainly qualifies. The Longhorns have been one of the best teams in the nation all season long primarily due to defense. Rick Barnes' team, for its occasional offensive struggles, has been the best defense in the country at forcing opponents into off-nights from the field. (Opponents are shooting a 40.3 percent effective field goal percentage against the Longhorns this season, the lowest mark in the country.) This is a difficult assignment for any team, let alone one like A&M, that doesn't shoot the ball all that well in the first place.

If the Aggies win this one, it will almost certainly be thanks to offensive rebounding. If Texas wins, it will almost certainly be because it forced A&M into bad shots, challenged putback attempts with the same fervor as a Kemba Walker pull-up, and turned the giveaway-prone Aggies over so much that offensive rebounds don't have a chance to factor into offensive possessions. Whatever happens, it should be a tight, well-played game, and one that matches rivalry intensity with mutual designs on the Big 12 title.

So, yeah, big night in the Lone Star State. Any other time, this would probably be the marquee matchup of the week. This week, it's not even the biggest game of past two days. In conclusion, this week is really, really awesome, and there's no reason to think Wednesday night's addition won't measure up.

Cincinnati at No. 16 Notre Dame, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2: Tonight's opening act isn't the biggest game in the world, but it is intriguing for a couple of reasons.

The first? Cincinnati. Or, to be more specific, Cincinnati's ongoing quest to prove its early undefeated record was as much the product of quality basketball as (inadvertently) easy scheduling. To that end, even at 3-2 in the Big East, we still don't know what the Bearcats are. That's because Cincy has lost the games (at Villanova and at Syracuse) it and pretty much any non-Pittsburgh Big East team would reasonably expect to lose. Likewise, Cincinnati has won all the games (over DePaul, Seton Hall, and South Florida) a team with this sort of per-possession efficiency should be winning.

Tonight's game is a little bit different, which brings us to intriguing bit No. 2: Notre Dame, a team that shot to a top-15 ranking last week after home wins over Georgetown, Connecticut and St. John's, has been fantastic at home and horrendous on the road. In fact, the Irish's play against St. John's -- in which Mike Brey's team blew the Red Storm out in South Bend but were conversely dominated by the same team in Madison Square Garden -- makes one think the Irish might be one of those teams that needs to be at home to compete with quality teams.

In a way, that's bad news for the Bearcats. In a way, it's good news. If Notre Dame is just a home team, then a win over the Irish in South Bend would look doubly impressive, even if that win seems unlikely. If Notre Dame is "fading," as one worried ND fan from my hometown told me this week, then the Bearcats have an even better chance of stealing a marquee win over a ranked team away from Fifth Third Arena.

More likely is this: Notre Dame is a good but not great team with major holes on the defensive end, holes that can't be masked when the Irish go cold on the road (as they have in back-to-back blowout losses to Marquette and the aforementioned SJU). If Cincinnati can exploit those holes at the Joyce Center, we can begin to figure out where this team really belongs in the Big East hierarchy. Because right now, I still have no idea.

Everywhere else: Speaking of St. John's, the Red Storm go to Louisville tonight. ... Duke will travel to NC State for a 7 p.m. ET tip, a game the Blue Devils should easily manage against a yet-to-congeal Wolfpack team. ... Iowa goes to Ohio State, where the Buckeyes will look to expand their recently shrinking margins of victory over Big Ten opponents (see: Penn State Saturday) it should be dominating, especially in Columbus. ... OSU's fellow member of the unbeaten club, San Diego State, is likely to get its 20th win of the season (the first of any team in college hoops) if it manages Air Force as expected tonight. ... In its last three games, Penn State has beaten Michigan State and Illinois, and lost to Ohio State at OSU by three. In other words: Even at home, the Boilermakers have to be careful. ... Saint Mary's, owner of one of the nation's hottest offenses, isn't likely to be challenged at home by San Diego tonight. ... And, in Wednesday night's Brennan-certified sneaky-good game of the evening, the surprisingly tough Iowa State Cyclones will try to assert some measure of bottom-half Big 12 superiority in this match up at Oklahoma State. It won't be the prettiest basketball, but it's a scoreline to keep an eye on, at least.

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