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Tuesday, January 22, 2013
Saddle Up: Showdown in the Little Apple

By Eamonn Brennan

Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of tonight's best basketball action. It tried really hard to wedge a "Manhattan" reference in the headline, but it was a little too corny for its taste. 

No. 13 Michigan State at Wisconsin, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: Such are the perils of the Big Ten this season: Last week, Wisconsin went to Indiana, where it played and beat one of the best teams in the country in one of the toughest of college hoops environments. A few days later, Wisconsin went to Iowa. Carver-Hawkeye Arena is finally starting to find its full throat again after years of L.A.D. (Lickliter Affective Disorder), but it's still no Assembly Hall, and the Hawkeyes are no Indiana. And Wisconsin lost 70-66.

If anything, that should bring into full contrast just how impressive Wisconsin's win at Indiana was. It's not easy to win on the road anywhere or anytime, but in this year's Big Ten, it is especially difficult.

Fortunately for the Badgers, their travels are over, at least for the moment. Tonight's game is in the comfortable (and hopefully warm) confines of the Kohl Center, where of late Wisconsin has been as tough as ever to beat. At this point, we know what we're going to get. The Badgers will seek to control the pace, extend shot clocks as long as possible, mostly eschew offensive rebounds in favor of transition defense, and work extremely hard to keep the Spartans off the defensive glass. Both teams clean up their own rebounds well. The Spartans have grabbed 75 percent of available defensive rebounds in Big Ten play; Wisconsin pulls down 73.3.

In the end, the difference may be turnovers. Wisconsin commits the fewest turnovers per possession of any team in the country. Michigan State has committed 21.1 for every 100 turnovers this season, and while that number was goosed by early struggles and has come down of late, in Big Ten play Michigan State coughs it up 17.3 percent of the time. In the Kohl Center, against the inscrutable Badgers, MSU can't afford those miscues.

No. 3 Kansas at No. 11 Kansas State, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN: As good as that first game is, this is the real marquee matchup of the night. You probably don't need me to explain why, but just in case, you can start with the fact Kansas is 16-1 (its only loss coming to Michigan State) and undefeated in Big 12 play. Kansas State is 15-2 (its only losses coming to Michigan and Gonzaga, and with a win against Florida mixed in for good measure) and undefeated in Big 12 play.

But this goes deeper than a matchup of two good teams. For most of the season -- OK, for most of the past few years -- we've come to accept Kansas as the only correct answer to the question: "Who will win the Big 12?" And why not? The Jayhawks have, after all, won (outright or shared) eight straight Big 12 titles; it's gotten to the point that you don't even need to look at Kansas' roster in October, because even if you don't really know how Kansas is going to be good, you should remember that they are going to be good, pretty much no matter what. Attempting to poke holes in this theory is folly.

But that doesn't mean Kansas is unbeatable in January, February and March. Far from it. This month alone, we've seen the Jayhawks pushed to the limit at home by Temple and then Iowa State (when they needed a sublime performance from star Ben McLemore to escape with a win). Just this weekend, we saw Kansas really battle to break away from a sub-.500 Texas team (albeit one that really defends) in Austin. The Jayhawks have held on each time, but none of those challenges will come close to what they meet tonight in Bramlage Coliseum, aka the Octagon of Doom.

That's another reason why this game is so big, of course: the fans. Particularly Kansas State fans, and especially the rivalry Kansas and K-State have formed in recent seasons as the Wildcats have emerged as a basketball force. With Missouri gone to the SEC, and Tigers and Jayhawks partisans relegated to flaming each other in comment sections, Kansas-Kansas State might just be the next best thing. Bramlage certainly will be rocking tonight.

The question is whether K-State's usual combination -- defense, rebounding and atmosphere -- will be enough to take down the Jayhawks. It will require a herculean effort to stop McLemore, and with the exception of 6-foot-11 forward Jordan Henriquez and 6-foot-10 Adrian Diaz, K-State could struggle to match up -- or, of course, score over -- Kansas center Jeff Withey. In the end, Kansas State's best hope is on the offensive glass. The Wildcats don't shoot it all that well from inside the arc, outside the arc, or the free throw line. But when they're getting 40 percent-plus of their offensive rebounds, which they so often have this season, they can grind you into a pulp. If the Octagon doesn't do it first, that is.

Elsewhere: Louisville has to come back from Saturday's loss to Syracuse on the road at Villanova, which is never particularly fun. … If Iowa can win at Ohio State, the Hawkeyes can officially be considered a tournament team. … Pittsburgh goes to Providence, and a few weeks ago I would have taken the Panthers in a rout. Based on how they've been playing in the Big East? I'm not so sure. ... Illinois has a chance to halt its downward spiral -- or plunge fully like Alice, never once considering how in the world they are to start making threes again -- at Nebraska. … And finally, given the weakness of the SEC, even at this stage of the season, Kentucky doesn't have many more chances to impress the NCAA selection committee. Winning at Alabama tonight couldn't hurt.