College Basketball Nation: Mississippi

Ole Miss students are hilarious

February, 25, 2010
Of all the new mascot submissions Ole Miss officials prepared themselves for, I'm betting they didn't expect a serious challenge from a little-known Star Wars character. And yet, here he is.

Do you know Admiral Ackbar? Even if you like Star Wars, you might not; it's not like Ackbar is Chewbacca or R2. The fishy character is best known for his famous "It's a trap!" line from "Star Wars Episode VI: Return Of The Jedi," a line that's managed to become something of an Internet meme in recent years, culminating with appearances on "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" earlier this month.

Which is where Ole Miss students come in. After Mississippi officials decided to officially do away with the controversial Colonel Reb and search for a new mascot, students voted on the mascot they'd most like to see take Reb's place. The winner? Admiral Ackbar. High five, Ole Miss students. You guys win. Too funny.

Of course, not unlike Luke Skywalker's journey from desert peon to (spoiler alert!) savior of the Galaxy, the good Admiral's path to mascotdom is fraught with challenges:
Officials say there's virtually no chance the fish-faced leader of the Rebel Alliance in the movie could become the on-field mascot for the Rebels of Ole Miss. The Associated Student Body president dismisses it as "comic relief."

And, of course, there's that whole "using a licensed character for profit motives" thing that probably isn't going to fly with George Lucas' army of Sith lawyers. Still, though, a rogue faction exists. They are small. They are young. They are taking on an institutional Empire of legal prohibitions and stuffy old men in tweed jackets. Their goal, however, is noble, and that is the only thing that matters. I feel like I've heard this story before.

Ole Miss students, you rakish devils. May the Force be with you.

Afternoon Linkage: Get tourney-ready

February, 24, 2010
  • When I went to Indianapolis to do the mock selection committee jig a couple of weeks ago, at least one of you asked to see the NCAA's "team sheets" -- the lists of information about each team given to the selection committee upon request in the committee room. Trust me when I say they're not all that cool. It's just a list of RPI wins, strength of schedule, opponents' strength of schedule, and the like, organized in a format that takes at least an hour to get used to. In any case, if you want to see what one such sheet looks like, Crashing The Dance has an awfully close reproduction. Even the colors are similar.
  • That link comes via Yet Another Basketball Blog, which runs through a bit of quasi-bubble talk before launching into a solid defense of the committee's selection process.
  • Kansas' Sherron Collins is nine wins away from tying Shane Battier's all-time NCAA record for wins in a career. But will Kansas get those nine wins? It has three more regular-season games -- which, if it runs the table, would complete a perfect conference season -- as well as the Big 12 tournament and the NCAA. Provided Kansas handles business in the conference and doesn't get upset early in the tournament, Battier's record is entirely within reach.
  • Buster Sports' Chip Patterson unveils a model he used to rank the watchability of conference tournaments based on pace and potential for drama. The Big East is the most likely place to catch tight, overtime-ready basketball, while the SEC and the Big 12 will feature the most teams willing to get out and run. But what about those of us who are going to try to watch every conference tournament game at the same time, like Ozymandias in his TV lair? Your results may vary.
  • Josh Pastner isn't maintaining any illusions about Memphis' chances of snatching an at-large bid: "We control our own destiny, and that means you have to win games. If we do our job by winning games we'll be in the tournament," Pastner said. "I don't play mind games. I'm not a psychologist, I'm a coach. I'm very honest with our players, and that's the truth. Our backs are against the wall, and our margin of error is slim-to-none. They know it, they understand it."
  • CBS' Gary Parrish jumps on the Jim Calhoun bandwagon, in so far as that bandwagon exists, saying the school should give Calhoun a "lifetime contract" as soon as Calhoun can give them a doctor's note clearing the man of the health issues that have plagued his last two seasons with the team. Hey, why mess with success?
  • Ole Miss is going to search for a new mascot to replace the ever-controversial Colonel Reb. Might I suggest Nightmare Ant?
  • When is an injury to your starting point guard good thing? When you're Texas coach Rick Barnes, and you can't seem to figure out your rotation. The injury to Dogus Balbay could, according to Rush The Court, end up being a positive, because whoever Barnes chooses to replace Balbay will "have the luxury of knowing that his minutes will likely increase and he’s not going to be yanked for one poor decision." Of course, Barnes actually has to choose one of his replacements first. Meanwhile, BIAH isn't convinced by the sunny side.
  • Georgia Tech uber-frosh Derrick Favors is doing his best to stay grounded in Atlanta. How does he do this? By ignoring ESPN, opting for cartoons instead: "He always tells me, ‘Man, cartoons are the only thing that keeps it real nowadays,'" said Tech freshman and fellow suitemate Brian Oliver. "If they say something he doesn't like [on ESPN], he'll say ‘See, I told you. You watch Tom and Jerry, it'll be all right.'" Favors might also spend a little more time studying the game; he's been good this year, especially on the glass, but he hasn't been spectacular, as was promised. Meanwhile, his team has lost four of its last five, has dropped out of the Top 25, and is limping its way toward the NCAA tournament. Hype should be the furthest thing from Derrick's mind, no?
  • Yeah, Steve Alford is feeling the love in New Mexico. The next question: When does Alford start getting other offers? And will he listen?
  • Some requisite ESPN link love: New Forde minutes! Katz on refs and coaches! O'Neil on redemption! Collect all three!
As always, follow me on Twitter to send me links and tips.
Saturday was not a good day for Colonel Reb. Nor, come to think of it, for Andy Kennedy.

