Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action.
No. 24 Harvard at No. 9 Connecticut, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2: Everything about this game indicates that a Harvard win would be a massive upset. There's the history of the two programs: Harvard is a long-dormant Ivy League whipping boy whose last NCAA tournament appearance came in 1946 and whose first-ever AP top 25 ranking came this week; Connecticut is one of the two or three most successful programs of the past 20 years, the reigning national champions, and a program in possession of a national brand that helps lure the nation's top prep talent on a yearly basis. There's the setting: Harvard is on the road; Connecticut is at home. There's the conference affiliation and athletic department expenditures: Harvard is the definition of a mid-major (the Ivy League doesn't even grant basketball scholarships!); Connecticut is the definition of the deep-pocketed power-six schools who reign over the sport.
But there is one place where this game doesn't feel quite so much like an upset, where the Crimson don't seem quite so hopelessly overmatched. That place? On the floor.
You can go the transitive property route if you want to -- UConn lost to UCF in the Battle 4 Atlantis, and Harvard beat UCF, so Harvard is better than UConn -- but that's hardly a convincing argument. (The transitive property always sounds nice. It's also almost always wrong.) A closer look at Harvard and UConn's performances to date, as viewed through the prism of possession-based statistics, reveals that these two teams, for all of their massive differences, aren't that far apart after all.
Connecticut is ranked No. 25 in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings. Harvard is ranked No. 37. Granted, those sample sizes are still small, but they do have the benefit of a) being equal in size and b) having come against a handful of the same opponents, thanks to the aforementioned Battle 4 Atlantis. UConn's offense has been solid; the Huskies have shot the ball well and dominated the offensive glass (though they have been prone to turnovers). Harvard's defense, however, has been better than UConn's to date, ranking No. 39 in the country and allowing just .919 points per offensive trip.
UConn, by contrast, ranks No. 53. The Huskies don't turn anything over, and they've been shockingly bad on the defensive glass -- ranking No. 263 in the country in opponents' offensive rebounding rate.
What does all this mean? It means these two teams aren't separated by all that much -- at least statistically. To paraphrase Lloyd Christmas: Crimson fans, I'm telling you there's a chance.
Of course, this is still a major uphill battle for Harvard. It's in UConn's Gampel Pavilion. The Huskies are a much taller, more athletic team. (UConn is the 10th tallest team in the country by average; Harvard ranks No. 124.) It's probably safe to say the Huskies won't continue their struggles on the defensive glass with such obvious physical mismatches weighing in their favor. And Harvard, for as well as it has defended this season, doesn't have a single player capable of stopping the likes of Jeremy Lamb on a consistent basis -- let alone Alex Oriakhi, Andre Drummond, Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright, and on down the line.
But perhaps this is the best sign of how far Harvard has come under Tommy Amaker: Tonight, the Crimson play the defending national champions on said national champions' home floor, and it's not entirely clear that Harvard should be that much of an underdog. Win or lose, that's a victory unto itself.
Everywhere else: It's a Thursday night during this little two-week stretch when most schools are either studying for or taking finals, so the rest of the evening's affairs are not much to look at. That said, I'll be tuning into West Virginia-Kansas State, a quasi-home game for the Wildcats being played in Wichita. For one, it features the return (sort of) of literally one-time Kansas State head coach Bob Huggins, the mentor and predecessor to current K-State coach Frank Martin. That's sort of interesting, I suppose. More importantly, though, this game is a good chance to check in on K-State, to see how much of this 5-0 record is real, to see what appears to be another very staunch Martin defense take on a decent Mountaineers squad.