Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action. It hopes you enjoyed today's podcast.
No. 25 Arizona at No. 20 Washington, 10:30 p.m. ET, FSN: Here's a funny fact about this one: It's hard for any Jan. 20 game to mean more to a conference's NCAA tournament hopes than this game means for the Pac-10.
How so? Because the Pac-10 is, to this point, a two-bid league. That's according to Joe Lunardi, whose latest Bracketology included just two Pac-10 teams. Those teams, as you might have guessed, were Arizona (a No. 8 seed in Lunardi's bracket) and Washington (a No. 4). Judging by those seeds, Arizona is a team with much less wiggle room when it comes to an NCAA tournament bid.
The Wildcats have been statistically impressive all season, and they have a star player in forward Derrick Williams, but they've yet to notch a truly quality win all season long. Washington, on the other hand, is a much more solid pick; even if the Huskies were to lose in the Pac-10 tournament, it's still very hard to see them losing out on an at-large bid. In the end, both teams are likely inclusions. But Arizona could use a marquee win, and there is no better game left on the Wildcats' schedule than tonight's matchup in Seattle.
So, how does Arizona win? With Williams, of course! The Wildcats' offense -- one of the best 20 or so in college basketball, efficiency-wise -- starts and ends with the hyper-efficient forward. Williams's shooting percentages are insane; he's ranked No. 2 in the nation in effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage, per Pomeroy, and he's one of the best all-around rebounders in the nation to boot. But to beat a team like Washington, especially on the road, Arizona will have to get contributions from its backcourt, too.
Even if those contributions come solely on the defensive end, that will be a major boon to 'Zona's chances. That's because Washington guard Isaiah Thomas enters tonight's game in one of those unconscious, can't-stop-me spells, the latest example of which came in a 27-point, 13-assist performance Sunday night against Cal. Why is Thomas playing so well? In his typically excellent Thursday power rankings, SI's Luke Winn explains:
One reason Thomas has thrived as the Huskies' primary point guard following Abdul Gaddy's season-ending injury: Thomas is a hyper-efficient player in pick-and-rolls, and he's averaging around five of those situations per game, according to scouting data. Thomas' total offense in pick-and-rolls (his scoring plus teammates' scoring off of his passes) is 1.19 points per possession, which puts him in elite company nationally.
There are a lot of things to worry about when you're playing Washington. How do you control the pace against such an uptempo offense? How do you keep Matthew Bryan-Amaning out of the lane? How do you avoid being distracted by all that purple and gold? But the most important thing Arizona can do if it wants to contain Washington's offense is contain Isaiah Thomas, specifically when Thomas initiates a pick-and-roll set.
If the Wildcats do that, they have a chance. If not? The Pac-10s two-bid status could take a serious, albeit early, hit.
Everywhere else: If you read John Gasaway's ESPN Insider features, and you totally should, you know that Indiana is actually a pretty good offensive team. It's the defense that's bad. (And it is really, really bad.) The Hoosiers, who play No. 17 Wisconsin on the mother network at 9 p.m. ET tonight, will have to find a way to slow down Wisconsin's efficient offense at the Kohl Center if they want any chance of pulling out an extremely unlikely upset. ... The other big network game of the night is Florida at Auburn, which is a game the Gators can not afford to even flirt with losing. (Hello, Florida State.) ... Solid top-half ACC action tonight, as Virginia Tech tries to rebuild its tourney hopes with a win over a defensively stalwart Maryland team. ... South Florida plays at Rutgers in some very meh Big East action. ... Figuring out the Horizon League is hard, but tonight's Detroit-Cleveland State matchup might help clear things up. ... And in other, less important Pac-10 action, Arizona State travels to Washington State, and Stanford will play at USC.