Saddle Up: It's must-win time for Purdue

January, 24, 2012
1/24/12
4:52
PM ET
Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action. It guesses it needs to see "The Artist," huh?

No. 22 Michigan at Purdue, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: Purdue needs this one. Boy, does Purdue need this one.

January hasn't been kind to the Boilermakers, figuratively and literally. Before Saturday's blowout loss at Michigan State -- a game preceded by Purdue's hours-long flight delays amid a classic Midwestern winter storm (why do we live here, again?) -- the Boilermakers had gone 2-2 in Big Ten play. Those losses came in questionable fashion, the first a 20-point blowout at Penn State (yikes) and the second a missed opportunity to take down Wisconsin at home. (Plus, some jerk at Michigan State even said something about Robbie Hummel's knees. Not cool, dude. Not cool.)

Now the Boilermakers are back in the comfy, presumably warm, sure-to-be-rowdy confines of Mackey Arena. Now they have an opportunity to get a win against a ranked conference opponent. Fortunately for them, that opponent hasn't had the best luck on the road this season, either.

Michigan has yet to win a road game in Big Ten play. It is also yet to win a road game this month. This past Saturday, the Wolverines fell behind to a crazy-hot Arkansas team early, and despite an impressive late run on the road, they eventually fell in Fayetteville. In some ways, this game is every bit as important for John Beilein's team as it is for Matt Painter's, as the Wolverines seek to get that first big road win, the kind you have to get if you plan to compete for top honors in the Big Ten (and this team does). At the very least, the Wolverines can't afford another Iowa-esque performance (a 75-59 loss). Something has to give.

At the risk of simplifying a rather complex game, then, this one is likely to come down to shooting. Both teams rely heavily on perimeter players to do the bulk of their scoring. Michigan has Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. and its coterie of lethal spot shooters. Purdue has Lewis Jackson and Ryne Smith and, of course, Hummel. Neither team spends much time working through its post players. Both teams prefer to play almost entirely at the basket.

This is good news for Purdue, actually; dealing with bigs is not its specialty, and the home atmosphere probably lends an inherent marksmanship advantage. But it also makes this game -- at home, in the midst of a crucial portion of the Big Ten season, against a stylistically similar team that doesn't have a go-to post player or disruptive interior defender -- something of a must-win. We'll see.

No. 7 Baylor at Oklahoma, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN3: Monday night, Syracuse was on the road against a quality conference foe after its first loss of the season. It got a win, and a rather big one, considering the circumstances. A day later, Baylor's story is similar: The Bears, losers of two straight, are seeking redemption Tuesday. Like Syracuse, they'll have to find it on the road.

Of course, the Sooners aren't the Bearcats; Cincinnati is a much better team, and hotter to boot. But Oklahoma could present challenges for this Baylor team. Wait ... huh? Oklahoma is mediocre, right? (Right.) Baylor is really good, right? (Also right.) So why should Baylor fans be slightly worried heading into Tuesday's game? The Bears are just way too talented, aren't they?

The answer is simple: rebounding. Particularly offensive rebounding, and particularly offensive rebounding against Baylor. It's one of the statistics Missouri's one-man frontcourt of Ricardo Ratliffe (with apologies to Steve Moore, but come on) dominated in Waco in its win Saturday. Upon further review, we should have seen that coming. Baylor is, for all its success this season, one of the nation's worst defensive rebounding teams; it allows opponents to clean up 34.2 percent of their misses, the No. 243 rank in all of Division I basketball. First of all, this is baffling: Why does a team with a starting frontcourt of Quincy Acy (6-foot-7), Perry Jones III (6-foot-11) and Quincy Miller (6-foot-9) get outworked so routinely on the defensive end? Based on sheer physics, that shouldn't happen. (Based on sheer numbers, it definitely shouldn't happen against Missouri, but Ratliffe was just more active, more determined and more opportunistic. "Outworked" is the appropriate way to describe it. Ratliffe is a beast, but still.)

More bad news for Baylor: Oklahoma is better than average at exactly one thing this season. Yeah, you guessed it: offensive rebounding. The Sooners chase down 39.4 percent of their misses this season, which is the 14th-highest mark in the country.

In other words, it's not too difficult to imagine Baylor getting dragged into a tough road fixture here. Then again, the Bears have been great on the road this season. So, you know, maybe not. But whatever happens, the long-term questions about this Baylor team are likely to linger. Why doesn't it rebound its glass? Why isn't Jones keen to attack the rim? Why do last season's turnover problems persist?

More than ever before this season, Missouri exposed these issues. Now it's up to the Bears to rectify them. And soon.

Everywhere else: New No. 1 Kentucky, which has already handled road tests better than last year's Final Four team, travels to Georgia in the late ESPN game Tuesday night. ... San Diego State encountered major travel issues on the way to remote Laramie, Wyo., for Tuesday's rather huge Mountain West matchup; Wyoming coach Larry Shyatt has improved his first Cowboys squad immensely this season, and it's a real threat to knock off the Aztecs -- travel problems or no. ... Marquette hosts South Florida. ... Tennessee is at Vanderbilt. ... And in a sneaky-good game in the Big 12, Iowa State travels to Texas, where trigger-happy Texas guard J'Covan Brown will need get his points much more efficiently if the Longhorns plan on taking down Royce White and the rest of Fred Hoiberg's upstart transfer crew.

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