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Monday, January 14, 2013
Saddle Up: Big Monday is back

By Eamonn Brennan


Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action.

No. 1 Louisville at Connecticut, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: You don't need me to tell you how good Louisville is. Anyone even passingly familiar with college basketball already knows. Since the start of the 2012 NCAA tournament in March, the Cardinals have pretty much constantly been the best defensive team in the country. That remains the case through 16 games this season. Louisville's defense has allowed just 0.81 points per trip thus far this season, the lowest mark in the country. The Cardinals are also particularly brutal to opponents on the perimeter, where they force the second-most steals per 100 possessions and the second-highest turnover rate in the country. Even if you spent the past eight months ignoring basketball (and if you did, I'm not sure we can be friends), you would know these things about Louisville.

What you might not know is that Louisville, so mediocre and drab even at its best on the offensive end last season, is now a top-20 offense. You also might not know that Russ Smith, who was essentially an endearing punch line last season, is now a real-deal candidate for national player of the year and arguably the country's best two-way force. You might not know that Louisville can go deeper on its bench than last season, that Peyton Siva has raised his 3-point shooting a level (he's at 38.6 percent this season, which makes it much harder for teams to play under those high ball screens) and that coach Rick Pitino apparently likes this team so much he wants it to start playing more like his legendary 1995-96 Kentucky team -- the one that sent seven players to the NBA.

You also might not know that winning at Connecticut will not be easy. The Huskies have been a bit under the radar since November, when they jumped Michigan State on the first night of the season, but they have yet to suffer a bad loss (New Mexico, NC State, at Marquette) and on Saturday took down a really good Notre Dame team in the Joyce Center, hardly an easy feat. If you had to make a pick in this game, you would pick Louisville, particularly because the Huskies are so reliant on guards Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright and Omar Calhoun, and teams that rely entirely on guard play can get shredded by Smith and Siva in a hurry. But coach Kevin Ollie has his team playing hard, and UConn will be tough to take down in Hartford.

Baylor at No. 4 Kansas, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: Kansas has been so good in recent seasons, and especially so good at home, that it is hard not to take one look around this season's down Big 12 and wonder why any KU home game shouldn't immediately be greeted with a yawn. Come on. Are any of these teams really taking down the Jayhawks in Lawrence?

That was how I felt before last week, anyway. Then I saw Iowa State play Kansas even for all 40 minutes, and I saw the Jayhawks need a last-second banked-in buzzer-beater from guard Ben McLemore, part of a 33-point performance that ranks among the best individual games in recent seasons. This weekend, I saw Kansas make just five first-half field goals and none in the final 11 minutes before halftime in a 60-46 waddle of a win at abysmal Texas Tech.

So, no: Even if we assume Kansas is the locked-in favorite to win the Big 12 -- duh -- we shouldn't go so far as to assume it is unbeatable, even if the rest of the league is mediocre. Iowa State proved that much already.

Besides, if there is a team to do it ... well, OK, that team is probably Oklahoma State. But Baylor isn't too far behind. The Bears have the benefit of a really focused and efficient senior leader at the point guard spot, Pierre Jackson, the kind of player who isn't the least bit intimidated by a harsh road environment. They also have 7-foot freshman center Isaiah Austin, who has been a solid if unspectacular (although occasionally really spectacular) presence in the middle of the floor. Austin's height gives the Bears at least something to contend with the usual size advantage Kansas center Jeff Withey maintains. Whether Austin can muscle up with the big fella (or whether any of Baylor's bigs, save the arguably too-short Ricardo Gathers, can) remains an open question. But at least Withey's height won't go unquestioned.

The biggest key for Baylor is, simply enough, defense. The Bears can put points on the board, but when they struggle it's because they let themselves get in these semi-lazy defensive phases in which they're just as happy to grab the ball out of the rim and get back down the court. That might work against bad teams or at home, but in Allen Fieldhouse, all it takes is one surge of scoring to put you away for good. We'll see whether the Bears can muster something more befitting the occasion.