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Tuesday, January 31, 2012
Saddle Up: A Super Tuesday buffet

By Eamonn Brennan

Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action. It stayed up late working on Bubble Watch last night. If it could have any one superpower, it would be the power to never feel tired. Or maybe flight. Flight would be cool, too.

No. 10 Michigan State at Illinois, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: It's the same old story for Illinois -- if this team scores, it has a chance to beat anyone. It if doesn't, it will struggle.

I know, I know. This is profoundly simple analysis. But it's really all that is required. The Illini have been a good defensive team this season. They prevent easy looks, they don't foul a lot and they rebound on their own end of the floor. In those respects, this team has been a success for Bruce Weber. The Illini had lost something defensively in recent seasons, and it appears that loss was due largely to personnel. With this younger group, Weber has proved the baseline expectation for his teams -- play fundamentally solid man-to-man defense -- is still applicable.

But this team cannot just put points on the board. January 10's explosion against Ohio State, when the previously inefficient Brandon Paul made 8-of-10 from 3-point range and scored 43 points, could have gone one of two ways. It could have been a harbinger, however exaggerated, of some improvement to come. Or it was an outlier, a random blip in an otherwise uninspiring offensive campaign.

Turns out, it was the latter. Since that win, Illinois has gone 0-3 in its past three Big Ten games (at Penn State, versus Wisconsin, at Minnesota), failing to score even a point per possession in each. Through eight Big Ten games, the Illini are averaging .98 points per trip. When you consider they scored 1.2 ppp in the Ohio State win, well, you get the picture: In every non-OSU conference game this season, Illinois has been offensively atrocious. By this point in the season, it appears this is who they are.

The question, then, is whether Illinois has another Ohio State game in its back pocket. Michigan State isn't Ohio State, not quite, but the Spartans are awfully close. They rank in the top 10 in the nation in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency, and they should be considered the favorite even on the road Tuesday night. In other words, the conditions that spurred Illinois's OSU win are present again: top-10 team comes to Champaign, the Orange Krush is out in force, the Illini see an opportunity for a major statement win and play up to the level of their opponent, and/or just go absolutely crazy on offense. Hey, it could happen.

The more you watch Illinois play, the more you realize the Ohio State game was a one-time deal. But that's OK. The Illini don't have to score like crazy to beat good teams like Michigan State at home. Simply put, they just have to score.

Kansas State at Iowa State, ESPN3, 9 p.m. ET: This is your sneaky-good game of the night. The biggest question here is can Iowa State maintain its momentum? Saturday's win over Kansas was, in a word, massive -- not just for this season and its NCAA tournament potential, but for the program's long-term rebuilding process. But can the Cyclones, just three days after what was surely an emotionally exhausting (in a good way, but still) Saturday and Sunday in Ames, bounce back quickly enough to drop another very solid Big 12 opponent in Hilton Coliseum?

To do so, forward Royce White will again have to lead the way, but he'll also need help from this team's less-touted perimeter players. Kansas State, despite its strange inability to beat Oklahoma, is still among the best defensive teams in this league, and one of the few with the size and interior strength to make White's life especially difficult. A Cyclones loss wouldn't undo the good vibes of Saturday's win. But a victory here would certainly accentuate them.

Seton Hall at No. 15 Marquette, ESPN3, 8 p.m. ET: Seton Hall is in danger. ("Grave danger? Is there any other kind?" Sorry, but it's obligatory.) The Pirates, who began the season in surprisingly promising nonconference fashion, were one of the neat little stories of December. They began Big East play with wins over West Virginia and Connecticut. Senior forward Herb Pope's roller coaster of a career appeared set to end on a high note; guard Jordan Theodore was a heartwarming success story in his own right. This team appeared destined for the NCAA tournament, and all was well in Newark.

Now? Things are looking shaky. The Pirates have lost their past four Big East games (South Florida, Villanova, Notre Dame and Louisville), and all of a sudden that 11-1 nonconference start looks due less to the Pirates' strengths than their schedule's weakness. Worse yet, tonight's game at Marquette is the start of a three-game road swing which will take them to Connecticut and Rutgers. There's a real chance this team could post a seven-game losing streak in the heart of its Big East schedule. If it wants to avoid that -- and stay bubble-relevant in the coming weeks, no less -- it would do well to find a way to upset the Golden Eagles. Easier said than done.

Everywhere else: Another sneaky-good game is Vanderbilt at Arkansas. The Razorbacks have been solid at home this season, and they could add another quality win to their résumé here, but Vanderbilt is playing its best basketball since the start of SEC play thanks to some surprising defensive prowess. This team is holding opponents to fewer than 40 percent shooting on its 2s, and that's the kind of stat that gives you a chance to win whether at home or on the road. Of course, John Jenkins and Jeffrey Taylor don't hurt, either. ... No. 20 Wisconsin will have to be wary of the dreaded Penn State-in-State College upset special, which the Nittany Lions have sprung on both Purdue and Illinois thus far this season. ... No. 6 North Carolina travels to Wake Forest. ... And Tennessee is likely in for a rough go in Rupp Arena.