Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action.
No. 14 NC State at Maryland, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2: Despite its 3-0 ACC start, the fact of the matter is that NC State's defense -- much like the nonconference portion of the season -- still isn't very good. In three conference games, the Wolfpack have yielded 1.04 points per trip to opponents (opponents that, in addition to Duke, include Boston College and Georgia Tech).
The good news? NC State's offense is really good. Its 1.16 points per trip is tops in ACC play, and its 1.17 points per possession this season is among the 10 most efficient marks in the country. In addition to heavily used stars Lorenzo Brown and C.J. Leslie, forward Richard Howell has become an interior force, T.J. Warren is one of the most efficient offensive players in the country, and Scott Wood is lights out (45.2 percent this season) from 3.
Even so, that disparity between offense and defense is a tad bit disconcerting, if only because there are two places where your offense is most likely to abandon you: On the road and in the NCAA tournament. Slumps come and go, nerves can take over, but you can always guard. Can NC State still get there? Or is this just who they are?
That's just one reason why this game is so fascinating; the other is that it gives this Maryland team, such an enigma to date, a real show-me moment. The Terps won 13 straight in November, December and early January, but most (if not all) of those wins were of the cupcake variety. (The best, other than maybe at Northwestern, was a 76-69 home win over a good Stony Brook team.) In their past two ACC games, the Terps fell at home to Florida State and scored 47 points on the road at Miami, neither of which is particularly flattering. Now they're at home, against a team that can pour it on but doesn't guard particularly well, with a national audience looking in. It's a big opportunity.
UNLV at No. 15 San Diego State, 10 p.m. ET, CBS College Sports: Nothing is going to come easy in the 2012-13 Mountain West. Just ask both of these teams' fans. Thus far in conference play, UNLV has lost a battle at New Mexico 65-60, and needed overtime to hold off a pesky Air Force team 76-71 in the Thomas and Mack. San Diego State, meanwhile, barely held on to a 65-62 win at Fresno State last week and needed its own OT period to get a 79-72 victory Saturday over an even peskier Colorado State. Jamaal Franklin's destroyer-of-worlds dunk against Fresno State might have led you to the impression that SDSU was pleasantly entertaining itself en route to easy early conference victories. That has not been the case.
This is all good news for us, of course: The chances of this game being close seem relatively high.
In fact, even if the Aztecs are clearly better to date, UNLV and SDSU are pretty stylistically similar. They both play their best on the defensive end, and they both struggle to score at times. The Rebels have scored 1.06 points per possession and allowed just .90; the Aztecs have scored 1.05 and allowed just .89. UNLV plays at a much faster pace than does San Diego State, but both teams have one player upon which they rely very heavily. For SDSU, that's Franklin. For UNLV, it's Anthony Bennett.
It would be a trip to see 6-foot-5 Franklin -- one of the nation's most fearsome all-around wing players -- try to guard the 6-8 Bennett on the low block, but it is probably not the best strategic play. Either way, Bennett is crucial to UNLV's hopes of entering The Show's house and pulling out a win. He is the Rebels' only player with an offensive rating above 110 (his is 124.1), even as he leads his team in usage rate. When Bennett is rolling, he not only gets UNLV some easy post offense, but he makes up for the rest of the lineup's lack of scoring with offensive rebounds (he grabs 12.4 percent of his team's misses) and putbacks. But the Rebels' backcourt of Anthony Marshall and Justin Hawkins still needs to prove it can make the right plays down the stretch, and freshman sharpshooter Katin Reinhardt still needs to really get going to give this team another offensive option. Trying to do any of these things in Viejas, let alone all of them, is a tall order indeed.
Elsewhere: Wednesday is one of those college hoops nights that favors quantity over obvious quality, but it is the experience of this college hoops writer and frequent Saturday recapper that such days are the most likely to produce insane results. So, you know, don't go to bed too early. Just in case … No. 19 New Mexico will go to Boise, which is 13-2 and a real NCAA tournament at-large threat; this might be the best game of the night. … Colorado is at Washington, which after an abysmal start to the season began Pac-12 play with three road wins at (Wazzu, Cal and Stanford). … and Saint Mary's travels to BYU to face Brandon Davies and Tyler Haws, who are having quietly excellent seasons for the Cougars.