- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action. It always chose Leonardo.
No. 6 Florida at Florida State, 7 p.m. ET, ESPNU: It is easy to forget that Florida State is, well, Florida State. Tallahassee is not an historic basketball locale. Basketball success, NCAA tournament runs, insurgence into the Tobacco Road-dominated ACC top tier -- none of these things are guaranteed on a year-to-year basis.
Or at least they didn't use to be. It is a credit to the success veteran coach Leonard Hamilton has quietly had since 2009, his sixth season, when he guided FSU to its first NCAA tournament berth since 1998. In 2010 and 2011, the Seminoles had the stingiest per-possession defense in the country. In 2011, that defense got Florida State to the Sweet 16 (where it nearly survived the crazy-hot, Final Four-bound VCU Rams). In 2012, Florida State won the ACC tournament, its first conference tournament title of any kind since it won the Metro Conference in 1991.
In the matter of three years, in unassuming fashion, Hamilton has made Florida State the kind of team we can look at in a season like 2012 and say, "Wait a second. What's wrong with the Florida State Seminoles?" As I sat down to write this today, I realized: That's how you know when a program has improved. That's a sea change. And it is entirely to Hamilton's credit.
It also, unfortunately, does not answer the question. The Seminoles are 4-3 this season. They lost their home opener to South Alabama. They were handled at home by Minnesota. On Saturday, they lost again at home -- this time to Mercer, 61-56. The culprit is rather obvious: FSU, a defensive program to the core, isn't defending all that well. But for spurts, the Seminoles have never really scored the ball all that efficiently under Hamilton. When they don't play lockdown defense, well, this is what happens.
These are the kinds of results that can keep a team out of the NCAA tournament, which is why tonight's game is so important beyond the suddenly relevant Florida-FSU basketball rivalry. If the Seminoles want to avoid the prospect of a rebuilding season, or at least a season spent flailing on the bubble, needing big road wins in February to push them over the top -- if they want to sustain what Hamilton has built these past four years -- this is something like a must-win.
It won't be anything close to easy: The Gators are playing the most efficient offensive basketball this side of Bloomington and Durham this season, and they're also, in a surprise twist, defending far better than they ever did last season. They're dump-trucking people. And given their results so far this season, there is no reason to assume any sort of overwhelming home-court advantage in Tallahassee. Florida is the easy favorite.
But it is still Tallahassee, and they are still Hamilton's Seminoles, and this is the type of game he's won a lot in recent seasons -- so much so that it's easy to forget.
Ohio at Memphis, 7 p.m. ET, CBS College Sports: Fascinating game at the FedEx Forum tonight. The Tigers have had just one game to lick their wounds following another disappointing early season showing at the Battle 4 Atlantis, and the requisite local Josh Pastner fan freakout that ensued. Maybe that blowout win against Tennessee Martin really was what the doctor ordered. The Tigers will have to hope so. Tonight, they will get a veteran Ohio team whose defense relies almost entirely on turning over opposing guards -- Ohio forces the second-highest turnover rate and the seventh-highest steal percentage in the country -- which is not the sort of thing to make the ongoing backcourt drama, in which point guard Joe Jackson has been rotated to the two, and Chris Crawford has moved to the one. This is a huge, pressure-packed game for the Tigers, and Ohio is nothing to overlook. Fascinating game.
Tennessee at Virginia, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN3: In six games, Tennessee has already posted sub-50 point totals on two separate occasions, both losses, to Oklahoma State and Virginia. The Volunteers do not play particularly fast-paced basketball, but Virginia -- the third-slowest team in all of Division I this season -- puts them to shame. All of which means this adds up to be a tight defensive contest most likely decided by whichever team can score 60 points first, if that. In Charlottesville, with the pack-line defense and just enough outside shooting, Virginia looks like the favorite.
Everywhere else: Colorado State-Colorado has suddenly turned into an honest-to-goodness basketball rivalry, just in time for the 6-0 Rams to face the 6-1 Buffaloes in Boulder tonight. ... Gonzaga is on the road at Washington State, which has Brock Motum and a tricky home environment going for it, and not much else. ... Marshall has a real chance at a huge win at struggling West Virginia. ... South Florida is at Oklahoma State. ... Kevin O'Neill sold his USC team as a tournament squad, but at 3-4 it has to turn things around quickly, and tonight at New Mexico would be a lovely place to start. ... Temple and Villanova square off in the marquee Big 5 matchup of most any other season, but for whatever reason Villanova isn't keeping up its end of the bargain lately. ... Dayton has a shot at glory in Alabama. .. 7-0 Charlotte will play its first competent opponent at Davidson. ... The Fightin' Tony Mitchells take on Saint Louis. ... and I can't believe my editors didn't send me to DePaul-Chicago State.