Saddle Up is our nightly look at the hoops your TV wants you to watch. Here's Thursday night's rundown.
No. 5 Syracuse at No. 10 Georgetown, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2: Sunday, Syracuse lost to Louisville. Sunday, Georgetown lost to Rutgers. Do those losses in any way diminish what we're likely to see at the Verizon Center tonight? Not even in the slightest.
If we've learned anything this season, it's that even the best Big East teams are prone to the occasional disappointment. Syracuse can lose at home to a bubble team. Georgetown can go to Rutgers and lose to one of the worst major conference teams in the country. (Villanova can give up 103 points on the road. You get the point.) And then these teams can come right back and play thrilling, high-level, Final Four-quality basketball. It's only fair for us to expect that much tonight.
Syracuse and Georgetown might be the two teams most familiar to basketball watchers -- it feels like both have been on national TV twice a week for months now -- but for the sake of the February newbies, let's do some previewin'. Jim Boeheim's team thoroughly dominated Georgetown at the Carrier Dome on Jan. 25 for two reasons: Georgetown shot poorly and readily gave the ball away. The former is maybe a bit unlucky, as Georgetown typically posts a 56-plus effective field goal percentage. The latter is all Cuse. Georgetown tried desperately to break into Syracuse's zone, and this led to 19 turnovers and a 28 percent turnover rate. Georgetown couldn't stop Syracuse on its own end, so those blown possessions were especially disastrous, and Syracuse rolled to an easy win.
The answer is rather simple: If Georgetown wants to win, it needs to make perimeter shots -- sharpshooting guard Austin Freeman especially -- and use that to stretch Syracuse away from the hoop, where Greg Monroe can operate. Fortunately, the Hoyas have a tendency to turn up their offense at home. (See: "scorching-hot blowouts over Villanova and Duke" in your reference manual.) It's that simple: Make shots. Northwestern had it right all along.
No. 21 Pittsburgh at Marquette, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2: Fortunately for Marquette, in statistics, there are these things called "corrections." (I have no idea what any of this means, but I like to pretend I do.) The Golden Eagles have been putting up impressive tempo-free numbers all year, but suffered eight losses in their first 19 games thanks to a grand total of 25 points. When you throw out the nine-point loss at Wisconsin on Dec. 12, Marquette lost seven games by a grand total of 16 points. That is capital-U Unlucky.
Marquette is starting to show results, though: The Eagles have won their last five, and they have a chance to make a statement at home tonight against a Pittsburgh team that refuses to fade as the regular season winds down. At 18 points and 8 rebounds per game, Lazar Hayward is one of the best players in the Big East, and he's a lot like his team: You may not realize it, but there's a lot to like up in Milwaukee these days. Don't let that deceptively ugly record fool you.
Everywhere else: Wisconsin will travel to Minnesota, where the Badgers will find a 14-10 team so disappointing, they will get distracted and completely forget why they came. (OK, probably not. That would be weird.) ... Ole Miss will battle Vanderbilt for a tournament spot in Oxford ... and it's Thursday night, which means there's a bevy of Pac-10 games you can completely ignore. That might be foolish, though, because you never know. Maybe a second Pac-10 team sneaks in the tournament, and you have to figure out your bracket. Why be unprepared? That just seems reckless.