<
>

Saddle Up: Is it Michigan State's turn?

Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action. It got tee'd up during last night's rec league game, just before it had to come home and write Bubble Watch. Monday night was rough.

Michigan State at No. 3 Ohio State, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: Is Michigan State the new Kansas State? At first glance, at least, the similarities are striking:

Both teams went deep into the tournament last season. Both returned nearly all of their key players from that run. Both were ranked in the top five to begin the season. Both saw those rankings diminish as the unexpected, then expected, bad losses piled up. Both have dismissed and suspended players for a variety of off-court issues. Both have been massive disappointments. Both teams find themselves on the bubble in mid-February. Both teams are in need of marquee wins to ensure NCAA tournament at-large berths. Both teams have the biggest game on their schedules this week.

See? Lots of similarities. (In fact, it's almost creepy that two otherwise unaffiliated teams have such mirror-image season trajectories. College basketball is weird.)

Well, we all know what Kansas State did Monday night. The question is: Are these doppelgänger Spartans next in line?

Here's where it's important to note a few differences. For one, Kansas State beat Kansas at home. Two, Kansas State beat Kansas without Jayhawks rebound-machine Thomas Robinson on the floor. Three, the Jayhawks visited Bramlage Coliseum the same day they assumed No. 1 overall ranking, which took an already huge game up another notch. It's been said before, but this was in many ways a perfect upset storm for Kansas State.

Weather conditions are looking much more questionable Tuesday night; Michigan State's task is far more difficult. The Spartans are playing in Columbus against a full-strength, healthy team that just lost its first game -- and its No. 1 overall ranking -- in an intense, heated, saliva-drenched road atmosphere. It's fair to say these Buckeyes aren't much interested in losing two in a row. Focus should not be an issue.

What's more, Michigan State will likely be facing all that -- and nigh-unstoppable freshman forward and national player of the year candidate Jared Sullinger -- without the help of forward Delvon Roe, who injured his knee in the final moments of Michigan State's win against Penn State on Thursday. (Roe's ominous tweet this afternoon seems to seal the deal.) Roe is Michigan State's best interior defender, and his loss adjusts Sparty's odds of stopping Sullinger even closer to zero.

In other words, if Michigan State is going to emulate its purple-clad twin in Manhattan, the Spartans are going to have to be much, much better than at any point in the season so far. The Spartans finally played solid basketball in a home win against Penn State last week, but home wins against Penn State are a little bit easier to come by than road wins against OSU. (Understatement of the year? Understatement of the year.) Before the Penn State win, State lost two road games (at Iowa, at Wisconsin) by a combined score of 154-108. Yikes.

Still, Ohio State isn't invincible. If Michigan State has figured a few things out -- namely, that it's much better on offense when the ball is moving quickly; that to beat Ohio State you have to crash the offensive glass and create second-chance shots; that you have to rotate intelligently to make sure Jon Diebler doesn't find open looks off Sullinger double-teams; that the Buckeyes give inferior conference opponents (Penn State, Northwestern, Michigan, Minnesota) chances to win games late -- then hey, well, you never know.

As yours truly wrote yesterday, it only takes one game. And as we saw yesterday, courtesy of the Spartans' spiritual comrades in Manhattan, Kan., all the disappointments, confusions and frustrations of a scattershot season can melt away in 40 minutes' time.

Everywhere else: The other ESPN mothership broadcast tonight is Mississippi State at Kentucky, which, let's be honest, shouldn't be much of a game. Then again, it might be worth a viewing, especially if you haven't seen Renardo Sidney play, or if you just want to check in on the traveling circus show that is Mississippi State Bulldogs' men's basketball right now. ... Villanova has a dangerous road test at Seton Hall tonight. ... Missouri shouldn't have much problem with Texas Tech, especially not in Columbia. ... That same dynamic applies to UNC-Wake Forest (as if it matters where Wake Forest plays right now). ... If I were you, I'd flip over to ESPNU at 7 p.m. ET, where you can see CAA contenders and at-large hopefuls George Mason and VCU square off in a huge conference game in Richmond. ... Maryland likely has to win tonight to stay in the bubble picture, but Virginia Tech can't afford too many losses, either. ... Marquette would very much like to get a win against beatable RPI beast St. John's; the Eagles are getting a little too close to bubble crunch time for comfort. ... And, last but not least, all three Missouri Valley Conference contenders play tonight, and two of them (Northern Iowa at Bradley, Wichita State at Evansville) will be on the road.