Saddle Up: Syracuse in the spotlight

Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action. It is struggling to put down this book.

Long Beach State at No. 4 Syracuse, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN2: First things first -- this Long Beach State team is not the Long Beach State team of 2011-12, wherein Larry Anderson and Casper Ware were a real threat to topple any or all of the big-name teams they faced in Dan Monson's insane nonconference schedule. This LBSU team, though probably more athletic than the rest of the Big West Conference, is far younger, far more unpolished and far less effective than it was last season.

In other words, sure, LBSU might go to the Carrier Dome and take down Syracuse on Thursday night. But I doubt it.

If anything, this game -- which comes during a so-so Thursday night slate -- is about reintroducing the world to this Syracuse team, which feels just a teensy bit under the radar a la Florida.

There are a couple of pertinent things to know about Syracuse:

1. Despite losing Kris Joseph, Scoop Jardine and one of the nation's best shot-blockers in Fab Melo, Syracuse hasn't lost a step on defense this season. In fact, Jim Boeheim's team is vastly improved. Why? Because sophomore Rakeem Christmas is blocking shots at nearly the same rate as Melo without allowing the Orange to get outclassed on the defensive glass, which was their one unsightly characteristic in 2011-12. Along with freshman DaJuan Coleman and junior Baye Keita, Boeheim has three viable options to play in the back of his vaunted 2-3 zone, and together he doesn't have to sacrifice one defensive trait (blocks) for another (rebounds).

2. James Southerland has become a knockdown shooter. Anyone who saw Syracuse's win over Arkansas on Friday can attest to this (Southerland dropped 35 points on 9-of-13 shooting from beyond the arc). After that game, his splits look like this: 10-of-13 from the free throw line, 69.2 percent from inside the arc, 47.4 percent outside it. At 6-foot-8, there are few defenders who will be able to contest Southerland's shot; if he's even 75 percent this efficient the rest of the season, look out.

3. Michael Carter-Williams is good, dude. There was a lot of hype in the preseason that said as much, but it was hard to gauge, mostly because Carter-Williams was so sparingly used in Syracuse's ultra-deep backcourt last season. But now that Carter-Williams has the ball in his hands more than any other player -- he leads the Orange in usage rate (26.0) -- he has proved to be as talented and versatile as advertised.

Carter-Williams does a handful of things well. He can get to the rim or score from midrange in the lane. He grabs defensive rebounds, uses his long reach to create steals and handles the ball well. But more than anything else, Carter-Williams sets up his teammates. As Luke Winn pointed out Wednesday, MCW's assist rate of 50.2 percent is the third-highest in the country. That means Carter-Williams is setting up his teammates on half of their buckets, while turning it over just 25 percent of the time.

You would expect a talented 6-6 forward to be a versatile, even gifted, scorer. You would not expect him to be one of the best point guards in the country. Thus far, that's how MCW is playing. It's really impressive.

No. 16 Creighton at Nebraska, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN3: This game is an ESPN3 exclusive, which basically means that the only place you can watch it is on your computer screen (or your TV, if you have your Xbox hooked in to ESPN). Needless to say, this is not an ideal situation for folks out in Nebraska, many of whom would probably like to watch the game on the accepted device most normal, non-obsessive basketball fans use to watch basketball.

But there is an upside. For one, if it were just a locally televised broadcast, I wouldn't get to watch it. Second, according to this article, the lack of TV availability may have helped sell more tickets: "Husker officials said that as of Wednesday afternoon, fewer than 1,000 tickets remained. The Devaney Center seats 13,595. The largest home crowd so far was 8,491 on Monday night for USC." Whether you want to credit the TV schedule or on the fact a ranked Creighton team is coming to Lincoln to play a surprisingly 6-1 team coached by an energetic, young first-year guy -- it's probably some of both -- the end result is going to be a very well-attended state rivalry-style basketball game that shouldn't be easy for Creighton by any stretch of the imagination. I can't wait to watch it on my MacBook.