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Saddle Up: KU, Pitt get tough league tests

Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action. It would like to congratulate Sports Illustrated's Luke Winn, who won the 2010 USBWA award for column writing thanks to this excellent Bob Knight piece.

No. 20 Missouri at No. 2 Kansas, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: Have the Missouri Tigers reached their peak? Are they what they've been for most of the year, a good but not great team with a unique, effective (and entertaining) style, but one that can be bullied by opponents with superior size and talent? It's a valid question. The Tigers have been hanging around the top 20 for much of the season, but they've yet to make that hard to define but easy-to-see leap into "Whoa, look out, these guys are getting better at the right time" territory. Instead, with minimal exception, Missouri has been winning the games it should win, losing the games it should lose, and essentially holding serve throughout the Big 12 season.

That perception could change tonight, but it's a little bit hard to fathom. For one, the Jayhawks almost never lose at home. (Not counting the Jan. 22 loss to Texas, of course.) Secondly, all of Missouri's four Big 12 losses -- to Colorado, Texas A&M, Texas and Oklahoma State -- have come on the road this year; the Tigers have yet to win a road game in league play. And third, even with injured freshman Josh Selby on the sideline, Kansas still has the one thing you absolutely have to have against Missouri's relentless turnover-prone pressure: capable guard play.

Toss in the Jayhawks' obvious superiority on the interior, where Missouri forward Ricardo Ratliffe will be stuck competing with rebounding beast Thomas Robinson, as well as Marcus and Markieff Morris, and the result is a very tough match up for the Tigers. If Missouri can force Kansas into hurried, erratic play, they've got a chance, and the concerns over whether this team is done improving can be put away until further notice. But if Kansas can withstand the perimeter pressure and clean up as many misses as you'd reasonably expect, then Missouri will have to come up with something special to steal this win.

Either way, close game or not, don't miss this one. Missouri plays some of the most entertaining basketball you'll find anywhere, and the promise of watching the efficient Jayhawks attack that style is a bonafide hoops-nerd dog whistle. I'm already salivating.

No. 4 Pittsburgh at West Virginia, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: Pittsburgh gets a lot of credit for its defense (this enjoyable Knight Watch being the latest example) but until recently the Panthers had been a merely so-so defensive team. That's changed a bit in conference play. The Panthers are allowing .98 points per possession to opposing Big East offenses, which is tops in the league but ranks Pitt all the way down at No. 74 in the country.

It's not that Pitt's defense is bad. Clearly, it's pretty good. The point of all this is that, slightly contrary to popular perception, it's Pittsburgh's offense that really makes the Panthers tough. More specifically, it's Pittsburgh's offensive rebounding percentage -- which ranks No. 1 in the nation at 44.5 percent -- that has given Pittsburgh the edge in so many of its 21 wins to date this season. That's why Pittsburgh fans should feel relatively confident in their team's ability to manage while star guard Ashton Gibbs misses the next two weeks with a knee injury. Pittsburgh's outside shooting might take a bit of a hit with Gibbs on the sideline, but its ability to clean up its own misses and get good second-and-third means the Panthers should still be able to score at a very efficient rate.

In the end, that rebounding may decide tonight's game. Like Pittsburgh, West Virginia is a better than average offensive team. Like Pittsburgh, West Virginia's most effective offensive factor is its offensive rebounding; the Mountaineers rebound 41.2 percent of their misses, the fifth-highest mark in the country. Unlike Pitt, the Mountaineers don't extend that rebounding excellence to the defense end; instead, they allow opponents to grab 35.8 percent of available missed shots, which ranks them all the way down at No. 292 in the nation, according to Pomeroy. In other words, whoever controls the defensive glass in Morgantown tonight will have an immediate and important advantage. And right now, you'd give that advantage to Pitt.

Everywhere else: In keeping with the usual Big Monday slate, there aren't too many noteworthy games outside of the ESPN mothership this evening, but if you want to check out the rest of tonight's mid-major action, you know where to go. Enjoy the games, everyone.