Saddle Up is our nightly look at the hoops your TV wants you to watch. You might have heard already, but there are a couple of pretty big games tonight. What? You hadn't heard? Then it's a good thing you dropped by. Here's Monday night's rundown:
No. 5 Villanova at No. 4 West Virginia, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: A few weeks ago, this was still a big game, but it paled in comparison to two former/current No. 1s duking it out for Big 12 and national supremacy, which was what Texas-Kansas held in store. Now? This is your biggest game of the night. Oh, sure, Texas-Kansas still promises to be great -- it's a No. 1 team going on the road to face a talented Big 12 rival; that only will be worth the price of admission -- but Nova-WVU is the game packed with conference intrigue and, at a rankings' glance, the two better teams.
You'll notice West Virginia leapfrogged Villanova in the coaches' poll after Nova's loss at Georgetown on Saturday. That loss was the Wildcats' first in conference, placing them at 9-1. Meanwhile, West Virginia has racked up wins in its last six outings, the most important of which came at home in front of an antagonistic, defiantly misbehaved student section. Those wins leave WVU at 8-2, and you can do the math: A win tonight pulls West Virginia into a tie for second in the Big East with Nova, nipping at Syracuse's heels for the conference marbles.
But what about the basketball? How do these two teams match up? No disrespect intended toward WVU's fans or the Big East race, but this is where it gets really interesting. This is also the part where AP and coaches rankings start to melt away. West Virginia, with the No. 4 overall offense and No. 22 overall defense in Ken Pomeroy's ratings, is much more efficient than Villanova; the Mountaineers score early and often and do it in a way (with interior buckets primarily created by the second-best offensive rebounding performance in the country) that isn't susceptible to the occasional off-night. West Virginia has won its past seven games this way. The story remains the same. If the Mountaineers are crashing the glass and getting easy putbacks, the game is out of reach. You have to block Bob Huggins' team out. Most teams can't.
As for the Wildcats? Villanova's loss to Georgetown was a manifestation of why the Wildcats are susceptible to losses and off games. Their offense is great. It's the third-best in the country, and Nova's fast-paced style shows it off. But Villanova's defense -- ranked No. 64 overall -- will hurt the Wildcats in key games, just as it did Saturday. Nova wants to run and spread the floor and score a lot and hope you don't make enough shots to catch up, because if you do, the Wildcats are not particularly well-suited to stop you. They'll need to do that often enough tonight to keep West Virginia, a slow, grinding, half-court team, on its heels. Tonight's 7 p.m. game won't just be a battle of wills. It'll be a battle of styles.
No. 1 Kansas at No. 14 Texas, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: The story of this game is already pretty obvious -- Texas is limping into what should have been the biggest regular-season game of the year -- and doesn't need to be repeated again. So let's just get to the hoops.
A quick on-paper comparison bears out what Texas has helped voters figure out in the past few weeks: The Longhorns are talented, but they're not a top-10 team. This is as true in the AP poll as it is in the tempo-free numbers. Texas' best feature is its defense. The Longhorns pressure out to 25 feet, and their length and athleticism make it difficult for opposing shooters to get good looks. On the interior, the combination of Damion James and Dexter Pittman keep scoring low. The Longhorns, if nothing else, can defend.
The problem is that Texas' offense has yet to catch up with its defense, and the occasionally scattered nature of the Longhorns' approach -- Jordan Hamilton goes off for 27 one night, goes 3-for-15 the next; Pittman dominates in nonconference, disappears in the Big 12 -- has prevented Texas from really figuring things out. The Longhorns are not a good shooting team. They get by on offensive rebounding. Sometimes it's enough. But not always, and not recently. (Texas also has major issues from the free throw line, where it's shooting 61 percent as a team. Yikes.)
Kansas, meanwhile, looks every bit the world-beater we've come to expect during Bill Self's time in Lawrence. The Jayhawks are ruthlessly efficient on the offensive end; they prevent good looks on the defensive end, especially with Cole Aldrich patrolling the lane; and their plethora of scorers and depth make them almost impossible to stop. Shut down Xavier Henry? Sherron Collins will go to work. Start doubling Collins, or start shading defenders toward the perimeter? Aldrich will destroy you.
To beat Kansas, Texas will need to make outside shots, rebound its misses, defend KU's shooters and hope Aldrich leaves some room for Pittman and James to go to work. Considering everything you just read, does that seem very likely? Such are Texas' chances. For one night, an increasingly imperfect team will need to be downright perfect. It might not happen, but it will be fun to watch the Longhorns try.
Everywhere else: As is the case most Mondays, the action is concentrated at the top of the pile. Some scattered mid-major stuff of interest here. And, as a final reminder before game time, be sure to join us for a live chat at 7 p.m. ET right here.