At 5-6 in the SEC and 17-8 overall, Ole Miss was already teetering on the bubble before its matchup with Florida in Oxford, Miss. Then, bad things happened: Ole Miss dropped a 64-61 nail-biter to a thoroughly mediocre Florida team at home, pushing the Rebels to 5-7 in the SEC and officially off the NCAA tournament bubble. The last time Ole Miss made the tournament was in 2002, and barring an unlikely run through the SEC tournament, the loss means the Rebels will extend that NCAA tournament drought -- the longest ongoing tourney drought in the SEC -- into next season.

Ouch. Double ouch, actually, considering Ole Miss was a top-25 team to begin the season, and some saw them as a sleeper favorite to win the SEC. At the very least, the talented Rebels were to be more competitive than ever, finally breaking through in Kennedy's fourth year with the program. The program's rebuilding process has been steady if not spectacular (until Kennedy's late-night run-in with a Cincinnati cab driver), and injuries plagued Kennedy's teams in prior years. But the injury bug stayed away this year. The Rebels have few conditional issues to blame for this year's collapse, which comprises seven losses in Ole Miss' last 11 games.

Rebel fans can start counting the days to football season again. This was supposed to be the year. Unless something crazy happens, it won't be.

Saddle Up: Big night in the Big East

February, 18, 2010
Saddle Up is our nightly look at the hoops your TV wants you to watch. Here's Thursday night's rundown.

No. 5 Syracuse at No. 10 Georgetown, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2: Sunday, Syracuse lost to Louisville. Sunday, Georgetown lost to Rutgers. Do those losses in any way diminish what we're likely to see at the Verizon Center tonight? Not even in the slightest.

If we've learned anything this season, it's that even the best Big East teams are prone to the occasional disappointment. Syracuse can lose at home to a bubble team. Georgetown can go to Rutgers and lose to one of the worst major conference teams in the country. (Villanova can give up 103 points on the road. You get the point.) And then these teams can come right back and play thrilling, high-level, Final Four-quality basketball. It's only fair for us to expect that much tonight.

