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Wednesday, December 22, 2010
Saddle Up: Afternoon games? Yes please

By Eamonn Brennan

Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action. Today's much-earlier-than-usual version comes thanks to a spate of midweek afternoon games. Thanks, holiday break!

Just take a look at this list of games. This is an intense Wednesday, if not for quality -- there are plenty of hits in there, but lots of just-OK games, too -- then certainly for quality. Between now and Florida State's 1 a.m. ET tip-off with Hawaii tomorrow morning, there are 88 -- yes, 88 -- games today. That's 176 teams in action. I know because I multiplied 88 times two. Math!

In any case, here are the games you should probably be watching today.

No. 22 Texas at No. 12 Michigan State, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2: The Spartans need to do some image rehabilitation, and I'm not talking about Tom Izzo's brief brush with the NCAA law Friday. No, Michigan State needs to get this win, preferably in convincing fashion, if only to reassure those of us who keep saying things like "Michigan State will be fine in the end, they always do this, they'll be ready by the tournament, Izzo, rinse, repeat." The Spartans have been a nominal disappointment in their nonconference schedule thus far, but their three losses have come on the road or at neutral environments against top ten teams, and so there's still plenty of reason to think this team is capable of the high expectations we thrust upon them in the offseason. Tonight, they'll have a chance prove us right.

It won't be easy -- Texas' youngsters have been impressive thus far -- but there are a couple of reasons to think Sparty will be OK in this one. For one, they're at home. After all that travel, that has to feel pretty good. More importantly, perhaps, Michigan State is playing a Texas team that isn't all that good at forcing turnovers. The Spartans' turnover woes have been well-documented to date; few high major teams turn the ball over on a higher percentage of their possessions than does Izzo's team. But Texas is ranked No. 219 in the nation at opponents' turnover rate -- the Longhorns force opponents to give up the ball on about 20 percent their possessions -- so if there was ever a time to get the turnover bug at least temporarily cured, tonight would seem to be the night.

Michigan State will have to get quality play from its bigs to keep Jordan Hamilton, Tristan Thompson and Gary Johnson from dominating on the interior. But if it does that, and keeps turnovers manageable, Sparty gets this win. Then we can all start feeling a little bit better about ranking MSU No. 2 to start the season.

No. 10 Missouri vs. No. 21 Illinois, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2: Two teams, two overriding questions:

1. Can Illinois, having learned the lessons of its loss to UIC, adjust its style? Bruce Weber and Demetri McCamey cited poor practice efforts as the reason Illinois suffered a massive letdown in Saturday's loss to the Flames, but the real reason was something far more insidious: the Illini offense. Weber's team takes far too many mid-range, two-point jump shots, the least efficient shot in college hoops. When the Illini are making shots, it doesn't matter. When they aren't, as was the case Saturday, they have no offensive recourse, no go-to, back-to-the-basket post scorer, and few players who thrive on dribble penetration. This isn't the most sturdy way to build your team's offensive foundation. The Illini need to make some major and not altogether easy adjustments to the kind of shots they look for. They're a good three-point shooting team. Illinois just needs to take more of them.

2. Is Missouri as good as the rankings say? Last week, ESPN Insider columnist and Basketball Prospectus editor John Gasaway took stock of the Tigers. Why? Because while Missouri is receiving plenty of poll love from we humans, the tempo-free stats believe Missouri to be a fringe top-30 team. (When Gasaway wrote his piece, Missouri was ranked No. 40 by Pomeroy. It's now No. 30.)

There's a major disconnect there, one caused in large part by Missouri's one-dimensional defense. The Tigers force a ton of turnovers -- they rank No. 3 in the nation in opponents' turnover rate -- but are otherwise a mediocre-to-bad defensive unit. Missouri allows opponents to shoot the ball at about the Division 1 average, and they don't clean up on the glass or keep opponents on the free throw line very well at all. The Tigers have won the hearts of most of the country, or at least those who get to vote in the polls every week, but they still have plenty of proving to do against quality opponents.

Diamond Head Classic [PDF]: The Diamond Head Classic begins today, and that means early-evening hoops fun for the whole family. First round match ups include Mississippi State vs. Washington State, Baylor vs. San Diego, Utah vs. Butler, and Florida State vs. Hawaii. Taken as a whole, these aren't the most face-melting fixtures of all-time. But the bracket has at least five teams (MSU, WSU, Baylor, Butler, and FSU) who desperately need to bolster their nonconference résumés with quality wins, and for many of them, this is their last chance before conference play begins. It's a more important tournament than you might think.

Everywhere else: Northeastern and St. Louis kicked off the day already with a 12 p.m. ET start in the Cancun Governors Cup. ... Likewise, Richmond gets going early today in a road trip to UNC Greensboro that's already tipped off. ... Kansas will try to avoid another too-close performance against a Pac-10 team at Cal this evening. ... Harvard goes to Hartford for a sneaky-good game against Connecticut. ... After upsetting Louisville at home, Drexel is looking keep the road upset mojo going at Syracuse. ... San Diego State plays IUPUI in Las Vegas. ... Pittsburgh gets the 7-2 American Eagles in Pittsburgh. ... Kentucky, scheduling intelligently as always, has another home date with another RPI-friendly-yet-unthreatening team in Winthrop. ... Louisville will play a strong mid-major team on the road in Western Kentucky. ... Indiana played a few more cupcakes after losses to Boston College and Kentucky, but Northern Iowa, disappointing as the Panthers have been, will be a chance for the Hoosiers to test their mettle. ... And there are too many games to possible try to list them all. Fire up the laptop, get the remote control in tow, and enjoy.