Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action. It thinks the first weekday after New Year's should be a two-hour-late start, like in a snowstorm. Tell your bosses. This begins here.
Rutgers at No. 7 Syracuse, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN3: Jim Boeheim is surpassing a lot of career milestones these past few weeks, and all in quick succession. That's what happens when you win 900 games: The 900th is worth celebrating all its own, and because Bob Knight ended his career with 902 wins, you've got just a couple more games to tie him (as Boeheim did Monday) and break his record, as he is almost sure to do at home against Rutgers Wednesday night.
Because these milestones have come in quick succession, and because people like to argue about things like this, there has been no small amount of discussion about whether Boeheim classifies as a "great" coach. This discussion has been led by our former colleague Doug Gottlieb, who has a particularly strong opinion on the matter. He says no, Boeheim isn't great -- not if you define him by his tournament performances. Which, needless to say, did not please Boeheim all that much.
I like Gottlieb (miss you, Doug!) but this idea seems sort of silly to me. Boeheim's numbers, his sheer longevity and consistency, cross whatever fuzzy threshold of "great" I can possibly conjure. When it comes to the tournament stuff, well, sometimes the tournament is cruel. The important thing is that you're up to bat. Boeheim's teams always were. And if Keith Smart doesn't make that shot in 1987, both Knight and Boeheim would have two titles, and everyone would be a lot less sure that one was so much better than the other.
For all of the various ways to make this argument, I can think of few better than this comparison from ESPN Stats and Info:
Like Clockwork Orange: Jim Boeheim looks for his 903rd win tonight to pass Bob Knight for second on the all-time wins list when the Orange host Rutgers. Boeheim is in his 37th season at Syracuse. By comparison, over the last 66 seasons (since 1947-48), the Rutgers program has won exactly 903 games and had 12 different head coaches.
Are you telling me if Boeheim played at Rutgers and decided to coach there for 37 years, the two schools' basketball fates couldn't be reversed? No? Then call the man's career "great." He deserves at least that much.
No. 1 Duke vs. Davidson, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2: At first glance, I thought this game was a true road test for Duke, involving the survival of a hostile Belk Arena crowd (or at least the discomfort of playing for a split crowd in a real road venue). Alas, it is not to be. This game is actually scheduled at Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, which is a neutral-enough venue but will (you'd assume) be dominated by royal blue.
Besides, the crowd might not matter. Davidson, touted widely as Bob McKillop's Best Team Since Stephen before the season, is already out of at-large contention come March. The Wildcats have suffered a mixture of good and bad losses to date: Charlotte at home, Drexel, which is a shockingly bad 4-8 this season, at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, No. 306 in the KenPom rankings. McKillop's group plays quality offensive basketball, and they are dangerous from beyond the arc. But they're allowing opposing offenses to score just over a point per trip; Davidson's defense has been genuinely bad. Duke has the most efficient offense in the country. You know how this one goes.
No. 16 Creighton at Illinois State, 8 p.m. ET: Last season, there were three top-25 teams that all scorched the nets in 2011-12 and returned to the 2012-13 season with player of the year candidates and rightfully high hopes ... provided they could play a little defense. All three teams -- Indiana, Duke, and Creighton -- have done exactly that. Last season, the Bluejays were one of the nation's best offenses and one of its most unenthusiastic defenses. They allowed 1.02 points per trip, good for No. 178 in Pomeroy's adjusted rankings. You may blow out a lot of teams with that in the regular season, but it is not a style made for NCAA tournament play -- every now and then, you have to get a stop.
Like Indiana and Duke, Creighton's offensive stars took this to heart. That defense is now ranked No. 42 in the country. The Bluejays haven't evolved into VCU or Louisville in the matter of a year, but they are defending their own glass and avoiding fouls well enough to be hugely improved over last season. Will it be enough to win at Illinois State? It's no guarantee. Creighton will have to keep Jackie Carmichael off the glass, keep the ball moving and defend even through Illinois State's uptempo/secondary attack. But the luxury of not having to outscore everyone is one the Bluejays should benefit from all season.