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Wednesday, January 5, 2011
Saddle Up: MWC play begins with a bang

By Eamonn Brennan

Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action. It told itself it was going to get more sleep this year. It is already failing.

No. 14 BYU at UNLV, 10 p.m. ET, CBS College Sports: OK, so Wednesday night's huge Mountain West Conference match up technically isn't the beginning of the MWC season. Tuesday night, the 11-4 Colorado State Rams beat Wyoming 73-60 at Moby Arena in Fort Collins, Colo. Nice game for the Rams, that -- and excellent arena name, too -- but let's be real. The race for the MWC title begins Wednesday.

That's because the MWC wasted no time pitting two of its three (or maybe four, if you feel optimistic about New Mexico) potential conference champions and NCAA tournament teams. The early date is a challenge for both teams, but especially for BYU, which will be attempting to win in Las Vegas for the first time in almost six years. For all his brilliance at BYU, guard Jimmer Fredette has lost all five times he's visited UNLV in Las Vegas, and he's averaged far fewer points in those games than his career average. Even worse, this might be the toughest UNLV team he's faced yet.

The Rebels are a defensively oriented bunch that force turnovers at the second-highest rate in the country. That's thanks in large part to Chace Stanback, Anthony Marshall, and Tre'Von Willis -- UNLV's best three offensive players, too -- all of whom average either 3.1 or 3.2 steal percentages. They pester opposing players in a stifling man-to-man setup, and already this season they've made life difficult for some of the nation's most highly touted offensive players, including Wisconsin's Jon Leuer and Virginia Tech's Malcolm Delaney.

Fredette is himself pretty highly touted, and for good reason. He's averaging 24.1 points, 4.4 assists, 3.2 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game. He's doing so while carrying the large majority of ballhandling and scoring responsibilities while playing nearly 33 minutes per game. Fredette isn't the only player who plays efficient offense on the Cougars, though. Brandon Davies, Noah Hartsock and especially Jackson Emery are all low-turnover supporting players that have helped BYU become the second-least turnover-prone team in the nation through 15 games.

You know what that means? Strength versus strength. UNLV forces its opponents to cough up the ball; BYU is great at not wasting possessions on steals or turnovers. If you're BYU, you have to like your chances. UNLV's defense isn't great when teams maintain possession; the Rebels aren't a particularly good rebounding team, and the same physical style that yields so many turnovers also yields plenty of free throws for their opposition.

Simple enough, then: All BYU has to do to get efficient scoring chances Wednesday is what BYU always does. The Cougars have to hold on to the ball. OK, so maybe it's not that simple. But in a tough road game with the MWC conference title already on the line, it's a pretty good place to start.

No. 22 Memphis at Tennessee, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2: Bruce Pearl is not happy with his team's defense, as he told The Associated Press earlier this week:
Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl says only players who are committed to defense will see playing time as the Volunteers prepare for No. 21 Memphis and the start of the Southeastern Conference season. The Vols (9-4) are in a tailspin, having lost four of their last six games because of increasingly poor defense.

"We made it worse on ourselves by losing confidence in ourselves and each other," Pearl said Monday. "You put it all together and you put yourself in a bit of a spin."

It's an understandable frustration -- the Volunteers aren't exactly lighting it up on the defensive end, that's for sure -- but it's not even the biggest problem with this Tennessee team. No, the Vols' biggest bugaboo is that they just can't shoot.

Tennessee is 30.3 from beyond the arc this season, which ranks them No. 283 in Division I. They're a bit better when they take the ball inside, but not so much better that they can make up for that paltry mark from 3-point range. Combine those shooting woes with a very mediocre turnover rate (20.5 percent), and the Volunteers, even as they struggle to stop the likes of Charlotte, Oakland, and Charleston, are also seeing their own offensive productivity spiral into decline.

In other words, Pearl's right to preach defense, because the Vols' defense needs work, too. But there are larger issues plaguing this once-promising team, and as Pearl prepares to begin his eight-game SEC suspension, there are few quick fixes to be had.

As for Memphis, well, don't let that No. 22 ranking fool you. The Tigers haven't been much better on a per-possession basis than the Vols' lately, nor have they beaten a single quality team all season. This game is always fun thanks to the rivalry and the atmosphere and all the things that come with it. But strip away all the exterior stuff, and you get two teams going through a host of struggles.

Everywhere else: UAB coach Mike Davis will try to recreate the magic of his 2001 Indiana runner-up run -- when Davis' Hoosiers upset a loaded No. 1 Duke team in the Sweet 16 -- tonight at Cameron Indoor. Is A.J. Moye available? ... The Boilermakers will look to continue their impressive Big Ten start with a win at Penn State. ... San Diego State opens its MWC slate with a road trip at TCU. ... Seton Hall is at Louisville. ... Boston College will attempt to ask Harvard how it likes them apples, and I will promise to never make such a lame "Good Will Hunting" reference again. ... Charlotte, winners of four straight, will try to keep the momentum going at Richmond. ... Temple is on the road at Fordham. ... Drexel and VCU have a big CAA match up ahead, perhaps the best mid-major game of the night. ... and Michigan will try to hold off Wisconsin's powerfully efficient (and dreadfully slow) swing offense in Madison.