<
>

Saddle Up: 'Cuse face next road challenge

Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action. Sometimes it wishes there were more hours in the day.

No. 4 Syracuse at Cincinnati, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: One quick item of business before yours truly sets about previewing this game: How on Earth is Cincinnati not ranked?

Better yet: How on Earth did Cincinnati receive just four votes in this week's ESPN/USA Today coaches poll? This is the kind of thing better saved for Poll Thoughts, but I missed it earlier this afternoon. Why? I'm not sure, but at least part of it had to do with an assumption that Cincinnati was ranked, and duh, of course they're ranked, and that's that. But they're not! And they got just four votes?! What the ... ?

In any case, don't let the noteworthy absence of a number next to Cincy's name obscure the truth: This is a very good Bearcats team, quite possibly the second-best team in the Big East this season. At the very least, the Bearcats have looked that good these past two weeks. After a home loss to St. John's on Jan. 7, Cincinnati went on the road and beat Georgetown, handled Villanova at home, toppled then-No. 11 Connecticut on the road and, most recently, lost a one-possession game in overtime at West Virginia. Few teams in the country, let alone the Big East, have played this well on the road in the first few weeks of conference play.

Why the seemingly sudden improvement? The Bearcats seem to have emerged from their Dec. 10 brawl with crosstown rival Xavier stronger and more cohesive on both ends of the floor. More importantly, perhaps, Cincinnati learned how to play without suspended forward Yancy Gates, whose absence often forced coach Mick Cronin to play four-guard lineups with a slightly different style of play. Turns out, that style suits Cronin's team well. He's mostly stuck with it since, and the versatile guard play has spread opposing defenses and allowed guards Sean Kilpatrick, Dion Dixon and Cashmere Wright to find more space and fluidity in their attack.

In other words: This is a major road challenge for Syracuse, one of the toughest this team has faced (or will face) all season long, and it comes just two days after the Orange suffered their first loss of the season. That loss — at Notre Dame — was easy to write off. Syracuse was missing sophomore big man Fab Melo to an unresolved first-semester academic issue. It also shot the ball horribly. That it did so on the road against a team well-suited to slowing the game down and making every possession count ... well, Syracuse was bound to have that kind of a road conference loss eventually.

The question now is whether Syracuse — which so often seemed to be in some kind of effortless cruise control in its first 20 wins — can bounce back. It will be missing Melo again, for starters, and that's not good. But this team is deep enough and talented enough that it should be able to overcome the loss of its promising sophomore center. This two-day stretch marks the start of the real meat of Syracuse's Big East schedule. In the next three weeks, it will face road tests and home challenges unlike much of what came before.

All year, this team has responded to adversity, whether real or perceived, with steely excellence. How the Orange respond now — without Melo, on short rest on a back-to-back road trip, playing against one of its conference's hottest teams — promises to be fascinating.

Texas A&M at No. 5 Kansas, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: Remember when Texas A&M was the Big 12 coaches' preseason pick to tie with Kansas for the conference crown? Barely. But rest assured, it happened. And since then, the Aggies have done little to justify the league's faith.

The Aggies lost to both of the quality teams (Mississippi State, Florida) on their nonconference schedule. They also lost to Rice at home. The start of Big 12 play didn't go much better: Texas A&M opened with three straight losses, including a 74-50 home defeat to Iowa State, and since then its only two conference wins have come at home over Texas Tech and Oklahoma (which it needed overtime to dispatch Saturday).

Why all the struggles from what most expected to be another solid — if not better — Aggies team? Almost shockingly inept offense. Texas A&M currently ranks No. 246 in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy; this team was never a barnburner under former coach Mark Turgeon, but its slow-paced style still yielded much more than a point per trip. This season, A&M is scoring .96 (adjusted) points per possession. Since the start of conference play, that number has slipped to .90 — ninth-best in the Big 12.

If it's tough to score more than .77 points per trip at home against Iowa State, it's going to be just about impossible to put up points in Allen Fieldhouse. Not only are the Jayhawks incredibly difficult to beat at home — just ask Baylor, if you like — they're also one of the country's best defensive teams, bar none. One underrated reason for this defensive dominance? Center Jeff Withey. Withey blocks a shot on 14.75 percent of his available opportunities, ranking him among the five or six best shot-blockers in the country. His block rate is, believe it or not, higher than Kentucky forward Anthony Davis's. That's not to say Withey is a better shot-blocker than Davis. I'd take Davis any day. (Had to get that one out of the way before the Kentucky fans freaked out. Preemptive strike!) The point is, Withey is much, much better than most people think — and a main reason this Kansas team, derided as more shallow and less talented than any of Bill Self's recent squads, hasn't experienced much of a drop-off in 2012.

It would be nice to see some good things happen for the Aggies. Forward Khris Middleton has missed large chunks of the season due to a meniscus tear in his right knee; he aggravated that injury again Saturday and will be a game-time decision according to our ESPN crew in Lawrence. In October, coach Billy Kennedy was diagnosed with early-stage Parkinson's, and he's had to balance his duties to his new program with the treatment and advice of his doctors. All around, it's been a tough few months for Texas A&M hoops, and yeah, you know, the once-touted, disappointing Aggies probably deserve to catch a break.

But at Allen Fieldhouse? Against this Kansas team? In these conditions, the chances A&M finds a break -- or a breakthrough -- seem drastically slim.

Everywhere else: Other than Big Monday, it's a pretty tepid slate out there, but there are some interesting CAA games available. Speaking of catching a break, 0-20 Towson is on the road at Delaware. After more than 12 months of constant losing, is this the night the Tigers finally, mercifully get off the schneid? Probably not. But it has to happen eventually, right?