Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action. It hopes you aren't doing one of those New Year's Eve plans where you pay $100 for watery drinks and bad appetizers. (You are, aren't you?)
New Mexico at No. 8 Cincinnati, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2: I had this weird thing happen with my phone this week. The time just started skipping forward and backward an hour at a time, seemingly at random. I would lie down and take a nap -- disclosure: I took a lot of naps this week -- and when I woke up I wouldn't even realize my time was off until I made some comment about how I slept in until 10 a.m., only to have my mom give me a weird look and tell me it was 9.
I believed this whole thing was pretty clearly a product of magnetic polarity caused by Santa's increased presence in the area. After some Googling, I uncovered a far more pedestrian answer. But whether thanks to Santa (Santa!) or rote telecommunications system operations, the point is this very fundamental thing I have been relying on since I first started using a cell phone (college), which has worked perfectly since, was suddenly unreliable? What? For a brief period of time, I was forced to totally rethink my entire relationship with technology -- if I could even trust any of it anymore. At the very least, I realized I needed to start wearing a watch, which is itself an unreliable piece of old technology! When you're on your 85th viewing of "A Christmas Story," the mind can wander.
Then I traveled back to Chicago, and the thing started working again. I left well enough alone. In fact, until now, I had completely forgotten it even happened.
What does this have to do with college basketball? I'll explain.
For pretty much all of my basketball-obsessed childhood, Cincinnati was really good at basketball. From 1991-92 to 2004-05, Nick Lachey's Bob Huggins' teams never missed the NCAA tournament. They went to three Sweet 16s, two Elite Eights and one Final Four. The Bearcats were talented and hard-nosed and carried an outsider's chip on their shoulder, and every year I totally took them for granted. They just were.
And then Huggins was fired. And then the Bearcats weren't.
Now they are again. Mick Cronin has UC squarely in the top 10. This team is undefeated thus far this season, and playing some of the best per-possession defense in the country (the seventh best, to be precise, not to mention the best 2-point-shot defense in the country), and gobbling up rebounds on the offensive end, and utilizing versatile junior guard Sean Kilpatrick and relying on the efficiency of senior guards Cashmere Wright and JaQuon Parker. The Bearcats aren't pretty to watch, but they guard like crazy, they rebound and they play really hard.
In considering that fact before writing a nominal preview of Thursday night's lone interesting college hoops matchup, it was hard for me to almost not take it for granted. Like, we get it. Cincinnati's good. These guys were pretty good last season. We all expected them to be good this season. And they're almost always supposed to be good, at least to the part of my basketball brain that will forever be 10 years old, the same way my cell phone tower time is always set to the absolutely correct time. But these things we take for granted almost always take something immense and unseen -- whether the magic of modern telecom or the grindingly hard work of restoring a proud program to national relevance -- to make them real.
My phone alarm woke me up at the right time Thursday. Win or lose against a good New Mexico team, Cincinnati is good at basketball. All is as it should be.
(By the way, did you watch the video at the top of this post? You really should. Seth Greenberg uses the telestrator to break down the key matchups in this game. It's worth your time.)
Everywhere else: There are other games Thursday night, but you probably shouldn't watch any of them. College basketball likes to ease its way out of the Christmas break. (Except for San Diego State-Arizona, that is. What a game.)