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Wednesday, November 21, 2012
Saddle Up: As NIT begins, Maui ends

By Eamonn Brennan

Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action. It hopes you very much enjoy reuniting with your real best friends from high school tonight, even if that also means a few awkward interactions with people you thought you'd never see again. Thanksgiving!

MAUI INVITATIONAL

Butler vs. Illinois, 10 p.m. ET (ESPN): I'm going to go ahead and bet that when you looked at the Maui Invitational bracket before the tournament began, you did not anticipate this final. Come on. Be honest. You had no idea.

Illinois was at least plausible. We didn't really know what we were going to get from Texas and USC (what we got was downright abominable, and may we never speak of it again) and surely Chaminade was a non-factor (heh). Illinois, meanwhile, retained the veteran backcourt of Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson, and had some talented guys left over from a team that basically just quit on Bruce Weber last season, and maybe a new energetic coach and a new system was just what the doctor ordered. So far, that appears to be exactly the case.

Butler, on the other hand, was bracketed in a minefield. First was Marquette, a talented and well-coached team. The Bulldogs, in typical Butler style, won that game in the most astonishing of ways (Rotnei Clarke's one-handed buzzer-beating prayer). Then, on Tuesday night, they absolutely took the stuffing out of a young, in-over-its-head North Carolina team. As usual, Butler coach Brad Stevens took away his opponent's strength -- he had his defense back and ready before UNC could ever run the break -- and when the Tar Heels didn't guard Clarke and sweet-shooting freshman Kellen Dunham, it was game over.

So what should we expect tonight? Based on the past two days, a Butler win. Stevens' team looks very little like the one that was held to 47 points at Xavier during the Tip-Off Marathon, or the offense-averse group of 2011-12. Rather, this team more closely resembles the teams that made Stevens famous -- offensively capable, dangerous from range, fundamental in every sense, with the defense and smarts to take away the exact things you prefer to do most.

We'll see if an apparently resurgent -- but still green -- Illini bunch have a counter to the counterpunch tonight.

Other Maui finales: As bad as the losses to Chaminade and USC were, if Texas can't beat a completely decimated Mississippi State squad in the Maui's wooden spoon match, that will become the worst loss of its tournament. ... USC needed a 59-53 overtime effort to get past the aforementioned Longhorns, and was absolutely destroyed by Illinois in its tournament opener, so its last chance to get anything truly positive out of the trip to Hawaii is tonight's matchup with Marquette. ... and North Carolina will attempt to rebound from its bad Butler first half by (probably) destroying Chaminade.

NIT SEASON TIP-OFF

Pittsburgh vs. No. 4 Michigan, 9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2: This game is much, much better than you think, because Pittsburgh is, too.

Of course, it's hard to know what to make of Pittsburgh generally, for a couple of reasons. For one, the Panthers had a truly ugly season in 2011-12, when they finished 17-16 overall. Point guard Tray Woodall was hampered by injury, and Pitt's defense finished ranked No. 151 in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency (or, more simply, points allowed per possession). Although the Panthers are 4-0 and looking very solid -- Woodall is playing well, the offense is clicking, new faces (like highly touted freshman center Steven Adams) are contributing -- they've yet to notch a win that truly jumps off the page and grabs your attention. Lehigh and Oakland are solid mid-majors and all, but the Oakland Zoo is not impressed.

So, yes, as they did with Georgetown -- which beat UCLA and had people calling that an upset, even though Georgetown is by all rights a top-20 team -- a bunch of people are sleeping on Pittsburgh. This is a bad idea. Jamie Dixon, arguably the nation's most consistent coach until last season's aberrance, is going to fight back to his lofty mean. Take it to the bank.

The question is whether Pitt has enough to very loudly prove itself Wednesday night. It won't be easy, because this Michigan team -- which confounded the preseason projections and earned more than its fair share of questions -- is just straight smoking people. Sure, sure, the three wins to date aren't amazing in a vacuum. But the dominating manner by which Michigan has gotten them -- the control Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. are playing with, the sudden athleticism in this program, and the chemistry that is making John Beilein's life immensely easy -- all of that has made Michigan look nothing short of legit this season.

But all of these impressions could change tomorrow night. That's where we are right now in the college hoops calendar -- we, like so many of its teams, are merely feeling things out.

Other NIT Season Tip-Off semifinal: Give credit to the NIT. Most other November tournaments make a farce of play-in games, guaranteeing the TV draw a spot in the final bracket no matter what happens beforehand. Not this one. The Virginia Cavaliers was supposed to go to Madison Square Garden, but the Delaware Blue Hens beat them in Charlottesville, so they get the not-at-all enviable task of taking on Kansas State's experienced guards and big, physical front line. No thanks.