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Saddle Up: Baylor, UCLA have a lot to prove

Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action.

Baylor at No. 13 Gonzaga, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN2/WatchESPN: Is Gonzaga on its way to the Big 12? Nope, but it’s certainly bent on proving itself against the league before WCC play begins.

The Zags’ matchup against Baylor on Friday night will be its fourth Big 12 matchup of the season, and they’ll face Oklahoma State on New Year’s Eve. They haven’t lost yet, and they’re the obvious favorites in this one, too.

On Dec. 8, Gonzaga fell apart at home when it suffered an 85-74 loss to a talented Illinois team. But that loss didn’t define its start. The Zags are legit.

They’re one of the country’s most balanced teams. Coach Mark Few has 10 players who are averaging at least 13.0 minutes per game, six guys producing 7.9 points per game or more. Kelly Olynyk has blossomed into one of the team’s most dependable offensive threats. The Zags are 15th in adjusted offensive efficiency and 22nd in adjusted defensive efficiency per KenPom.com.

Baylor, however, is tougher to assess. That’s always the case, it seems, with the Bears. It’s late December and we’re still trying to figure out this program. Nothing new to see here.

They’re on a three-game winning streak, one that features wins over Lamar, South Carolina Upstate and BYU. But I can’t get over their inconsistency.

The same team that went to Rupp Arena and beat Kentucky has lost to Charleston and Northwestern. Baylor’s issue? There’s too much of Pierre Jackson (19.0 ppg) and not enough of everyone else. But 7-footer Isaiah Austin (13.9 ppg, 8.7 rebounds per game) has finally hit his stride. That should alleviate some of the pressure on Jackson if his success continues.

There’s some intrigue in this matchup based on the “on paper” analysis. On paper, the Bears look like a team that should compete with Gonzaga, even on the Bulldogs' home floor. They’re athletic. Austin is an X factor because of his combination of range and size. And Jackson is one of the country’s most explosive guards.

But we’ve been saying that all season. Let’s see if Baylor finally fulfills that potential.

No. 7 Missouri at UCLA, 10 p.m. ET, ESPN2/WatchESPN: When I talked to coach Frank Haith this summer, he noted this game as one of concern for the Tigers. This was long before the Bruins managed to miss nearly every lofty preseason expectation by losing three games (including one to Cal Poly) by Dec. 1. This was also before Shabazz Muhammad missed the first three games of the year due to an NCAA investigation and then needed a month to get into game shape.

But the Bruins have quietly put together a four-game winning streak, though wins over Texas, Prairie View A&M, Long Beach State and Fresno St. hardly warrant anything above a whisper. They’re finally beginning to look respectable on defense as Ben Howland continues to seek the right answers (man or zone) for a unit that’s struggled (108th in defensive efficiency per KenPom.com) all season.

During this rally, however, UCLA has been better in comparison to its shaky start. And Muhammad (ranked 16th among players who’ve used at least 28 percent of their respective team’s possessions in KenPom.com’s offensive ratings) looks like a blue-chip recruit now that he’s in shape. We won’t know if the Bruins have really improved until they play the Tigers on Friday night. But their recent success is why they were four-point favorites in Vegas on Friday morning.

That line, however, is baloney. I don’t see it. Yes, UCLA is better than it was. But I’m not going to get too excited about the Bruins yet, especially since they’re playing one of the best teams in America.

You know why Missouri should win this game? Because it's just better. Everywhere. The Tigers had more depth than UCLA before Jabari Brown (30 points total in his first two games) was activated at the conclusion of the first semester. Laurence Bowers and Alex Oriakhi are too physical for the Bruins. Missouri is more versatile on offense. And it’s much stronger defensively.

But this is Missouri’s first true road game of the season. Pauley Pavilion will be rocking. And the Tigers are up against a UCLA team that’s far more confident than the group that endured a 2-3 stretch a few weeks ago. I hope it’s a good game. There are few logical reasons, however, to expect a UCLA win.