- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action.
Tennessee at Kentucky, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: Before the season began, we could have fairly expected to call this a must-see SEC game. Led by early-arriving young freshman Jarnell Stokes, the 2011-12 Tennessee Volunteers finished their season on a tear, winning eight of their last nine conference games, finishing 10-6 in the league and looking like a team that got all of its talent on the floor, and figured it out, just a tad bit too late. But they would be fearsome in 2012-13.
And Kentucky was, well ... duh. Kentucky's Kentucky.
Things have not quite worked out the way we planned. Tennessee has slugged and slogged its way to an 8-6 start. Stokes, while physically imposing, did not emerge as the prodigal All-American-level star we (yours truly included) occasionally touted him to be. Forward Jeronne Maymon's injury had more of an impact than we expected and he's now taking a redshirt, having never played a minute this season. The Volunteers can be the worst of both worlds on offense: inefficient and slow, ineffective and lacking in aesthetics. Along with Alabama, Arkansas and rebuilding Vanderbilt, the Vols are one of the main reasons the SEC is so noticeably down in 2012-13.
Kentucky, meanwhile? After early growing pains but a seeming growth in a close loss to Louisville in late December, the Wildcats are coming off a start to SEC play that has fans rightfully reeling. John Calipari's team barely scraped out a win at Vanderbilt on a shaky final play, which it promptly followed up with an 83-71 home loss to Texas A&M. Believe it or not, as of Tuesday, the defending national champion Cats are at legitimate risk of missing the NCAA tournament altogether.
Do I think this is going to happen? No. I think Calipari will figure it out, and I actually think his team is better than the recent panic might indicate. (UK is still ranked 17th in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings; it still does plenty of good things on the defensive end.) But the fact of the matter is this: Kentucky hasn't beaten anyone more impressive than so-so Maryland this season, and that was on Nov. 9. A home game against a team that can't score might be just what the doctor ordered. Or maybe it'll just be another game. Either way, early as it still is in the conference season, UK doesn't have any time to waste.
Wisconsin at No. 2 Indiana, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: With the possible exception of whatever tweaks or changes or evolutions the Hoosiers make in their eternal quest for basketball nirvana, we basically know what we're going to get from Indiana. You are going to get a man-sized dose of Cody Zeller on the block. You are going to get Victor Oladipo's havoc-inflicting rim-runs. You are going to get a handful of really good shooters surrounding those two stars on the perimeter, vastly improved defense from last season and at least one spectacular pass from freshman point guard Yogi Ferrell. In Assembly Hall, when the Hoosiers are rolling and life is good, you are going to get all the glorious noise of a revival tent, 17,000 strong.
Typically, we could say the same for Wisconsin. In fact, if there's one program in the country about which you could say, "We know what we're going to get" on a yearly basis, that program is Wisconsin. Every year, Bo Ryan puts top-half Big Ten teams on the floor. Every year, they almost never turn the ball over, play at a grinding pace and defend well on the other end. Every year, some new group steps up. It's part of the reason UW has won 10 straight games against Indiana.
This season has been a little different if only because the machine hasn't quite been running so smoothly. Part of this is due to the loss of Jordan Taylor in the offseason; part of this is due to the emotional gut-punch of losing senior point guard Josh Gasser in October. But the question is whether we all have just plain overlooked Wisconsin, which, despite its four nonconference losses, has yet to lose a truly bad game -- a doppelgänger stylistic clash with Virginia in the Kohl Center being the only thing close. Those other losses are at Florida, at Marquette and to Creighton on a neutral floor. The Badgers have scored 1.12 points per possession this season while holding opponents to just 0.87. In their three Big Ten wins, they are allowing just 0.81 points per trip -- best in the Big Ten.
Those games have come against Penn State, Nebraska, and Illinois (at home) -- which is why tonight is sort of a pivotal game for Wisconsin, and not only in terms of winning. In many ways, this game might change the perception of this Badgers team -- or at least remind us that Wisconsin is always Wisconsin, and you should always know what you're going to get.
Elsewhere: A couple of other interesting games tonight, chief of which is Northern Iowa's trip to Creighton. Similar to Illinois State, UNI has been slightly disappointing (and has played a brutal schedule), but it might still be the best non-Wichita State threat to knock off Creighton on a given league night, even in Omaha. ... Notre Dame travels to St. John's; it's like the "you know what you're going to get" team, except the opposite. ... Cincinnati could have a tricky test at DePaul. ... And it's Ole Miss's turn to survive at Vanderbilt.