Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's (or, in this case, day's) best basketball action. "Tell them about the dream, Martin."
Cincinnati at No. 6 Syracuse, 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN: That's right, fewer than 48 hours after Syracuse went to Louisville's Yum! Center and escaped with one of the best wins of the season, the Big East schedule requires that they now turn their attentions to one of the best and toughest teams in the league, the Cincinnati Bearcats. How's that for a two-day turnaround?
The good news, of course, is that this game is in the comfy confines of the Carrier Dome. The bad news is that Cincinnati is almost equally tough on the road as it is in its own building. The Bearcats already have three Big East wins to their name, including an impressive opening-day victory at Pittsburgh. There are two reasons for this travel-hardiness: defense and offensive rebounding. The Bearcats really defend. They've allowed just .86 points per possession thus far, 10th best in the country, and opposing teams are shooting the fifth-lowest two-point field goal percentage in the country. Mick Cronin's team is long and athletic and fast, and they run shooters off the 3-point line and force them to play their gritty, in-your-face style from 20 feet and in. On the offensive end, they don't shoot it particularly well, but they do rebound plenty of their own misses -- 40.4 percent, to be exact. This combination of defense and offensive rebounding means Cincinnati doesn't have to rely on a hot shooting night or some other road-vulnerable characteristic. Defense and rebounding travel, and so do the Bearcats.
It is that latter ability, plus the shooting of guard Cashmere Wright, that should most concern Syracuse Monday afternoon. The 2-3 zone has served Jim Boeheim well throughout his career (understatement!) and this season (less of an understatement, but still an understatement!); the Orange have allowed just .845 points per trip this season, third-lowest in the country. They invade passing lanes and force turnovers with their length, like pretty much every good Boeheim team of the past, oh, three decades. But the one good way to beat the zone is to shoot, and Wright, who has made 44.2 percent of his 104 3s this season, can definitely shoot. The zone is also susceptible to offensive rebounds. The Orange allow opponents to grab more than 30 percent of their misses.
In other words, this is not a particularly difficult game to scout. Syracuse should be fine, provided it a) doesn't give away too many offensive rebounds and b) finds Wright and runs him off 3-point shots. If those two things happen, Syracuse should have no problem handling the Bearcats at home. But if Cincinnati is allowed to do what it does best, the Orange may find themselves grinding out this tough two-day turnaround deep into the second half.
Oklahoma State at Baylor, 5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN: What if I told you that the final score of Baylor's last home game was -- wait for it -- 107-38? And that they set a school winning margin record in doing so? You would probably be really impressed, right? Don't be. The Bears racked up that tally against Hardin-Simmons, which is not a Division I opponent. I suppose if you insist on being impressed by that win, you could point to the fact that Baylor was able to destroy poor law firm-rec league-sounding Hardin-Simmons without Pierre Jackson and Isaiah Austin, whom coach Scott Drew elected to rest on Saturday. Your mileage may vary.
Anyway, if there is anything to take away from that game (beyond the fact that non-D1 opponents like Hardin-Simmons are exempt from RPI calculations, which is why it is savvy to schedule one or two a season and get a guaranteed tune-up game without the requisite RPI hit) it is that both Jackson and Austin don't have to fight the fatigue of a two-day turnaround when Oklahoma State comes to town this afternoon.
That is good news, because the Bears will need both. The Cowboys have built their 2012-13 renewal on one of the nation's five-best defensive efforts this season. Freshman point guard Marcus Smart's much-lauded intangibles don't always show up in the box score, but where they do show up is on the defensive end, where Smart ranks in the top 15 in the country in steals rate and blocks 3.3 shots for every 100 possessions. He is a difficult guard to play against, because his combination of size and quickness makes him uniquely immovable when he is planted in front of an opposing guard. That lockdown work on the perimeter, combined with Oklahoma State's impressive basket protection inside the arc (OSU opponents make just 40.1 percent of their twos), have fueled this season's impressive revival.
It's also precisely why Jackson and Austin need to be well rested and ready to go. Jackson might be the quickest guard in the country and serves not only as Baylor's primary scorer but its top assist man; everything runs through him. And Austin, the talented 7-footer with real guard skills, has had a good but not great freshman season. To hold on to a win in Waco, Jackson may need to dominate, and Austin will definitely need to be a presence in the paint. So, yes. It's good they sat out against Hardin-Simmons. (It was probably good for Hardin-Simmons, too.)
Georgetown at No. 20 Notre Dame, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN: You know what's interesting about this game, beyond the obvious facts that it is a) a rather important game for both teams and b) a prime-time Big East game on ESPN? The fact that it is a matchup of strengths and weaknesses, all at the same time.
The Hoyas, who lost 61-58 at South Florida Saturday, enter Monday still playing some of the best defense in the country. They've allowed just .88 points per trip to opponents, 17th best in the country. They are a bear to deal with, particularly in the half court, because they stay home, stay solid, and lock people down with Otto Porter and Greg Whittington, both 6-foot-8 forwards capable of guarding bigs and perimeter players in relatively equal measure. The problem? Georgetown's offense has been thoroughly mediocre. Their .995 points per possession ranks 178th in the country. Against even capable defenses, they can be almost painful to watch.
Notre Dame is almost the polar opposite. Don't be fooled by the Irish's (lack of) speed. Mike Brey's team is scoring at a top-10 rate efficiency-wise, and has been all season. But the Irish have an inverse Georgetown thing going on. Despite their very effective offense, as of Sunday night the Irish sat at 155th in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted defensive efficiency rankings. As an aside, this is why all these pace-adjusted statistics you see me cite in these previews are so helpful. If you just looked at ND's box scores, you would see a team that doesn't score that many points, but doesn't allow that many, either. But when a team averages only 63 possessions a game, that's what you get.
In short, Georgetown is a defensive team that can't score the ball; Notre Dame is an offensive team that can't defend. Your guess is as good as mine.