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Monday, February 11, 2013
Saddle Up: Can Kansas figure it out?

By Eamonn Brennan

Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action. It was really weirded out by Taylor Swift.

No. 24 Marquette at No. 20 Georgetown, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN

This wasn't supposed to be a vintage year in the Big East. Vintage, in this usage, is basically synonymous with "brutal"; it harkens to 2009, when the league dominated the landscape for months, staged an utterly awesome Big East tournament, and placed three No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament bracket. This wasn't supposed to be that year. This year, the Big East was supposed to be tame.

In some ways, that's true; this league isn't going to be placing three teams on the top seed line come mid-March, that's for sure. But in other ways, the Big East has been much better than anyone expected. Alongside Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, Marquette and Georgetown are the reasons why.

This is primarily because while both teams lost veterans, they've both managed to stay not only relevant but dangerous. Georgetown waved farewell to brilliant passer Henry Sims and fellow senior Jason Clark; Marquette bid adieu to not one but two Big East player of the year candidates in Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom. Both teams were expected to fall off, at least slightly. Instead, both are in the Top 25, and both are playing the type of high-quality basketball that should provide for a fascinating game tonight.

That's because that basketball poses a battle of strengths. Marquette is an offensive team. The Golden Eagles aren't as fast as they were a year ago, but they're playing the most efficient offense in the Big East to date, making 52 percent of their 2s and scoring 1.09 points per trip. Center Davante Gardner in particular has been a revelation. The spread-perimeter offense of a year ago has been rebuilt around the big fella. Georgetown, meanwhile, has frequently played some of the ugliest offense you'll ever see, but they back it up with the type of stifling athletic D that keeps them in games all the season. Forward Otto Porter might be the ideal Georgetown player under John Thompson III; he does everything well.

Whatever the outcome, it is important to recognize that these teams, along with a still-underrated Pitt and a steady Cincinnati have formed a really nice second-tier group in the putatively "down" Big East. It's not all about Louisville and Syracuse anymore.

No. 13 Kansas State at No. 5 Kansas, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN

I am not a grizzled veteran of this college hoops writing game. I am actually still kind of young, to the point where there has never been a point in my career wherein I didn't, at least on some level, take Bill Self's Kansas teams for granted.

Last year was the real wake-up call: That's when Self coached his eighth straight KU team to at least a share of the Big 12 title, a streak unmatched not only in other "power six" conferences but in every other college hoops league full stop. The Big 12 is a good league! It has had a lot of pros -- Kevin Durant, Michael Beasley, Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge, Acie Law, Tristan Thompson, James Anderson, Tony Allen, D.J Augustin -- stop by during Self's tenure. And every year Self has won.

That's why it has been so baffling to see these current Jayhawks struggle so mightily. Let's keep it in perspective. In this case, struggling mightily means losing three games in a row, one of which came to a good team at home, one of which came to a good team on the road, while the one in the middle, the loss at TCU, was the product of the worst offensive performance in the history of Kansas basketball. (With the possible exception of Dr. James Naismith's early games against the Topeka YMCA, according to Self's hilarious postgame news conference). Most coaches at most programs see three losses as the occasional unfortunate cost of doing business. At Kansas under Self, three straight losses is cause for a full-fledged existential meltdown.

Is it really that bad? I actually don't think so. Yes, the Jayhawks have had their struggles on the offensive end, and senior guard Elijah Johnson is in a major shooting slump, one that seems to have caused a crisis of confidence. But as SI's Luke Winn pointed out last week, Johnson always slumps this time of year before turning it on in the spring. He'll probably be fine. The offense was atrocious when it played against Kansas State in January, but that felt like more of an aberration than anything else.

If anything, the biggest cause for concern is on the defensive end. The Jayhawks scored 1.11 PPP against Oklahoma State and 1.0 against Oklahoma; they allowed 1.18 to the Cowboys and 1.09 to the Sooners. That's the bigger problem. The Kansas defense is always been its biggest strength this season, and if it suddenly becomes porous for any reason, the Jayhawks suddenly become -- gasp -- vulnerable.

That's why you can't consider a win at Allen Fieldhouse automatic against Kansas State. The Wildcats defend and rebound and grind with the best of them, but in Big 12 play they've actually been the league's best offense, scoring 1.09 points per trip. Bruce Weber goes deep into his bench and spreads minutes around, and all the pieces -- Angel Rodriguez's perimeter ballhandling, Rodney McGruder's scoring, Thomas Gipson and Jordan Henriquez's interior strength -- fit together. You watch K-State play long enough and you start to think of them as a strictly defensive team, but they can really score. And if Kansas wants to avoid a fourth straight loss, and a real statewide freakout, it will have to stop that offense Monday night.

It's going to be a good one.

Elsewhere: I wonder if TCU and Oklahoma are going to get together before the game and swap stories about beating Kansas. Maybe they can make a burn book or something. … The CAA and MAAC are in action, but the real team to keep an eye on is Weber State. Even with former point guard Damian Lillard tearing it up for the Portland Trail Blazers, Weber State is actually better. Does the Ewing Theory apply to the NBA draft?