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Thursday, February 25, 2010
Saddle Up: Hey, a nonconference game!

By Eamonn Brennan

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

Tulsa at No. 5 Duke, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2: Hey, Dad, I can't see real good. Is that -- waves glasses up and down face -- is that a nonconference game I see over there? Why, yes, Matt Foley, it is: Those of you who thought we were done with any and all nonconference fun until the NCAA tournament were wrong. Instead, Tulsa will head to Cameron Indoor Stadium tonight to play Duke. Why does this game exist? Two reasons: 1) Because Coach K wanted a late-season nonconference game to help prepare his team for the NCAA tournament, and 2) because Tulsa coach Doug Wojcik wants his team to experience playing an elite team in a hostile road environment.

Both missions will be accomplished. The slightly disappointing Golden Hurricane will get their experience and a long-shot chance to do what no team has done this year (beat Duke at home) or in 77 tries (beat Duke at home in a nonconference game). Duke will put Tulsa through the meat grinder in the name of tournament preparation. Both parties will go home happy. The only way to change this status quo -- and maybe the only way for Tulsa to get in the tournament, with a big emphasis on the maybe (and barring the C-USA tournament, of course) -- is for it to pull off an shocker-of-the-season-level upset. But don't hold your breath.

South Carolina at No. 2 Kentucky, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2: The only reason Kentucky isn't, as of Feb. 25, sitting at 27-0 and dealing with writers like me trying to put into perspective how impressive that run is, and how likely the Cats are to finish a perfect season, and so on and so forth, is South Carolina. More specifically, Devan Downey. The diminutive guard and his cohorts dealt Kentucky its only loss of the season on Jan. 26. Of course, that game was in Columbia, where the Gamecocks are game. Away from home, South Carolina is an ugly 1-8, and tonight's match up requires Downey and company to play in front of 24,000 screaming Kentucky fans, a far cry from the last time these two faced off. That alone would lend to a blowout tonight; add in Kentucky's reborn focus in recent weeks and its likely desire to punish South Carolina for dealing John Wall and company that lone loss and, well, yeah. Things could get ugly.

Everywhere else: Mike Montgomery will hope Cal fans show up to tonight's game with Arizona, as the Bears can inch closer to their first conference title in 50 years. ... Santa Clara will go to Gonzaga for tonight's late West Coast showdown. ... Wisconsin travels to all-but-dead Indiana; for seeding purposes, the Badgers can't afford another letdown. ... Iowa-Northwestern is your early ESPN game, and don't try to hide your excitement, either. ... Georgia will look to climb back to .500 at Vanderbilt; good luck. ... and, this being Thursday night, there are a host of Pac-10 games that (other than Cal-Zona, I guess) don't mean a whole lot more than which team gets which seed in the Pac-10 tournament, when the real anarchic fun ought to begin.