Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the upcoming night's best basketball action. A quick note in the spirit of the occasion: Last year, I watched my best friend wave farewell to his father after a brutal battle with melanoma. No family should have to go through that. Far too many do. If you can afford to make a donation to the V Foundation for Cancer Research to help reinforce the fight against this horrible disease, please consider doing so. Thanks.
No. 10 Missouri vs. Villanova, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: At first glance, based on what these two teams have done so far this season, this game doesn't look likely to live up to the name-brand value associated with its two competitors.
Or, put another way: Missouri should beat Villanova, and it probably won't be close.
Let's start with the simple stats and work our way into the more complex. Missouri is 7-0 with an average margin of victory of 27.9 points, including a 92-53 smackfest over a ranked California team at the CBE Classic on Nov. 22. Villanova is 5-2 with neutral-court losses to St. Louis and Santa Clara, and its five wins have come over heavyweights Monmouth, La Salle, Delaware, UC-Riverside and Penn. On a tempo-free basis, Missouri is one of the best 10 teams in the country, ranked No. 8 in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency statistics and No. 5 in adjusted offensive efficiency. Villanova, meanwhile, is ranked No. 54; its defense is ranked No. 124 in the country in adjusted efficiency and is allowing .98 points per possession. Unless Villanova experiences a magical defensive transformation in Madison Square Garden, it looks to be entirely overmatched by Missouri's group of balanced, lights-out scorers.
But there's hope for the Wildcats. Why? Rebounding. That has been -- and will continue to be -- this Missouri group's Achilles heel, especially since an offseason knee injury cost power forward Laurence Bowers his season. The Tigers are hauling in just 31.3 percent of their misses on the offensive end this season; they rank No. 211 in the country in the stat. Villanova, meanwhile, has held its opponents to an offensive rebounding rate of just 26.5 percent, a top-30 mark nationally.
Of course, Missouri hasn't had much need for offensive rebounds this season; it almost never turns the ball over, and it's one of the most accurate shooting teams in the country. And Villanova hasn't been great at challenging shooters or forcing turnovers, so the Wildcats may see too many of Missouri's first shots fall to keep the game close for long. But from a sheer talent standpoint, Jay Wright's team is -- at least theoretically -- capable of pressuring Missouri on the perimeter. If it can do that, if it can make Missouri miss -- and remember, this is Missouri's first game outside its home state this season -- this Tigers offense may just get out of sync.
It isn't likely. Missouri has looked like a buzz saw; Villanova has showed us little. But if Missouri's shooting doesn't keep pace, the Wildcats may just be able to force a closer game than any of us have reason to expect.
Washington vs. No. 11 Marquette, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: The second game in the Jimmy V Classic is a lot like the first. One team comes in with high-flying form; the other has talent and shows promise but has failed to capitalize on it in November and December. Marquette and Missouri are two of this season's most impressive teams; Washington and Villanova are two of this season's most mystifying.
In any case, the Eagles are coming off the program's best win in the Buzz Williams era, a rare road victory at rival Wisconsin's typically impenetrable Kohl Center. Marquette has been doing a bit of everything right this season. Its offense is productive and balanced: The six players with the six highest usage rates (Darius Johnson-Odom, Jae Crowder, Vander Blue, Junior Cadougan, Todd Mayo and Davante Gardner) all come in with a collective offensive rating average of -- get this -- 119.7. That is very, very good.
But Marquette has been good on the defensive end, too, ranking No. 14 in Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings and holding opponents to .89 points per possession. That defense was crucial in Saturday's win at Wisconsin, as Marquette held the Badgers to their worst offensive performance of the season.
Washington, meanwhile, remains something of an enigma. Guard Tony Wroten Jr., one of the most highly touted freshmen in the country (and perhaps the most impressive guard at this summer's Nike Skills Camps in Chicago) is one of the most-used players in the country. He's also, to this point, one of the least efficient. (More on this to come this afternoon.) More significantly, Washington's issues on the defensive end -- and specifically their inability to pressure opposing ballhandlers and force turnovers -- are the reason the Huskies dropped games to St. Louis and Nevada.
The good news? Those losses were entirely forgivable. Both came on the road in tough non-power-six buildings, and the Nevada loss was a one-possession 76-73 overtime defeat. The glass-half-full type would have to say that both are the perfect preparation for a trip across the country to play in Madison Square Garden. Besides, this team is still talented, and it's still early. What better opportunity to prove that talent -- to turn a corner -- than tonight?
Marshall at No. 3 Syracuse, 7 p.m. ET: Syracuse is really good. We know that much. Still, if you're looking to criticize a team for playing an easy nonconference schedule, the Cuse certainly gives you plenty of reasons. Jim Boeheim's team has yet to leave the state of New York this season -- its only games away from the Carrier Dome came at the NIT Season Tip-Off in Madison Square Garden -- and will do so only once (at NC State, Dec. 17) before the Dec. 28 start of Big East play. And other than Florida, Syracuse's nonconference dates have almost entirely comprised cupcakes.
Marshall is no cupcake. The Thundering Herd (one of the great nicknames in sports, it should be noted) proved their road warrior credentials at Cincinnati on Nov. 25 with a 73-69 overtime win, which came just three days after a tricky little road win at UNC-Wilmington. If you had to pick a team other than Memphis (which has struggled) to win C-USA this season, it would be the Herd.
Unfortunately, Marshall is not a threat from long range. In fact, Tom Herrion's team is one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in the country, averaging just 26.3 percent from beyond the arc this season. It's very difficult to conceive a team that is so challenged on the perimeter finding a way to score against Boeheim's vaunted 2-3 zone. The Cuse is used to this by now: There will be a lot of talk about Bernie Fine off the court, a lot of uncomfortable questions and unusual coverage, a lot of discussion about things the Orange's hypertalented players can't control. Meanwhile, on the court in the Carrier Dome, this talented Syracuse team has handled its business with ease. Expect more of the same tonight.
No. 20 Memphis at Miami (Fla.), 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2: Speaking of Memphis, the Tigers have spent their post-Maui days resting up and feasting on cupcake opponents at home. After a disappointing 1-2 performance in Maui (the only win coming in a thrilling overtime game vs. Tennessee) maybe a bit of confidence-building can be just what the doctor ordered.
Getting a road win at Miami will be no easy feat. The Hurricanes have been solid at home this season (their only two losses, to Ole Miss and Purdue, have come on the road), despite the injuries that have crippled Jim Larranaga's frontcourt in the early weeks of this season. That dearth of available frontcourt bangers is good news for Memphis, who need Tarik Black -- a frequent foul-trouble suspect this season -- to keep his hands to himself and stay on the floor. Because Black has so often been forced off the court by fouls, Memphis' rebounding has suffered on both ends of the floor: The Tigers are ranked No. 319 in the country in offensive rebounding percentage and No. 297 in opponents' OR%. If Black can stay out of foul trouble and feast on Miami's interior, the Tigers should be able to get officially back on track with a solid if unspectacular road win.
Everywhere else: There's not much else out there tonight, but do keep an eye on George-Mason at Virginia, where first-year Mason coach Paul Hewitt will test his new team's mettle against an impressive Cavaliers team on the road.