Syracuse and Georgetown might be the two teams most familiar to basketball watchers -- it feels like both have been on national TV twice a week for months now -- but for the sake of the February newbies, let's do some previewin'. Jim Boeheim's team thoroughly dominated Georgetown at the Carrier Dome on Jan. 25 for two reasons: Georgetown shot poorly and readily gave the ball away. The former is maybe a bit unlucky, as Georgetown typically posts a 56-plus effective field goal percentage. The latter is all Cuse. Georgetown tried desperately to break into Syracuse's zone, and this led to 19 turnovers and a 28 percent turnover rate. Georgetown couldn't stop Syracuse on its own end, so those blown possessions were especially disastrous, and Syracuse rolled to an easy win.

The answer is rather simple: If Georgetown wants to win, it needs to make perimeter shots -- sharpshooting guard Austin Freeman especially -- and use that to stretch Syracuse away from the hoop, where Greg Monroe can operate. Fortunately, the Hoyas have a tendency to turn up their offense at home. (See: "scorching-hot blowouts over Villanova and Duke" in your reference manual.) It's that simple: Make shots. Northwestern had it right all along.

No. 21 Pittsburgh at Marquette, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2: Fortunately for Marquette, in statistics, there are these things called "corrections." (I have no idea what any of this means, but I like to pretend I do.) The Golden Eagles have been putting up impressive tempo-free numbers all year, but suffered eight losses in their first 19 games thanks to a grand total of 25 points. When you throw out the nine-point loss at Wisconsin on Dec. 12, Marquette lost seven games by a grand total of 16 points. That is capital-U Unlucky.

Marquette is starting to show results, though: The Eagles have won their last five, and they have a chance to make a statement at home tonight against a Pittsburgh team that refuses to fade as the regular season winds down. At 18 points and 8 rebounds per game, Lazar Hayward is one of the best players in the Big East, and he's a lot like his team: You may not realize it, but there's a lot to like up in Milwaukee these days. Don't let that deceptively ugly record fool you.

Everywhere else: Wisconsin will travel to Minnesota, where the Badgers will find a 14-10 team so disappointing, they will get distracted and completely forget why they came. (OK, probably not. That would be weird.) ... Ole Miss will battle Vanderbilt for a tournament spot in Oxford ... and it's Thursday night, which means there's a bevy of Pac-10 games you can completely ignore. That might be foolish, though, because you never know. Maybe a second Pac-10 team sneaks in the tournament, and you have to figure out your bracket. Why be unprepared? That just seems reckless.

Final thoughts from Ole Miss-Kentucky

February, 2, 2010
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Quick reactions from Kentucky's 85-75 victory over Mississippi in Rupp Arena:
  • John Wall passed, shot, drove, defended -- and smiled. The freshman point guard, who said Saturday he wasn't having much fun lately, looked like his normal self against the Rebels. With Ole Miss unafraid to play a full-court game that suits Wall's strengths, he fluidly flew around Rupp while producing 17 points and seven assists.

  • "I'm happy again," Wall declared. "It feels good, hopefully (the mini-controversy) will go away now."

    Wall said the lesson learned from the past couple days of dithering about his comments was "just keep your mouth shut." But he also acknowledged he was trying too hard to live up to his considerable hype.
  • Coach John Calipari loved what he saw out of Wall Tuesday night.

  • "John Wall ran our team as well as he has all year," Calipari said.
  • The Rebels went with conventional wisdom and zoned the Wildcats, figuring the only way to test them offensively was to clog the lane and challenge John Calipari's crew to make 3-pointers.

  • Challenge answered. Kentucky made 9 of 19 3s.

    The past two games have showcased a developing weapon for Kentucky, shooting guard Darnell Dodson. With emphasis on shooting. Against Vanderbilt, Dodson got his first start since the season opener and responded with 16 points, hitting 4 of 8 3s. He started again tonight and was 4 of 5 from 3-point range, scoring 14 points in 16 minutes of playing time.

    If Dodson keeps shooting this way, the junior college transfer will be the antidote to the zone strategy.

    "Big," was Calipari's description of Dodson's contribution.
  • Junior Patrick Patterson was the only starter who predates Calipari. He had some nice contributions, including a couple of excellent defensive possessions, but his offensive output continues to decline as the newcomers assert themselves. Patterson had 12 points and six rebounds. His scoring average has decreased six straight games (from 16.7 to 15.1) and his rebounding average has decreased five straight (from 8.1 to 7.6).

