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Tuesday, January 26, 2010
Saddle Up: Kentucky defends the throne

By Eamonn Brennan

Saddle Up is our nightly preview of the hoops your TV wants you to watch. Here's Tuesday night's rundown.

No. 1 Kentucky at South Carolina, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: Only four players in the country use more of their team's possessions than South Carolina star Devan Downey. DeMarcus Cousins is one of them. But where Cousins probably takes a few too many shots in Kentucky's offense -- John Wall and Eric Bledsoe are standing right there, DeMarcus -- the Gamecocks rely on Downey's production much the same way as Ohio State relies on Evan Turner. Perhaps even more. The question is whether Downey's gaudy offensive production is enough to stand up to a Kentucky team that is better than South Carolina in literally every way. The Gamecocks are especially vulnerable when the ball hits their own rim; they rank 339th in the country at preventing opposing offensive rebounds. Here's where it gets worse: Thanks to Cousins' prodigious rebounding ability, Kentucky ranks No. 1 in the country in grabbing their own misses. This smells like disaster. If the Gamecocks can keep Kentucky off the glass even occasionally, and thus give Downey a chance to go at Kentucky's defense on the other end, maybe South Carolina can hang with a Kentucky team that has had trouble putting away inferior opponents in the past. But if not -- if Cousins works as freely on the glass as the numbers suggest -- South Carolina has no shot. No matter how good Downey is.

In any case, tonight is Kentucky's first game as the No. 1 team in the country. Will that affect the Cats' play? Will it matter at all? This is not a team unused to hype, so I'm betting no ... but it's worth some attention all the same.

No. 5 Michigan State at Michigan, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: Can Michigan get a reschedule? This is really not a good time. Manny Harris is coming off a suspension. The Wolverines are still desperately looking for leadership. And John Beilein is saying things like this: "It's almost like the old-time days in the mid-majors. You got to go on a big string at the end of the year or you have to peak at tournament time and win the tournament. Those are our two options right now." Meanwhile, Michigan State is playing its best basketball of the season, or at least coming off its most emotional win, a come-from-behind last-second win at Minnesota on Saturday, the kind of win Tom Izzo teams always seem to get right before they figure things out and tear through the second half of their season. There are a lot of ancillary factors for Michigan at work here, and none of them look particularly positive.

No. 12 Kansas State at Baylor, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN360: Fire up the laptops; this is tonight's best game. Baylor nearly beat Kansas at the Phog last week. Kansas State toppled Texas before dropping a home game to Oklahoma State on Saturday. So K-State is vulnerable, and Baylor is at home. This has the makings of a close one. Baylor's key? Keep the Wildcats off the free throw line, which they go to more than any other team in the country. K-State's key? Get to the free throw line (naturally), and also keep Baylor's perimeter shooting (the Bears make 40 percent of their threes and 53.3 percent of their twos) under wraps.

Everywhere else: West Virginia visits a DePaul team that's playing slightly better since interim coach Tracey Webster took over ... Clemson will take on Boston College in Boston on ESPN2 ... Maryland will attempt to preserve their hot ACC start (Gary Williams' team is playing the best offense in the conference thus far) against a cupcake-bloated Miami (FL) team in College Park ... North Carolina State has been better than expected and North Carolina has been far worse; which wins out when the Heels head to Raleigh? ... Seattle will visit Washington with its secret weapon, former Washington juco recruit Charles Garcia in tow; check out Diamond's post about Garcia, who uses more of his team's possessions than any other player in the country, here.