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Monday, February 18, 2013
Saddle Up: Big (Weird) Monday

By Eamonn Brennan

Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action. It thinks that if there were an Emmy for "iciest performance in a supporting role," Robin Wright would have the thing sewed up already.

No. 21 Notre Dame at No. 16 Pittsburgh, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN

Notre Dame and Pittsburgh are both strange teams.

A statement like that requires explanation. Allow me to try.

Maybe Pittsburgh isn't strange so much as confusing, but either way the Panthers have been one of the toughest teams to appraise from November on. Beloved by tempo-free types in the preseason, Pittsburgh's tissue-soft nonconference schedule prevented us from getting a really good look at a largely rebuilt team for all of November and December. The one good opponent Pittsburgh played, Michigan, held off the Panthers 67-62 in Madison Square Garden; other than that there was very little to recommend the Panthers … other than their numbers. In mid-December, as they pummeled Detroit (good), Duquesne (not good) and North Florida (likewise), the Panthers began climbing in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings -- from No. 22 (preseason) to No. 14 (Michigan) to No. 7 (Bethune Cookman) to No. 5 (Kennesaw State). That combination of tidy efficiency stats and unheralded stature made for a classic sleeper, someone people like me must forewarn you about, great soothsayers though we are.

And then the Panthers lost at home to Cincinnati and at Rutgers, beat a then-struggling Georgetown team handily in D.C. but turned around and lost to Marquette in overtime at home. Not knowing much about Georgetown and Marquette to that point -- and knowing only that Rutgers was bad -- it was easy to write off the Panthers. Since then, they've won seven of their past nine games, with one loss coming by three points at Louisville, one win coming over Syracuse. The latest loss came at Marquette on Saturday, a 10-point defeat that was never really that close in the second half. On Sunday evening, Pittsburgh had risen to No. 4 in Pomeroy's rankings.

All of which is to say: The Panthers are pretty clearly not the fourth-best team in the country. (The BPI ranks them No. 13; last week's AP poll had them at No. 16.) Are they still better than we all think? Almost certainly yes. And even with that knowledge I can't quite seem to put my finger on them. Every time they look like they're wedging themselves into the top 10, they come up with another way to throw everyone off the scent. They remain elusive.

Notre Dame, on the other hand, is straightforward, and that straightforwardness is what's so weird. To wit: As of Sunday night, Notre Dame had actually allowed more points per possession in conference play (1.084) than it has scored (1.071), and that latter mark is the third highest in Big East play. Some of that damage was done in a 71-54 loss at Providence Saturday, but hardly all of it. Don't be confused by its slow pace. Notre Dame's defense isn't even one of the best 150 units in the country. The only Big East team guarding its league foes worse is DePaul.

The fact that the Irish have defended that poorly for much of the season, are still 20-6 and a No. 6 seed in Joe Lunardi's weekend bracket is, for whatever else you want to call it -- lucky, or the product of game-ending savvy, or par for the course for a team with Garrick Sherman's overtime performance as its season highlight -- weird. And it's also why we enter this game assuming Pittsburgh's excellent offense and pretty good defense will be far too much for Notre Dame's excellent offense and dreadful defense.

Not that I would put anything on it. With these two teams, it seems you really never do know.

West Virginia at No. 10 Kansas State, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN

How can you tell TV schedules are created in the preseason? When a "GameDay" Saturday night in any way involving Texas is immediately followed by a Big Monday featuring West Virginia. If there's a sunny side to this equation, it's that we get to take at least a brief moment to check back in on the Mountaineers, having one of the downright worst seasons in recent Bob Huggins history.

Why? Shooting. At least, it used to be shooting. On the season, thanks to a lot of new faces (Juwan Staten, Aaric Murray chief among them) who have simultaneously played some of the uglier offense in the country, West Virginia's field goal percentage numbers -- 31.6 percent from 3, 44.8 percent from 2 -- are both among the worst 100 teams in the sport. But lo and behold, WVU's offense has started making some of those 3s; in 12 Big 12 games, it has shot 37.1 percent. That, combined with good offensive rebounding and physical interior play, and a defense that forces the most turnovers per trip in the league, has allowed West Virginia to beat -- wait for it -- only Texas-based Big 12 teams and none of the others.

No joke. Other than Baylor, every time WVU has played a team from Texas in conference play, it has won. Every time it has played a non-Lone Star State squad, it has lost. I'm pretty sure that doesn't mean anything (other than that the Texas teams are not good this season), but it's a quirky statistic, and the entire picture probably masks a team that is still improving, that plays decent enough defense to give certain teams problems, and that is at least appearing to shoot the ball a bit better from the perimeter. Baby steps.

None of these things should affect Kansas State all that much Monday night in Manhattan. The Wildcats have some of the most daunting size (Jordan Henriquez, Adrian Diaz, Thomas Gipson) in the country to fend off those bruising WVU bigs, and unlike the Mountaineers they actually have a go-to scorer on the perimeter in Rodney McGruder. Despite the big prime-time stage, this should be a businesslike evening for K-State and its fans.