  • Calipari praised Patterson but is still seeking more assertiveness from his most veteran player.

    "He's still not there yet," Calipari said. "You'll see it in another week to 10 days, two weeks, and you'll say, 'This is him.'

    "He helped himself today, but let me say this: He's still 30 percent better than he played today."
  • Cousins continues to amaze. He swallowed up seven rebounds in the first six minutes and 15 seconds, and finished with his 13th double-double of the season (18 points and 13 rebounds). And although the freshman was slow getting back on defense several times, he also stepped in and took three charges. If he's not blocking your shot, he's stopping your drive with his body.

  • Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy was asked to compare Cousins to someone from his playing days and came up with Chris Washburn -- a great college talent at North Carolina State.
  • Despite all the impressive performances and spectacular plays, Kentucky played another ebb-and-flow game. The Wildcats hit Ole Miss with a 12-2 run to start -- then relaxed. The next run was 15-0 -- then the Cats relaxed and Ole Miss crept back within three. Kentucky led by 18 in the first half and 17 in the second half but never threw the knockout punch. That's been a recurring theme this season for this young, 21-1 team but it hasn't derailed anything yet.
  • Mississippi sophomore Terrico White showed off a bit for the two-dozen NBA scouts in attendance, scoring 19 points and grabbing seven rebounds. But he was shut out in the last 14 minutes.

Saddle Up: Big one in the Big Ten

February, 2, 2010
Saddle Up is our nightly look at the hoops your TV wants you to watch. Here's Tuesday night's rundown:

No. 5 Michigan State at No. 16 Wisconsin, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: Michigan State is good on the road. Wisconsin is good at home. Immovable object, unstoppable force, you get the idea: Something's got to give in Madison tonight, and I have no idea what it will be.

Someone has to win, though, and if the tempo-free numbers have anything to say about it, that someone should be Wisconsin. The Badgers are No. 5 in the country in adjusted efficiency while the Spartans are No. 18, a difference that largely comes down to the Badgers' defense. Wisconsin doesn't force many turnovers, but they prevent teams from hot shooting nights and they rebound on the defensive end better than any team in the country. Michigan State has been getting better and better lately, so their numbers might not be a true reflection of their current state, but it's hard to look at Michigan State's strength -- offensive rebounding -- and think the Badgers don't have a serious advantage when it comes to the boards.

Of course, the numbers aren't the end-all. Still, this is Michigan State's biggest conference test of the season, and it comes as the Spartans just so happen to be playing their best basketball -- both at home and on the road -- of the year. This game is going to be slow, methodical, physical, defensive and awesome. Who else is excited?

Mississippi at No. 3 Kentucky, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: OK class, quiz time. Who knows what everyone is going to be talking about before, during, and after Kentucky's home matchup with Ole Miss tonight? Yes, that's right: CalWallGate 2010. (I just made up that name. Pretty terrible, right?) Is John Wall still mad at John Calipari? Have the two reconciled their differences? Is this really a "teaching moment?" Expect this to be a topic of conversation, to say the least.

The more pertinent question is whether Wall can rebound from his string of merely human performances -- or whether he needs to. Kentucky is so talented, and so many of its possessions end up in DeMarcus Cousins' hands, that Wall doesn't have to take games over on the offensive end to get the Wildcats a win. He merely needs to control the game, keep his turnovers in check, find Eric Bledsoe for open looks on the perimeter, and get the ball inside to Cousins, and somewhat-overlooked forward Patrick Patterson, and the Cats should handle fringe top 25 opponents like Ole Miss with relative ease.

John Wall doesn't have do it all. He just has to do some of everything, and efficiently so. If he does, UK will be just fine.

