Saddle Up is our daily look at the hoops your TV wants you to watch tonight. Here's Wednesday night's rundown. Special programming note: I'll be flying to Indianapolis tomorrow to participate in the NCAA's mock selection committee, so my blogging may be a little light these next couple of days. I'm sure you'll find a way to persevere.
No. 7 Duke at North Carolina, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: Given the average college basketball fan's general fatigue with Duke-North Carolina -- everyone likes to complain about the attention these two teams always receive, and not without reason -- you might be struggling to find a reason to care about tonight's game. After all, if North Carolina (13-10, 2-6 in the ACC) is this bad, what's the point? Won't Duke just roll?
Maybe. Maybe not. Duke is certainly a more complete and more polished team than the Tar Heels. Veterans Jon Scheyer and Kyle Singler and the rest of Duke's formidable lineup constitute a major advantage over UNC's talented but inexperienced bunch. But it's not that cut and dry. Duke has major flaws, and one of them is that it's just not very good on the road. Let's not forget the Devils' trouncing at Georgetown two weeks ago. Nor should we ignore Duke's loss at NC State two weeks before that. Duke played very few nonconference road games, and it's been punished for it since, going 2-4 on the road in six tries overall. For a team with national title aspirations, Coach K's bunch has a way of looking decidedly average away from Cameron Indoor.
Meanwhile, North Carolina is in a horrific tailspin. What better way to turn the season around after losing six of your last seven than by getting a win at home over your hated rival? What better way to build confidence in your young players than by them proving to themselves they can play with an elite group like Duke? Or maybe the inverse happens: Duke dominates UNC at home in front of a disgusted crowd, and Roy Williams has to figure out how to get his team to recover from its latest disaster -- and how to talk to the media without sounding depressed and apoplectic after the game. The outcome will be high drama, in its own marginal way.
This might not be vintage UNC-Duke. You won't confuse tonight's lineups with anything you'll see on ESPN Classic. But sleep on it at your own peril. For reasons different than the past, this rivalry might surprise you yet.
Connecticut at No. 3 Syracuse, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: Speaking of intrigue, or a lack thereof ... ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present UConn-Cuse 2010! These two teams have taken opposite trajectories to end up where they are today. Syracuse was seen as a marginal Top 25 team at the beginning of the season; the Orange has morphed into one of the few viable challengers to Kansas' putative crown. UConn was a top 15 team to begin the year, and has morphed into a Jim Calhoun-less shell of its former self -- dominant shot-blockers on the defensive end (where the Huskies are No. 1 in the country for the ninth year in a row) and barely average at almost everything else. Jim Calhoun is being mentioned for coach of the year awards. Jim Calhoun is still on a leave of absence with no return date imminent.
It's hard to spin those conditions into something positive, even for me, and I'm positive (to a fault, admittedly) about any and all college basketball on my television. It's college hoops! It's awesome in and of itself! We get to watch basketball! Hooray for basketball! But it's hard not to feel the same sinking feeling many will have about Duke-UNC, and that many had about Kansas-Texas -- this game should be so much better. It's up to UConn to prove us wrong. (In the Carrier Dome. Against a dominant 2-3 zone. With a team that can't shoot. Um, good luck, I guess?)
No. 19 New Mexico at No. 25 UNLV, 11 p.m. ET: It would be criminal to focus on the above games and not give what could be tonight's best, most important matchup some love. New Mexico at UNLV is tonight's only game featuring two top 25 teams, and that's not the only reason to watch. Whoever wins tonight takes over first place in the Mountain West, where three teams (these two, plus BYU) are vying for NCAA tournament bids. Plus it features a matchup between the conference's two best wing players, New Mexico's Darington Hobson and UNLV's Tre'Von Willis. New Mexico rarely turns the ball over; UNLV thrives on forcing steals. New Mexico loves to get to the free throw line; UNLV never allows its opponents that luxury. Stay up past your bedtime, East Coasters. You don't want to miss the game of the night.
Everywhere else: Ohio State will visit Bloomington, where the Hoosiers have been a tough out all year. But tough enough to keep Evan Turner Line Watch from showing up in the morning? Doubtful. ... Northern Iowa will go on the road to play a pesky Drake squad, which wants this win forever, man (sorry). ... Georgia Tech has lost its last two games on the road and will try to avoid a third at Miami. ... Florida goes to Columbia, where a banged-up Devan Downey should be in the lineup. ... Northwestern's game at Iowa is a must-win for the Wildcats' tournament chances. ... and a pair of important A-10 battles -- Charlotte at Dayton; Richmond at Rhode Island ... will go down.