Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action.
No. 19 Villanova vs. No. 7 Notre Dame, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: Maybe a road trip to Notre Dame is just what Villanova needs.
That doesn't sound, right does it? Of course not. After all, Notre Dame is one of the best home teams in the country this season; all five of ND's infrequent losses have come on the road or on a neutral floor. The Irish are 16-0 in South Bend. This is not the place you want to visit when you're in need of a big win.
And yet, maybe a change of scenery is just what the Wildcats need. After all, Villanova hasn't fared much better on its own floor lately. Jay Wright's team has lost its last two games at home -- to Syracuse and St. John's, respectively -- and four of its last six home dates since Jan. 29. Naturally, Villanova hasn't been much better on the road (that would be truly weird). But it's not totally crazy to think this team might benefit from the intensity of a major game against a top 10 team on the road. Maybe that sort of challenge can provide just the kick the Wildcats -- who desperately need someone to step up and take a leadership role down the stretch -- seem to need.
The road aspect might present its own vague challenges for 'Nova, but in terms of performance, both teams are actually quite evenly matched. The Irish and Wildcats are both very good offensive teams that don't excel much on the defensive end of the floor; Notre Dame and Villanova are ranked No. 2 and No. 4 in adjusted offensive efficiency in Big East play this season and No. 11 and No. 10 in adjusted defensive efficiency in that same span.
Villanova's main defensive efficiency is its inability to force other teams into turnovers; the Irish share that trait, and also happen to be plenty turnover-averse themselves. If 'Nova can practice its usually tough field goal defense and keep Notre Dame off the free throw line, they should be able to keep this game -- which ought to feature plenty of scoring all the same -- close enough to win it in the final moments. At that point, it comes down to toughness, to which team makes plays. The Wildcats still seem to be finding that aspect of their collective personality. Perhaps they can find it tonight.
Kansas State at No. 8 Texas, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: Yes, even with their continued, comprehensive athletics success, a huge fan base and a gigantic athletics department budget, you kind of have to feel for Texas basketball fans. Their team is one of the best in the country. Their defense has been, with minimal exceptions, an otherworldly force. They have a player of the year candidate in sophomore Jordan Hamilton and a team stocked with young, blue-chip talent. But because of last year's midseason collapse, their recent losses at Nebraska and Colorado can still send portions of its fans into the downward spiral of doubt.
Some fans are freaked out. Others are less worried. After Saturday's loss at Colorado, the fine gents at Burnt Orange Nation detailed this burgeoning rift thusly:
The real question revolves around what to make of the losses to Nebraska and Colorado. Two teams with their backs against the wall who came up big or clear cracks in the Longhorn armor? Minor road blips on the road to the Final Four or a first and second draft blueprint of the ideal takedown of Texas?
From the open threads in each of the two conference losses, there are clearly fans who will vehemently argue each side of the issue. Some might call those who are commenting that the sky is falling, Chicken Littles or reactionaries or pessimists. Some might call those who are easily brushing off the defeats as Barnes defenders or blind or adorning burnt orange glasses.
So, who's right? It'd tend to side with those still who argue the sky isn't falling, that Texas's recent losses are more the product of the difficulties of beating desperate teams on the road in conference play. (And, in the loss at Colorado, the difficulties of maintaining intensity in the face of altitude-induced fatigue.) Still, any time a defense this good gives up 58 points in the second half to any team, let alone a shaky bubble-bound one like the Buffaloes, a measure of worry isn't out of order.
Texas fans will get a pretty decent chance to settle this debate tonight. Two days after the loss in Boulder, the Longhorns return to Austin for a game with Kansas State, one that will test them in a variety of ways. For one, there's the fatigue; the Longhorns haven't had much time to rest those weary lungs. Then there's the opponent. Kansas State is playing its best basketball of the season, Jacob Pullen has rediscovered his offensive attack, and the Wildcats are coming off a road win at Nebraska and a convincing home win over Missouri in advance of tonight's game. This team is confident, cohesive, tough and in many ways still playing with a back-against-the-wall, win-or-go-home attitude.
It's possible Texas desperately needs adopt those qualities. It's also possible the Longhorns are just fine. Teams have bad shooting nights. Teams lose on the road. Teams have passive letdowns in otherwise brilliant defensive seasons. It happens. We won't know the story of Texas's season -- whether the sky is falling or all is well, or somewhere in between -- until we get well into March. But tonight should give us a decent idea.
Everywhere else: True to Big Monday tradition, there's nothing much notable on the slate outside of the above two games. See?