Everywhere else: Villanova is on fire these days. Seton Hall will try to do what so few Nova opponents have been able to -- put out the flames. (Or at least toss a little water on them. Anything to quell the burning. OK, I'll stop now.) ... Meanwhile, the second of two Big East games featuring marginal road teams at vicious home foes -- this one would be Providence at Syracuse -- will be tipping off. ... Kansas State goes to Nebraska, which got its first Big 12 win of the year in Saturday's 17-point win over Oklahoma. ... BYU will continue its roll through the Mountain West when TCU comes to Provo. ... Northwestern is still a potential tourney team! Repeat: Northwestern is still a potential tourney team. Games like tonight's -- a possible home victory over Michigan; nothing flashy, but necessary for the committee's ease of mind -- are key to that cause. At 3-6 in the Big Ten, the Wildcats can't afford another bad one.
The Morning After is our semi-daily recap of the night's best action. Try not to make it awkward.

No. 12 Purdue 60, No. 15 Wisconsin 57: Michigan State is still in charge of the Big Ten, but Purdue and Wisconsin aren't far behind. That's the conclusion from Thursday night's thrilling 58-possession game (not an oxymoron!) in West Lafayette, where Purdue and Wisconsin battled for 40 minutes, neither team able to totally solve the other, until Trevon Hughes' last-second floater rimmed out and the Boilermakers finished the game with a three-point margin. Purdue made just two threes all game but made up for it by shooting 73.3 percent on its twos, while Wisconsin made up for a lackluster two-point percentage by making 47.4 percent of its threes. This made for an even matchup. The difference, however slight, could possibly be found in offensive rebounding; Purdue rebounded 37.9 percent of its misses while Wisconsin only grabbed 21.2. In any case, the margin is almost too slim to call, and this is your second tier in the Big Ten. Michigan State still reigns, but both Purdue and Wisconsin are right there, and both deserve your respect. That was Thursday night's lesson.

No. 22 Georgia Tech 79, Wake Forest 58: Anatomy of a thorough beatdown: Make a lot of shots (59.3 percent eFG). Stop the other team from doing the same (35.2 percent eFG). All else equal, um, yeah: You're going to win that game. Such was the case in Atlanta last night, as Georgia Tech laid the aforementioned thorough beatdown on Wake Forest, 79-58. Paul Hewitt said it best: "I'm not sure we can play much better than that." I'm not sure any team can. At least not any team in the ACC. Now it's up to Georgia Tech to replicate that performance. If they can, even sporadically, the Yellow Jackets ought to treat their fans to an awfully interesting couple of months.

Everywhere else: Ole Miss shot well on the way to a 10-point road win over Auburn ... Pitt rebounded from a slow start -- the Panthers trailed by four at the half -- to take a 63-53 win over St. John's in Pittsburgh; this was not a game Pittsburgh was allowed to lose ... Seton Hall and South Florida played into overtime, and that's when Dominique Jones took over, giving South Florida the two-point win ... Santa Clara pushed Gonzaga to the limit, causing even Ken Pomeroy to worry, but the Bulldogs rallied from a 14-point deficit to take the win ... Virginia Tech got an impressive win at Virginia in overtime; Tony Bennett has had the Cavaliers playing solid basketball, so a loss at home is something of a surprise ... Siena fought off another test from upstart St. Peter's ... and Cal took another step toward Pac-10 supremacy with a win over Arizona State in Tempe.

Saddle Up: The Big Ten does battle

January, 28, 2010
Saddle Up is our daily look at the hoops your TV wants you to watch tonight. Here's Thursday night's rundown:

No. 16 Wisconsin at No. 12 Purdue, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: Who wants to watch some very slow, very methodical, very high-quality Big Ten basketball? I do. I occasionally complain about the Big Ten's slow pace -- and who better to pinpoint for that sloth than Bo Ryan's Wisconsin teams, who thrive on grinding games to a halt -- but the bottom line is that pace doesn't equal quality. Sure, it's fun to watch the North Carolinas and Villanovas and Missouris of the world, teams that fly up and down the court with minimal abandon, but it can be equally fun to watch two really good, really strong teams battle for every inch in a 60-possession game. That's what you can expect when Wisconsin goes to Purdue tonight: a battle. Not a blitzkrieg, but a bunker war. It might take a little more to appreciate, but when it's good, it's awfully good.

