Saddle Up: Northwestern's moment of truth

Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action. It wishes cold and flu season better aligned with the offseason. Ugh.

Northwestern at No. 20 Illinois, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2: It's still too early to call this a must-win game for Northwestern. That wouldn't be very fair to the Wildcats, who have to play in front of a tough in-state crowd in Champaign, Ill., tonight.

Instead, let's call this a verging-on-need-to win. A loss won't end Northwestern's season -- and by "season," I mean the Wildcats' chances at the program's first NCAA tournament berth in school history -- but it will do even further damage to a 12-game mark that's yet to live up to preseason expectations.

Northwestern has beaten no one of note. This is just true. The Wildcats' nonconference loss to St. John's looks a little bit better now that St. John's is beating the likes of West Virginia and Georgetown in Big East play, but the rest of Northwestern's schedule was just plain bad. That meant NU needed to compete well enough in the Big Ten -- say, nine wins? 10? -- to put themselves in position for a tourney bid. Thus far, that hasn't happened. Instead, the Wildcats have limped to an 0-2 start in the Big Ten season. They weren't competitive at Purdue on New Year's Eve and were handled, save for a late run, by Michigan State in Evanston.

Of course, there are caveats here. For one, this is a brutal three-game stretch to start conference play. Second, Northwestern star John Shurna was clearly hobbled by his ankle sprain Monday night; the usually hot-shooting forward went 1-for-11 in the loss to MSU. That's why this game isn't a must-win: Most teams would be lucky to get a win in these three games.

Still, the sinking feeling that this is just another Northwestern season, that all the preseason expectation and early offensive brilliance won't carry over into another lackluster Big Ten year ... well, it's there. It's not official yet. But it's there. In other words, big game tonight, Wildcats. Not a must-win, but, yeah. Big game.

Xavier at No. 25 Cincinnati, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2: If you read the blog regularly -- OK, if you've been reading the past few hours -- you know all about Cincinnati and its perceived lack of national respect. Even after notching its first AP and coaches poll rankings of the year this week, coach Mick Cronin still believes his undefeated team is being overlooked.

He might be right. Problem is, we don't really know, because Cronin's team hasn't played anyone with a shot at making the NCAA tournament yet this season. So this is Cincinnati's first official prove-it week, a week that begins tonight in the Skyline Chili Crosstown Shootout tonight (mmm ... Skyline Chili) vs. Xavier and ends with a game at Villanova this weekend. If the Bearcats are still underrated, we'll find out soon enough.

Tonight is perhaps less of a test than Cronin would like it to be. Sure, it will be an emotional game, and any crosstown Xavier-Cincy match up is a tough game to win. But these aren't the Musketeers we're used to. Xavier has already dropped four games this season, but more than anything, it hasn't been all that efficient even in wins. According to Ken Pomeroy, Xavier ranks No. 75 in the nation in adjusted efficiency, placing it just below -- get this -- Colorado, Memphis, and Indiana. Compare that with Cincinnati's early performance -- the Bearcats are ranked No. 26 in the land, right around Georgetown, St. Mary's, Notre Dame and Florida -- and yeah, that's a rough comparison, but still. This is a game the Bearcats should win, intense rivalry or no. It's time to ignore the polls and take care of business. Villanova awaits.

Everywhere else: Speaking of Villanova, Jay Wright's team will try to fend off a mediocre South Florida team tonight in Tampa. ... Cal will travel to Tucson for a date with favored Arizona. ... Oregon State goes to Washington State tonight to see what happens when two wholly unpredictable teams stop being polite and start getting real. ... The Ducks are at Washington, where Lorenzo Romar will be testing out some new post-Gaddy remedies. ... Stanford's at Arizona State. ... and there's a pair of solid mid-major games to highlight, the first being Detroit at Loyola (Il), the second being a big Summit League battle between IUPUI and conference favorites Oakland. Enjoy the games, everyone, and happy Thursday night.