Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action.
St. John's at No. 1 Kentucky: When these two teams take the floor Thursday night, eight of the 10 combined starters will be freshmen (or, in the exception of St. John's forward God'sgift Achiuwa, a first-year transfer). The other two, Kentucky's Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb, are sophomores. It might be the single youngest game you will see all season, although there's a chance of that any time the Red Storm take the floor against a team with similar greenhorn concentrations. This is not a new observation, but St. John's is remarkably young -- all seven of its rotation players (guys who average 20 minutes or more per game) are either freshmen or Achiuwa.
Of course, Kentucky is young, too, but the freshmen at Kentucky are of a different kind than St. John's. The Johnnies' freshmen are talented but prototypical; they're learning the college game, adjusting to the tempo, figuring out their roles and suffering their fair share of missteps along the way. (They also are, for the time being, without coach Steve Lavin, who has taken a leave of absence to recover fully from the prostate cancer surgery he underwent Oct. 6.) This young batch of Red Storm frosh is going to be formidable for years to come, but these players aren't yet at the level of Kentucky's youngsters, all of whom were mega recruits but decided to come play together anyway.
In other words, this is going to be a tough game for the young Red Storm (duh, Eamonn), who already tripped up this week with a 14-point home loss to Northeastern. There's a learning curve. It exists at Kentucky, too, but with this much talent, it is not nearly as daunting. Unless St. John's puts together a near-perfect performance, this game might serve as little more than a tune-up for an athletic team against an athletic team that will face an even more athletic team (North Carolina, naturally) on Saturday. There is a lot of youth on this floor. But there is a lot of talent, too, and at the very least, that makes it very much worth a watch.
Georgetown at No. 12 Alabama: It was hard not to be impressed by how far along Georgetown -- a team that lost its two best and most experienced players this offseason -- seemed to be at the Maui Invitational. John Thompson III's Hoyas already have a distinct and precise understanding of the nuances of his Princeton offense; they already run the backcuts, replaces and cut-post-turns like a well-oiled machine. Jason Clark has been lights-out from beyond the arc, Hollis Thompson has shown greater versatility in his scoring and freshman forward Otto Porter has made immediate (and much-needed) contributions on both ends of the floor.
The question is whether Georgetown's well-drilled Princeton scheme, and the bevy of athletes who exist within it, can generate enough confusion and missed assignments in Alabama's stout defense to get enough points on the board each possession. Georgetown doesn't turn the ball over often (14.8 percent TO%), but Alabama doesn't need to turn its opponents over to get stops. Instead, it pressures every shooter on every shot, and it forces more misses than all but one team (Wisconsin) in the country. With the benefit of being on their home court, the Crimson Tide have to be the favorite here. But Georgetown has more than a few tricks up its sleeve, and the Hoyas appear to be much better than anyone expected before the season began. We'll see.