There are some stakes here, too: Michigan State is in the driver's seat in the Big Ten, of course, but both Wisconsin and Purdue have a shot. UW is two games behind the Spartans in the Big Ten, and a win at Purdue would do away with one very pesky hurdle in competing for that top spot. Meanwhile, the Boilers seemed to have recovered from their three-game slide, which began with a loss in Madison on Jan. 9. If Purdue wants to make a run and get back into national consideration -- let's not forget how many people had the Boilermakers getting to the Final Four -- it will need to prove that games like a Jan. 12 home loss to Ohio State are exceptions, not rules.

Settle in: Every possession matters, and in a game this likely to be slow, it'll feel like it.

Wake Forest at No. 22 Georgia Tech, 7 p.m. ET, RSN: Well, if it isn't the two most confusing teams in the ACC. What's up, guys? Both have 14-win records and respectable starts in conference, and both have future pro talent likely to go high in the first round of next year's NBA draft. Both are also missing that certain je ne sais quoi that makes you think either are complete teams capable of making a deep tournament run. But maybe they are. Maybe that's just me. Tonight is an opportunity for one to separate itself from the other, both in the ACC and in people's minds, and it's also a chance to see Al-Farouq Aminu match up with Gani Lawal and Derrick Favors. I'm not complaining.

Siena at St. Peter's, 7 p.m. ET: Guess who is 10-0 in conference and 17-4 overall, and who looks for all the world like another NCAA tournament bid (and potential darling-status run) is back in the works? That would be Siena. (No, sorry, it wasn't St. Peter's. Good guess though!) The Saints are rolling through conference play right now, and next up is tonight's matchup at St. Peter's, a team riding a five-game winning streak and one that played Siena close until a second-half run finished the game in the Saints favor (64-53) on New Year's Eve. But the opponent doesn't matter so much as the opportunity to check in on Siena. Are the Saints this year's bracket buster? Can they turn frequent NCAA love into "next Gonzaga" status? Is the leap within reach? I don't know, but now's as good a time as any to find out. (Also, they have a dude named Just-in'love Smith. This remains the greatest name in the history of not only college basketball but names.)

Everywhere else: Gonzaga will try to keep its conference win streak intact as the Zags visit Santa Clara on ESPN (11 ET) ... Ole Miss is still quietly ranked, and still quietly impressive, and the Rebels have a chance to improve their conference record with a road win over Arkansas ... A struggling St. John's team will head to Pittsburgh (ESPNU, 7 ET), which has maybe hit a bit of a cold-front after their early Big East-leading heatwave ... and, along with a host of other Pac-10 games tonight, Cal will visit Arizona State to see which team can lay early claim to the title of West's best. A win would likely mean more for Cal; the Bears played poorly in their nonconference but their schedule was unforgiving and a solid road win over an OK team like Arizona State would be a nice little boost to the Bears' resume.
The Morning After is our semi-daily recap post. Try not to make it awkward.

Clemson 83, North Carolina 64: Two conclusions. 1). North Carolina is, as of Jan. 14, not very good. 2). Clemson's basketball fan support is at an all-time high, and the Tigers are better for it.

On the first: This isn't exactly a shocker. After all, North Carolina came into Thursday night's game ranked No. 41 in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency ratings. They're merely OK defensively, and in past years this was fine, because the offense was otherworldy. That's not the case this year; UNC is 40th in points per possession, scoring about 1.1 points per trip. That's just ... meh. (And it doesn't help when you turn the ball over on 30 percent of your possessions, either.) It's certainly not what we've come to expect from Roy Williams' North Carolina teams, who have overwhelmed their opponents on the offensive end since the day Roy found a house in Chapel Hill. This team is young and new and not vintage UNC, and it shows. On nights like Wednesday, it shows badly.

