- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action.
No. 2 Syracuse at No. 18 Louisville, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: When you're 25-1, you aren't going to have many flaws. The Orange don't. They're athletic, long, deep, talented, defensively brilliant and offensively versatile. They're a national title contender through-and-through. No one denies this.
Of course no one's perfect, either, and Syracuse is no exception. The Orange have their weak points, but none is more glaring than their inability to corral defensive rebounds. For whatever reason, all that length and athleticism and Fab Melo-led interior brilliance haven't translated into anything resembling the kind of defensive glass work you'd expect from this sort of team. Instead, as of today, Syracuse ranks No. 337 in the country in opponents' offensive rebounding percentage; the Orange allow opposing offenses to grab 38.2 percent of available rebounds, a mark only slightly worse than DePaul and only slightly better than Nicholls State, St. Peter's, North Carolina A&T, Florida A&M, Duquesne, St. John's and, all the way in last, Alcorn State.
Blame the 2-3 zone all you want. It's one of the classic flaws in any zone, because defenders have to find box-outs instead of simply turning around and engaging their man, and I get that. But it can't explain away defensive rebounding this bad. What can?
To be honest, I don't know. It's a little bit baffling. In any case, the explanations matter less than the results. This is the key matchup to watch tonight, as a Louisville team on a six-game winning streak after its win at West Virginia on Saturday attempts to upset 'Cuse in the Yum! Center Monday night. The Cardinals are a pretty good, if not great, offensive rebounding squad; they grab 36.1 percent of their available misses. Rick Pitino's team doesn't shoot the ball all that well, and that's bad news when you're up against a zone so good at forcing you to fire contested shots from distance. But if the Cardinals can chase down their boards on second and third opportunities, they have more than a puncher's chance to keep this one close and contested for all of 40 minutes.
Anyway, it should be fun. Louisville will be prepared to take on this zone; it will be fascinating to watch Pitino's stylistic game plan unfold, to watch his team use its well-drilled spacing and quick passing to try to carve up a typically uncarveable defense. But it will be just as fascinating to watch Jim Boeheim's squad attempt to dictate the game, to adapt and adjust, to force turnovers and run outs and easy points on the break. You know, Syracuse stuff.
Over the long haul, you'd like to see Syracuse clean things up on the defensive glass. Everyone has flaws. But few bona-fide, one-loss-in-mid-February teams have flaws this glaring. In the meantime, we'll see if that strange, outlying characteristic plays a part tonight. It very well could.
No. 5 Kansas at Kansas State, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: The Jayhawks are sure to have their mettle tested here. Bramlage Coliseum -- aka the Octagon of Doom -- is an intimidating place. It feels like it reflects the scowling toughness of the man at the center of it all, coach Frank Martin, and the team that calls it home plays one of the roughest and most physical styles of basketball in the country. Consider this: The Wildcats are among the nation's most foul-prone teams, ranking No. 311 in the nation in opponent free throw rate. (Kansas State opponents' ratio of free throws to field-goal attempts is a hearty 45.1 percent.) The Wildcats are likewise among the nation's top 10 teams in offensive free throw rate. They get to the line only slightly more often than they allow opposing offenses to do so.
This is neither criticism nor praise. It's just how Kansas State rolls.
In other words, this game -- which pits a more talented and imposing Kansas squad against a less talented but more physical Kansas State team -- is going to be a good one. The good news? Thomas Robinson should have plenty of free, one-point looks from 15 feet. The bad news? The Wildcats are going to make him feel every one. It won't be a pretty game, but it's must-see stuff all the same.
Iowa State at No. 10 Baylor, 7 p.m. ET, ESPNU: And then there's this game, which is fascinating for entirely different reasons. Iowa State is inching closer and closer to firming up that long-awaited return to the NCAA tournament; Baylor is struggling to figure out why, with all this talent, it isn't a more viable counterpart to Kansas and Missouri at the top of the Big 12 table. The Bears are probably the most consistently bewitching team in the country. They have national title-level talent, but they're prone to defensive lapses, weak zone rotation and a downright inexcusable (given their height) propensity to allow opposing teams frequent offensive rebounds. (They're not quite as bad as Syracuse in this regard, but it's close.) Teams with guard-oriented attacks and one true post presence -- like Missouri and Ricardo Ratliffe -- have shredded Baylor to surprising degrees in Big 12 play.
But there is some good news here, and it's not just that this game is in Waco. For as good as Iowa State forward Royce White has been this season (and he has been very good), the Cyclones haven't been particularly good on the offensive glass. In fact, this is almost a perfect matchup for Baylor on defense. But can the Bears take advantage? Will the defense show up? If they get dragged into a close game, can they take advantage? Or can Iowa State pull off a road win that would practically guarantee its at-large tourney berth? Oh, how the intrigue abounds.