- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action. It is super psyched about conference play.
No. 8 Minnesota at No. 12 Illinois, 9 p.m. ET, BTN: I love this time of year. We're off and running with all-out conference play -- the Atlantic 10 and Mountain West finally get down to business tonight, and we get to start learning a lot about those very fascinating leagues -- while the Big Ten, which has been going at it for more than a week (and two games each) already, is still early enough in the game that we can't be remotely sure how everything is going to pan out. This is especially true of Illinois.
To wit: Before Big Ten play began, most of us -- heck, even most optimistic Illinois fans -- assumed that Illinois would come crashing back down to Earth sooner rather than later. The Illini had a nice nonconference season. First-year coach John Groce changed their offense, Brandon Paul put it all together, the team got hot and shot and made a bunch of 3s, but surely that model wasn't sustainable, was it? Surely the poor-rebounding, so-so-defending Illini were destined to live and die by that long-range shot, and that would be the story of their season.
After Saturday's victory over Ohio State, I'm not so sure. The Illini got the benefit of home court and a horrendous shooting performance by the Buckeyes, but even so, they rebounded 77.5 percent of their available defensive boards. Paul said after the game that was Groce's biggest focus in practice -- Groce knew his team was among the worst in the Big Ten at keeping opponents off the glass, and he had to correct it. And, at least for one game, he did.
That makes tonight's home game against Minnesota totally fascinating. A week ago, you might have said the Illini had a small chance against the Gophers, primarily because Minnesota is the single best offensive rebounding team in the country, and Illinois can't keep anyone off the glass. And that might still happen; Illinois hasn't met anyone like Trevor Mbakwe yet, and it's entirely possible Minnesota's balance, athleticism and ability to chase down its own misses make the key difference in a tough Big Ten road game. But we now at least have to allow for the possibility that (a) Illinois has the ability to rebound the ball well against good teams, at least at home, and (b) the shape of Illinois's abilities, and thus its season, could be so much more than the 3-point shot.
No. 24 UNLV at No. 25 New Mexico, 10 p.m. ET, CBS College Sports: In the past five years, the Mountain West has become one of my favorite leagues to watch, and not just because the basketball is typically really entertaining. It's because everybody's hungry.
UNLV is a traditional power whose fans are desperate to rekindle the glamorous glory days. San Diego State is a sudden and heretofore-unseen beast whose relatively young student section (The Show) might also be the country's best. (San Diego State fans are scrappy. They have no interest in your codified college hoops hierarchy; earlier this season, they took immense pride in beating UCLA, outnumbering its fans in the Honda Center, and trash-talking for weeks afterward. Naturally, I think they're fantastic.) New Mexico's Pit is a brutal, intense place to play; coach Steve Alford has redeemed his career within its confines. These are fan bases and programs that have long existed outside the world's hoops attention, but they've seized it back -- all together, almost at once.
This has been the case consistently in recent seasons; what makes this year different is the league's sheer depth. Boise State won at Creighton in November; Wyoming is one of the country's last four unbeaten teams. Colorado State returned basically everyone from last season's NCAA tournament visit, and are playing even better basketball this time around. We could very well get six NCAA tournament teams out of this league. The Pac-12 probably would settle for four.
All of which is a way of saying that this game, even though it's an early January conference opener, is huge for both teams. For UNLV, it's a chance to correct the defensive woes that cost them a road loss at North Carolina before the New Year, a chance for brilliant star freshman Anthony Bennett to get his MWC feet wet in one of the toughest places in the country to do so, and it's a chance to steal an early victory from a legit conference title contender on its own floor. For New Mexico, it's a chance to bounce back from a road loss at St. Louis last week and a chance to open the league season with a win over a very talented but very green title favorite.
For the rest of us, it's a first look at what this fantastic conference is going to be all about this season. Frankly, I can't wait.
Elsewhere: The A-10 is also kicking things off tonight, and Butler at Saint Joseph's is an awfully good way to start. The veteran Hawks were picked to win the league but have really flailed since; this would be a really handy way to turn things around. … Iowa State travels to Kansas, and while the Cyclones are almost certainly underrated (they really defend), it's hard to see how they get out of Lawrence with a win. … The Big East's two favorites both have eminently winnable games on the road, as Louisville goes to Seton Hall and Syracuse sojourns to Providence. … Don't sleep on Ole Miss. It'll be ugly going at Tennessee, but the Rebels' only two losses this season came by a combined five points. They could be an SEC sleeper. … It's conference madness out there tonight, so be sure to stop by for our ESPN Home Court live chat this evening, and see here for a full schedule of tonight's games. Enjoy, you silver-tongued devils, you.