Make no mistake, though, North Carolina wasn't merely bad on Wednesday. Saying so would be a disservice to Clemson and its fans. This is the second conclusion: Don't look now, but Clemson is starting to look like a pretty darn good ACC program. They've got the ability, sure. That's not entirely new; Oliver Purnell's teams have been playing at about this level for a few years now. But more than anything, Wednesday night showed just how far Clemson's fan base has come. It was this time last year that Clemson writers were aghast wondering why so many people were showing up to noon tip-offs at Littlejohn Coliseum. That was unlike Clemson fans, who typically prefer their football. (They're in South Carolina, after all. Don't fish prefer the water?) Newsflash: Clemson basketball has plenty of fans, too, and those fans are relishing the Tigers' stellar on-court product.* Chicken, meet egg.

*Speaking of on-court relish, this of course doesn't excuse the court-storming that went down on Wednesday night, which I'll get to in a later post. Here's a preview: Tsk-tsk, Clemson students. Tsk. Tsk.

Texas 90, Iowa State 83; Kansas 84, Nebraska 72; Missouri 94, Texas Tech 89: Well, it was fun while it lasted. Most of Wednesday's talk revolved around how well Big 12 teams had done at home in 2009-10; the conference was 112-1 going into Wednesday night's games. I said yesterday that that stat would be tested, and if it held up after Wednesday night's games, something seriously freaky was going on. Never mind. All three Big 12 road teams won on Wednesday night, even Missouri -- ostensibly rebuilding after an Elite Eight last year, but quietly 14-3 and 3-0 in conference -- at Texas Tech. I think we can rule out the supernatural.

Michigan State 60, Minnesota 53: Minnesota is almost good enough to be ranked. Almost. The Gophers have lost five of their last six games to ranked teams (that stat courtesy of the wonderful folks in the ESPN research department), including on Wednesday night, when they played Michigan State almost even for 40 minutes in East Lansing and only barely came up short. The Spartans, meanwhile, are starting to find their groove after some struggles in the early nonconference season. Sound familiar? (I meant that rhetorically. Of course it sounds familiar. The Spartans do this every year.)

Pittsburgh 67, Connecticut 57: Dana said it best last night: Pitt is legit. Simple, syntactically rhythmic and also, you know, true. Pittsburgh was supposed to rebuild in 2009-10. They were supposed to feel every pound of DEJuan Blair's body mass lifted from underneath the opponent's basket. (Which, by the way, note to every NBA GM that didn't take Blair in the late first or early second round: You are idiots. I'm not the first to tell you, but I'll gladly join the chorus. Letting Blair go to the Spurs in the late second round. Unbelievable.) Anyway, the point is, Pittsburgh isn't missing its big three nearly as much as we all thought. They're doing just fine, actually, perched quite neatly atop the Big East with wins at Syracuse , at Cincy and now at UConn. Jamie Dixon: coach of the year?

Everywhere else: Duke destroyed Boston College at Cameron, which: duh ... Syracuse dismantled Rutgers in New Jersey, which again: duh ... BYU had no problems with Air Force on its way to a 12th win in a row, and speaking of coach of the year candidates, Dave Rose, come on down ... Northwestern had a chance to notch a huge Big Ten win over Wisconsin but lost hold of the game in the closing minutes, losing 60-50 and taking another step toward a perpetual NCAA tourney-less existence ... Georgia plays hard, that's for sure; unfortunately the Bulldogs' best effort is often not quite good enough, and such was the case in yet another close loss to a ranked team Wednesday night ... Hey, wait a second. Is that Virginia? Beating Georgia Tech? Why yes, yes it is! More on this later in the day ... Utah State outlasted Nevada in a close overtime WAC win ... Vanderbilt barely escaped Alabama in Tuscaloosa ... and Xavier battled toward the top of the A-10 with a win over Charlotte.
Saddle Up is a quick preview of the basketball your TV wants you to watch tonight. Here's Wednesday night's rundown.

