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Wednesday, January 30, 2013
Saddle Up: Is Villanova real?

By Eamonn Brennan

Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action. It's real, it's real, it's really, really real ...

Villanova at Notre Dame, 6 p.m. ET

On a night that features a lot of pretty good games, but no truly great ones, this might be the most intriguing of them all. Why? You already know: Last week, Villanova became the first unranked team to knock off two top-five squads in the same seven-day span since 2001 (when Ball State did it in Maui). The Wildcats beat Louisville and Syracuse in the span of just four days, got themselves into Joe Lunardi's latest Bracketology, and have forced us to seriously ask the question: Is Villanova good?

Let's put it a different way: Villanova isn't bad. The Wildcats' worst defeats all came in November, and other than a Nov. 20 home loss to the Columbia Fightin' Journalism Reviews, none of them (Alabama, La Salle in OT, Temple, at Syracuse, at Pitt, and 69-66 at Providence) are all that bad. Villanova does two things well. The first is defense; they've allowed .953 points per possession in Big East play, fourth-stingiest in the conference. The second is getting to the foul line: Over the entire season, no team has shot more free throws as a percentage (52.0) of field goal attempts than have the Wildcats.

Some of that percentage, unfortunately, has to do with turnovers. Wright's team also coughs the ball up at one of the nation's highest rates (23.3 percent), which has only gotten worse (24.6 percent) since the start of conference season. Pretty much everyone in Nova's rotation struggles with turnovers, but freshman point guard Ryan Arcidiacono -- the last-second hero of the Syracuse upset -- is a particular offender, as is reserve guard Tony Chennault.

Last week, that flaw didn't matter against Louisville (who scored just .85 ppg against Nova's defense) or Syracuse (where the Wildcats somehow turned the ball over just 10.4 percent of the time). Will it matter against Notre Dame? Almost certainly not: Notre Dame ranks 329th in turnovers forced. Their defense is the second-worst in Big East play, which is why -- despite a stellar offense and POY-level performances from Jack Cooley, the country's best rebounder -- the Irish are just 4-3 in the league.

Villanova clearly has the ability to knock off top teams, albeit in very different ways. Seeing whether they can do it on the road —--and whether last week was a fluke, or the start of something more -- will be fascinating.

No. 3 Indiana at Purdue, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2

One day soon, this rivalry's timing will finally work out.

Think about it: Over the past five years, Purdue has undoubtedly been the better program. Matt Painter inherited the job, built the Boilermakers into a consistent Big Ten force that, were it not for Robbie Hummel's bad luck, may have won a national title. All that time Indiana was either crumbling into the Kelvin Sampson crater or rebuilding from scratch under Tom Crean; it's easy to forget that IU finished with 12 wins just two seasons ago. You know the rest of the story: Cody Zeller commits, Christian Watford hits that shot, IU wins 27 games, and return in 2012-13 as one of three or four obvious national title contenders.

Now, of course, it's Purdue's turn to rebuild. It's been a long time since we've seen a Purdue/Indiana rivalry game -- one of the two or three best rivalries in the sport -- with both teams at the height of their powers. Knowing Painter and Crean, that's likely to happen sooner rather than later. But it's not the case right now.

Of course, that doesn't tell us a whole lot about this 40-minute basketball contest. For one, it's a tense rivalry, but more than that the better team is playing on the road in a hostile environment against a Boilermakers team that can really defend. Indeed, Purdue's defense is a top-40 unit thus far this season per KenPom.com's adjusted efficiency metrics, and they play especially well at home: With the exception of Ohio State, Painter's team has yet to allow an opponent to score more than a point per trip in Mackey Arena all season. The Boilermakers may be young (7-foot center A.J. Hammons looks especially promising), and they may be hard to watch on the offensive end (I never thought I'd see so many D.J. Byrd 3s), but they are not easy to beat in their own building. You'd better believe Indiana knows it, too.

Elsewhere: No. 10 Oregon is at Stanford, which has really struggled out of the gate in Pac-12 play (the Cardinal is just 3-4) but which, like Purdue, will hardly be a cakewalk on its own floor. … No. 5 Duke travels to an improved-but-still-bad Wake Forest, where fans cheering for the ouster of Jeff Bzdelik will once again find themselves conflicted by rooting for their own team. … The continuously impressive Miami Hurricanes go to Blacksburg, Va., where they'll have to stop college basketball's leading scorer, Erick Green. … Big bubble game for Iowa State at Oklahoma State. … Oklahoma is at Baylor. … No. 17 Missouri has a slightly disconcerting road challenge at LSU.Dayton is at Xavier for a huge, huge A-10 rivalry game (at least to Dayton and Xavier fans, that is). … and No. 20 New Mexico has to brave the thin air of Laramie, Wyo., in a road game against the Cowboys tonight. That should be a good one.