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Thursday, December 2, 2010
Saddle Up: That other conference showdown

By Eamonn Brennan

Saddle Up is our preview of the basketball your TV wants you to watch tonight.

This is the great thing about college hoops season: The solid games really never stop. Sure, there are lulls in the action. Some nights are quieter than others. But take this week, for instance. We just finished the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, which was capped off by a fantastic Duke-Michigan State game and a hard-fought Purdue win at Virginia Tech, and a day later, we immediately transition to the Big 12/Pac 10 Hardwood Series.

Granted, the games between these two conferences are not exactly barnburners. We have a lagging Pac-10 to thank for that. Still, there are a couple of intriguing matchups in the Hardwood Series tonight, games you should probably be watching even if the quality of one side doesn't quite live up to tradition. (Yes, we're looking at you, UCLA.)

UCLA at No. 4 Kansas, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2: While Duke has been drawing most of the national title talk, Bill Self's team has been rather quietly destroying everything in its path. The Jayhawks are scoring an average of 92 points per game. They're allowing 56.7. They're as impressive in tempo-free land as any team in the country, which is what happens when you win every game by 40 points. The only reasonably challenging tilt Marcus Morris and company have played thus far happened Saturday vs. Arizona, and while Derrick Williams bolstered his player of the year potential in the Las Vegas meeting, Kansas eventually pulled away down the stretch.

In other words, this is the Jayhawks' second-best test of the season. UCLA may or may not be a tournament team, but it's surely better than the likes of Longwood, Valpo, North Texas, Texas A&M Corpus Christi, and Ohio, the Jayhawks' five non-Zona opponents thus far. Kansas should win. The only question is, how easily? Is Kansas the best non-Duke team in the country? Or is a slightly rebuilt UCLA team going to give them problems at Phog Allen? Those of you who haven't seen this Kansas team play yet should take a gander, because you can't track national contenders without keeping an eye on KU. The Jayhawks are worth the watch.

Arizona State at No. 10 Baylor, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2: Another Big 12/Pac 10 Hardwood Series game, and another likely home win for a dominant Big 12 team against a solid-but-not-great Pac-10 foe. LaceDarius Dunn is already the Bears' leading scorer again, despite having played only two games because of suspension. Perry Jones is developing and producing nicely; he had his second straight double-double of the season Monday night against Prairie View. Quincy Acy is dunking the ball all the time, which is pretty much what Quincy Acy does. Arizona State looks overmatched and should be overwhelmed by all this talent, especially on the road.

Of course, it's not quite that simple: Herb Sendek's teams are always well-prepared, and in ASU Baylor will face its first power-six foe of the non-conference season. Frankly, Baylor, owner of one of the worst non-con schedules in the country, is facing the first team that might actually give it a legitimate test. How will the Bears respond?

Everywhere else: If Oregon wasn't quite so bad this season, this would feel a little like a trap game for Missouri. Actually, following the heartbreaking loss to Georgetown on Tuesday night, it still does. Look for a slow start from Mizzou, followed by a second-half push to get a win against the Ducks in Eugene ... Davidson is still rebuilding in the post-Stephen Curry era, and tonight they'll get a chance to see where they are against a Charleston team that gave both Maryland and UNC fits on the road ... Murray State, everyone's mid-major preseason darling, has been somewhat disappointing out of the gate; count this game as a chance for the Racers to get back on track before the challenges (Morehead State, Western Kentucky) that lie ahead ... and, in tonight's fun scoreline game of the night, allow me to present St. Francis (PA) vs. St. Francis (NY)! Who's winning? St. Francis! Who's losing? St. Francis! If this was 1921, I'm fairly confident we could turn this into a Vaudeville act.