Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action.
No. 8 North Carolina at Virginia Tech, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: The last time we saw the Tar Heels take the floor against an ACC opponent on the road ... well, you know what happened. The chances we see something similar Thursday night are almost zero. UNC is well aware of what Saturday's drubbing said about its team, well aware of the statistic that says no team that has lost by 33 points in the regular season has gone on to win a national title. As our UNC blogger Robbi Pickeral wrote in her game preview today, Roy Williams wrote the number "33" on UNC's white board, where it will stay for weeks to come. The Tar Heels have been chastised all week. They will be motivated.
That said, and despite Virginia Tech's paltry 0-3 ACC record to date, this game could be tricky in its own way. Seth Greenberg's team has posted the second-best per-possession defense in the ACC in conference play -- second only to UNC, who maintained that figure despite the FSU debacle. The Hokies have the highest opponents turnover rate of any ACC team in league play, and they've been particularly tough guarding the interior, where opponents average just 43.1 percent on their 2s. In general, the Hokies are not as bad as you think, and their record belies their per-possesssion performance to date.
But let's be real: Those minor sample sizes aside, UNC is the better team everywhere on the floor. This is not about how UNC matches up with Virginia Tech. This is about -- and, fair warning, this is going to get into intangible cliché territory here -- how UNC matches up with itself. (Told you.) Can it muster the focus and energy to quiet raucous road crowds? Can it summon the confidence borne of talent that seemed so lacking Saturday? Can it, once punched, come back with the counter? This could be the story of the Tar Heels' season. It begins anew tonight.
Vanderbilt at Alabama, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2: With apologies to Duke and Wake Forest and the mothership broadcast immediately preceding UNC-Va. Tech, this is the second-most -- heck, maybe the most -- intriguing game of the evening. Vanderbilt has won eight in a row and repaired its damaged reputation after a disappointing (and Festus Ezeli-less) nonconference slate. The last time it went on the road against a truly quality opponent was its Dec. 29 thrashing of Marquette, in which it jumped out to a 31-6 lead (yes, 31-6) and never looked back. The offense of John Jenkins and Jeffery Taylor appears to be running at full speed again, and Ezeli's presence has been a major boost to the Vandy interior on a nightly basis.
And then there's Alabama. We wrote off the once-ranked Crimson Tide pretty quickly in November after back-to-back losses (57-55 to Georgetown at home, 74-62 at Dayton). That appears to have been a mistake. Sure, the Crimson Tide have plenty of issues. Namely: offense. But the defense that guided Anthony Grant's squad to the cusp of an NCAA tournament bid last season is back and better than ever in 2012. The Crimson Tide are holding opponents to the fourth-fewest points per possession of any team in the country, per Pomeroy; Alabama opponents are averaging an effective field goal percentage of just 40.7 on the season.
In other words, this is a great barometer game for both teams. How improved is Vanderbilt? Improved enough to get a tough road win against a punishing defensive team? Coming off a two-point loss at Mississippi State, where's Alabama's ceiling? High enough to compete in the top tier of this league? There are plenty of questions here. Hopefully, some answers are forthcoming.
Everywhere else: Duke hosts Wake Forest in what should serve as a tune-up for Saturday's challenging home date with Florida State. ... Virginia travels to Georgia Tech. ... Illinois will seek to remain the only one-loss team in the Big Ten tonight at Penn State. ... Long Beach State's trip to Cal Poly could be a tricky Big West situation for the Beach, which is perfect in conference play to date. ... And one game sticks out from the Pac-12's typically symmetrical Thursday night offerings: Cal at Washington, where the Bears will look to assert their apparent league superiority against a talented but inconsistent -- and really just insanely frustrating -- Washington bunch. Could be a good one.