No. 13 North Carolina at No. 19 Clemson, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: Oh, road wins. How fleeting you are. If there's been a theme on the blog today, that's been it. Some schools can get them (Ohio State's win at Purdue Tuesday night, for example) and some schools can't (that would be everyone in the Big 12, naturally). North Carolina gets a chance to bring this debate into the ACC, where the young Tar Heels will visit Littlejohn Coliseum in Clemson, S.C., Wednesday night. At stake for the Heels is a chance to prove their brutal nonconference stretch was a growing experience, that road wins in the ACC will not only be achievable but expected, even for a young team. At stake for Clemson? The Tigers have an opportunity to not only beat a talented team and get an ACC win (duh), but to make their name nationally as a program worth watching. This has been the case for two years now, but Oliver Purnell has yet to receive the requisite recognition. Maybe that starts tonight. Maybe the Tigers can be the random car in the Tar Heels' bus side. Weirder things have happened. (Like, for example, a car hitting the North Carolina bus today. That was definitely weirder.)

No. 20 Pittsburgh at No. 15 Connecticut, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2: Now here's a confusing conference. The Pac-10 is wide-open because it's bad. The Big 12 is closed -- either Texas or Kansas is taking that thing, obviously -- but its middle portion, the teams that are neither good nor bad, is chock full. The Big Ten is the Big Ten; four teams can win, and the others have no shot. But the Big East? The Big East is wide open because it's good. There are at least seven teams that have been playing quality basketball and can challenge for supremacy before the year is out. Pittsburgh and Connecticut are two of those teams. From a pure efficiency margin standpoint, Pitt has recovered from its slow start and been the better team for a few weeks now, while UConn has had trouble figuring out how to make the most out of its possessions in an uptempo setting. Let's see if either team can win a measure of separation from the pack on Wednesday night.

Boston College at No. 7 Duke, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: This note is to merely let you know that this game is on. Boston College is barely hanging on to its place in the Pomeroy top 70; Duke is an efficient, balanced team coming off a conference-opening loss to Georgia Tech in Atlanta Saturday. Duke is playing at Cameron Indoor Stadium. You get the idea: It could be a long night for Al Skinner's squad.

No. 1 Texas at Iowa State, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN360: In a way, this is timed perfectly. Duke and BC will be in the second half just as the newly-crowned Longhorns will be taking on Iowa State in Ames, Iowa -- you can fire up your laptop and check out ESPN360 right at 8 p.m. (I'm getting really good at this whole corporate synergy thing, aren't I?) In a rational world, Iowa State wouldn't have the horses to dream of competing against the Longhorns; Craig Brackins is a beast, but he's no match for Damion James and Dexter Pittman and Avery Bradley and Justin Mason and insert other awesome Texas player here, because there are like 10 of them. But we do not live in a rational world. We live in a world in which only one Big 12 team has lost at home all season long. 112 other games have gone the other way -- to the home team. Factor in tonight's Kansas-at-Nebraska matchup, and we'll get a true test of just how much home court really means in the Big 12. I have a feeling that crazy 112-1 home win stat is like the entire O'Doyle family: It's going down. If not, something seriously weird is going on here.

Everywhere else: Syracuse will face a struggling (which is a nice way of saying they're bad and getting worse) Rutgers team in northern New Jersey tonight ... Michigan State will host Minnesota, yet another previously ranked Big Ten team looking to stay in the conference hunt ... West Virginia gets a relative breather with South Florida tonight after WVU's upset loss to Notre Dame Saturday ... If you like incessant motion offense, be sure to tune into Wisconsin at Northwestern ... After an upset of Georgia Tech and a close loss at Kentucky, Mark Fox will try to keep Georgia rolling as Ole Miss comes to town ... In a game that will almost certainly be high-scoring (much to Bob Knight's chagrin), Texas Tech will take on tempo-nuts Missouri in Lubbock ... and, last but not least, your ostensible mid-major game of the night: Charlotte at Xavier.

Get your couch's butt-grove ready. It's going to be an awesome night.