Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action.
No. 4 Connecticut vs. No. 6 Pittsburgh, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2: Jim Calhoun might not like it, but everyone else should. This is an awesome way to kick off Big East play.
We don't typically get league games this good this early. Naturally, I'm thrilled. Calhoun is not. The UConn coach expressed his frustration with the league's scheduling back at Big East preseason media day:
"I don't think Connecticut should be playing Pitt on Dec. 27," Calhoun said at the Big East preseason media day. "The preseason for us, as it is for (Pitt coach) Jamie Dixon is very important. We have six freshmen. We should have a preseason."
A few months later, this game is much better than anyone, Calhoun included, could have imagined. (And that whole "we should have a preseason" thing doesn't make a whole lot of sense, given that, you know, UConn did have a preseason. And a nonconference season. But I digress.)
Thanks to Kemba Walker's emergence as a player of the year candidate and surprising contributions from Alex Oriakhi and a handful of unknown role players, Connecticut stormed through a tough Maui Invitational field in November, held serve against an easy nonconference slate in December, and catapulted itself from unranked question mark right back into the thick of the nation's elite.
Still, there are questions about this team, questions that have to be answered if UConn plans to keep the top-five juices flowing. Walker is a transcendent offensive talent, but how will UConn react if he has an off-night? What combination of supporting players can step up if a good defensive team like Pittsburgh forces Walker into an unproductive or inefficient night? Can the Huskies' defense improve? Is this really a top-five squad? Or merely one that jumped into the polls at the right time -- beating Michigan State and Kentucky when both teams were in the top 10 -- and hasn't lost since?
We should get some of those answers Monday night, especially where Connecticut's defense is concerned. Pittsburgh is the best offensive team in the country on a per-possession basis thanks in large part to its offensive rebounding. The Panthers rebound more of their own misses than any team in the nation. Combined with a low turnover rate and effective shooting, the Panthers -- a team most fans would associate with toughness, defense, and sundry other grinder-type intangible qualities -- have thus far been an offensive juggernaut.
That presents a tough matchup for UConn. The Huskies should be able to score on Pitt, but Oriakhi is the only player in Storrs that rebounds on a consistent basis. The Huskies will be undersized on both ends of the floor. In many ways, Monday night's game should be a good microcosm of Connecticut's season. Walker will have to be dominant for UConn to win. For all of Calhoun and company's early-season success, you can probably expect to hear this refrain more than once during the rough and tumble Big East season.
In any case, while Calhoun might not like it, his team will be tested in a top 10 matchup on the road in Big East play on Dec. 27. The UConn skipper can complain, but you won't hear the rest of us joining in. We'll be too busy enjoying the show.
Everywhere else: Despite the thorough and undeniable awesomeness of the aforementioned match up, there isn't much else to keep your eye on Monday night. ... The Big Ten kicks off, too, though the first game isn't exactly a barnburner: Indiana will attempt to rebound from its disappointing 0-2 performance in Las Vegas with a home date against Penn State. ... OSU will tune up for Big Ten play with a cupcake game against Tennessee-Martin. ... Louisville welcomes Morgan State to the Yum! Center in advance of Friday's rivalry game versus Kentucky. ... Missouri should have no problems with 3-6 Northern Illinois in Columbia, Mo. ... Delaware State travels to Clemson. ... Five-loss LSU will try to avoid any further devastation versus Southern.