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Saddle Up: Florida looks for strong finish

2/23/2010

Saddle Up is our nightly preview of the hoops your TV wants you to watch. Here's Tuesday night's rundown, where we find ourselves officially in that "What does this mean for the NCAA tournament?" time of year.

No. 11 Georgetown at Louisville, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2: If you had to guess which of these two teams had the better Big East record, would you guess Georgetown? Probably not, actually, since by merely asking the question I've given away the answer. It is, in fact, Louisville. The Cardinals, 9-5 in the country's best league, aren't just playing for a spot in the NCAA tournament (after looking like an NIT team two weeks ago). They're also playing to hold off the Hoyas, who at 8-6 are trying to avoid their third straight loss, the first of which came in an ugly effort at Big East doormat Rutgers.

The Hoyas' task won't be easy: Louisville's offense is one of the best in the country, and its defense, though still porous, has gotten noticeably better down the stretch. (For anecdotal evidence, see: holding Syracuse to 60 points in the Carrier Dome last Sunday.) How will Austin Freeman and Greg Monroe match up with Edgar Sosa and Samardo Samuels? Can Georgetown prevent a late-season swoon and a slide onto the bracket's fourth line? Can Louisville keep proving itself? If the Big East regular season race isn't your thing, the answer to those questions should be.

No. 17 Tennessee at Florida, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: If the above game features tonight's two best teams, then Tennessee's trip to Gainesville is certainly the most tourney-dire. Florida needs a win. Is there a route for the Gators into the NCAA tournament without one? Sure. It's possible. Much like being on a boat, anything is possible. (This boat is real!)

Beating Tennessee tonight -- the Gators are 1-8 against UT since Bruce Pearl arrived -- would instantly change Florida's season trajectory from "mediocre and disappointing, so nah" to "mediocre but possibly peaking at the right time, so hey, let's keep an eye on them." The Gators have one of the more difficult closing stretches in college hoops: Tonight's matchup, a game at pesky Georgia, a home contest with Vanderbilt, and a trip to Lexington to face the mighty Wildcats. Win a couple of those -- preferably tonight and Vanderbilt, though some combination of the two with a win at Georgia wouldn't be the worst thing in the world -- and Billy Donovan won't have to pine for tournament expansion quite so enthusiastically.

Everywhere else: Syracuse rebounded nicely from its loss to Louisville by beating Georgetown at the Verizon Center last week; the Cuse will look to continue its road-warrior-ness (totally not a word, until now) with a visit to Providence ... Texas Tech's 4-8 conference record has all but doomed its tournament hopes, but a win over Kansas State might keep Pat Knight's tourney candle flickering for a few more days ... Illinois will try to rebound from its two losses to Ohio State and Purdue at the ever-disappointing Michigan's Crisler Arena ... and after tonight's game at 7-20 Evansville, Northern Iowa will either improve to 25-3 or have doubts as to whether it's an NCAA tourney lock or not.