- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action. It highly recommends you just Google "Marshall Henderson Auburn gif."
Wisconsin at No. 11 Ohio State, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN
College basketball can be a disorienting sport to cover, at least from a national perspective. There are so many teams to cover. All it takes is a week or even a few days and you can miss major developments in any team's season, and then find yourself stuck playing catch-up across the country. You've got to keep your head on a swivel.
Unless, of course, you're talking about Wisconsin and Ohio State -- at least in 2013.
Wisconsin is Wisconsin in basically any season: The Badgers play a deliberate pace, lock down on the defensive end, grab defensive rebounds and never turn the ball over. Year in and year out, Bo Ryan's system produces these sorts of teams (occasionally the balance between offense and defense can shift, even if that slow pace makes it hard to perceive; this season's team really does specialize in defense) even if the specific players and the roles they fill depart and emerge each offseason.
At least this season, Ohio State is approaching Wisconsinian levels of predictability. The Buckeyes play great defense -- they've allowed just .877 points per trip all season, 12th lowest in the country, and through seven Big Ten games they've played the league's second-stingiest defense. Aaron Craft is still Aaron Craft, guard Shannon Scott is proving adept at creating turnovers, too, and Sam Thompson and Evan Ravenel protect the rim well for a slightly undersized duo. The problem? The Buckeyes are scoring just less than a point per possession on the offensive end, primarily because they have one really great offensive weapon (Deshaun Thomas) and no one else.
Which is all exactly what we've heard and/or said for about a month now, if not longer, and still the Buckeyes are putting up box scores like this. There's still time for coach Thad Matta to find that elusive second weapon; heck, it could happen in mid-March. But sooner would definitely be better.
Kentucky at No. 16 Ole Miss, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN
This might be the first truly season-defining game of the season.
Think about the two sides here:
1. On one side, you've got Kentucky, which has not looked anything like the Kentucky we've come to know under fourth-year coach (and 2012 national champion) John Calipari. The Wildcats are young and frustrating, beset by a seemingly constant barrage of issues: Ryan Harrow's November disappearance, Kyle Wiltjer's shooting slump, Alex Poythress' disengagement, Archie Goodwin's high-turnover, 28.9 percent-from-3 guard play. (About the only player who has lived up to expectations was the one everyone immediately wrote off: Nerlens Noel. Go figure.) You've got a team that struggled to get past woeful LSU at home Saturday, primarily thanks to bad defense; you've got a program sitting decidedly atop Joe Lunardi's Bracketology bubble, with little to no margin for error, and only a few more chances to get impressive tournament wins. And you've got a coach saying things like this:
"It was a great thing Ray Lewis did and I showed the guys, he said, ‘The reason I could last this long is I love it, I love everything about it. I love the game.’ I stopped the tape, ‘Do you love playing or are you more happy when practice is over than when it starts?’ They’re all (must-win). Every one is. If you told me you’re going to lose this and win the next nine, alright, wake me up when it’s over and I’ll sit and watch the game. It doesn’t matter."
2. On the Ole Miss side, you've got the best Rebels team in years -- the one certain to save Andy Kennedy's job -- led by one of the nation's most entertaining players for better and for worse: Marshall Henderson.
You might already know Henderson from his promising and controversial first season at Utah, or the juco-makes-good story that eventually brought him to Ole Miss. By now, you probably know him for his game. Henderson is one of the country's true gunners: He has shot 207 3s already this season (compared to just 66 2-point shots), third most in the country. He's making 35.7 percent of those 3s, leads the SEC in scoring and is taking 30.5 percent of Ole Miss' shots -- but doing so in relatively efficient fashion (Henderson's offensive rating is 114.9).
More than anything, though, you probably know Henderson because of his antics. He talks. He talks a lot. At the end of the Auburn game, when he made the game-winning free throws, he ran to the Tigers' student section, lustily popped his jersey and pounded his chest and catalyzed one of the purest expressions of in-game basketball crowd hilarity I've ever seen. Alongside the already solid interior players Ole Miss had before he arrived, Henderson has lifted the Rebels into SEC contention.
Now Tuesday night, on national television, against the defending champions, Henderson has a chance to not only showcase his skill but to introduce his insanity to a much wider audience. Kentucky has the chance to right its ship, notch a major résumé win on the road and to find whatever's missing in its current makeup. Here's Calipari on how he wants to see his team deal with Henderson:
“Oh, I’d like us to lose our composure. That’s what I’m looking for. Like, lose your composure. Get mad. Get angry. Be mad to be great. (Pretends to be moping, then getting bumped by someone) ‘Oh, sorry.’ What? Be mad. And if he talks to you, talk back to him. I mean, just be mad. Compete, fight, battle, toughness, swagger. It’s hard to have a swagger when you’re ducking and you’re running. You gotta dig your heels in. That’s why I’m saying all this stuff is good for our team. If we’re going to get it, it’s competing in games like this and learning and growing.”
This game is going to be awesome.
Elsewhere: Really interesting game in the ACC, as NC State heads to Virginia to deal with two things: a top-15 Cavaliers defense and a Wisconsin-esque pace that does not work with the Wolfpack's usual get-out-and-run mode. It'll be really interesting to see how NC State adjusts, or if it can exert control over the pace of the game on the road, in this stylistic clash. One of the Valley's surprise second-tier contenders, Indiana State, has a chance for a huge (if hugely unlikely) win at Wichita State.