<
>

Saddle Up: Louisville and perception

Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of tonight's best basketball action. It has a turtle. It will never not have it.

Pittsburgh at No. 5 Louisville, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: Perception-wise, I'm not sure this game could come at a worse time for the Louisville Cardinals.

After Saturday's letdown at Georgetown, Rick Pitino's team has now lost three games in a row. The recriminations are flying. The national title hopes are being irrationally debated. Theoretically, a return home game against an unranked Big East squad is a chance to forcefully straighten it out -- to get that offense (particularly Russ Smith) going again, to handle business in front of a warm crowd, to dribble out a win in front of a standing ovation and put to rest, at least for now, any overheated concerns about the long-term trajectory of the team. When Pitino woke up this morning, no doubt that's exactly what he had in mind.

The only problem with all of that? Pittsburgh.

Here's the thing: For much of November and December, as the Panthers routinely ranked among the top 10 teams in the country in KenPom.com's adjusted efficiency ranking, it was easy to argue they were criminally underrated. Then Pitt (which didn't really beat anyone in the nonconference anyway) lost at home to Cincinnati, on the road to Rutgers and in OT at Marquette, all within its first four Big East games. Yes, the Panthers won 73-45 at Georgetown, but the repetitional damage was done: Pittsburgh in fact wasn't that good, or underrated by human eyes. They were just another team, like Wisconsin, freakishly overrated by Ken Pomeroy's flawed rankings system.

Maybe that's true, but the Panthers have now won four Big East tilts in a row -- including a game at Villanova, something neither the Cardinals nor Syracuse could handle last week -- and they're similarly well-regarded by pretty much every rankings system worth your time. As of Monday, they're No. 7 in KenPom, No. 11 at LRMC, No. 13 in Sagarin, No. 17 in BPI and No. 18 in Massey. You can argue that KenPom's ranking is too high, and you can watch Pittsburgh play and be less than impressed -- even I, the great self-appointed Pittsburgh prophet of November and December (in the year of our Lord 2012, amen), had to acknowledge that I was not particularly impressed, at least visually. But if you were reasonable enough to take an average of all of those statistically rigorous systems, you'd be dealing with the 13th-ranked, if not the 13th-best, team in the country.

Wherever you settle on the matter, Pittsburgh isn't as bad as you think. It's one of the five best offensive rebounding teams in the country, it's won its past three Big East road games, its last lost came when point guard Tray Woodall played just four minutes, its top four players according to usage rate (Woodall, Lamar Patterson, Talib Zanna, reserve J.J. Moore) all average above 120.0 in offensive rating, and it commits few turnovers on the offensive end, the exact characteristic you need if you're interested in knocking off the Cardinals.

Of course, it would be a bit foolish to pick Pittsburgh. For all of the Panthers' endearing underrated-ness, Louisville hasn't become a worse team in its past three games. It stalled on the offensive end at Villanova and Georgetown, sure, but both teams are playing excellent defense in Big East play. If Louisville can keep Zanna, freshman forward Steven Adams and Moore off the offensive glass, it has a very good chance to win tonight.

Point is, Pittsburgh's pretty good. Will Louisville's fans understand? Should they? Shouldn't they expect to beat pretty much anyone at home -- and expect to not lose four games in a row -- because that's not what national title contenders do? Will Pittsburgh finally prove its bona fides with a marquee win? Will the Louisville panic deepen no matter what? Louisville will enter this game tonight with its fans expecting a return to form in front of friendly admirers. I'm afraid it could get far more complicated than that.

No. 3 Kansas at West Virginia, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: I'd really prefer if this game fit with the underrated/perception versus reality theme of the night. I'd really like to extoll the unseen virtues of the 9-10 Mountaineers, to explain why this overlooked team is so dangerous. But I won't, because it isn't true. It's like trying to make a counterintuitive hipster argument in defense of Nickelback. I mean, I probably could do it. But it wouldn't be true, and really -- what's the point?

Fact of the matter is the Mountaineers haven't been good, which has come as a surprise to just about everyone, including Bob Huggins. At Big 12 media day in October, Huggins quipped that if his team was the sixth-best in the league -- where it had been voted by the coaches -- the Big 12 must be a "[heck] of a league." Whoops. The Mountaineers would be lucky to finish sixth in this down Big 12, a sign of how pedestrian their basketball has been for much of the season. More than anything, the Mountaineers struggle to shoot: Their 43.8 percent from inside the arc ranks them No. 299 in the country, and they shoot just 29.2 percent from 3, which is outside the top 300. That would be fine if they defended particularly well (they don't) or turned some of their offensive rebounds (the only thing they do do well) into buckets more frequently (they don't).

Thus far, West Virginia has been a big bowl of bad. There's no use talking around it.

And even so, teams as good as Kansas have lost to teams worse than WVU on the road in conference play before, arguably already this season. Besides, Morgantown is never an easy place to play, and you have to think WVU fans are going to be extra excited to welcome the blue-blooded Jayhawks to their humble West Virginia abode for the first time in school history. (They're planning an elaborate striped crowd pattern, while Kansas will be wearing new uniforms from adidas. Apologize to your eyeballs in advance.) All season long, Kansas has handled pretty much any task put in front of it -- scrapping out tough wins at home, hanging on on the road, taking down Ohio State in Columbus in December -- and you wouldn't expect them to change that now, especially against a team so bad at placing the ball through the orange cylinder. But on the road in conference play? At a first-time location? You really never know.