Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action. It remains blown away by "Paperman," no pun intended.
Illinois at No. 13 Michigan State, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN
At this point, you know the Illinois drill.
The Illini began the season as one of the nation's most surprising teams. In November they stormed the Maui Invitational, which included a 78-61 win over Butler; in December they went to Gonzaga and won by 11. How? Long-range shooting. The Illini began the season shooting the 3 very well -- they were one of the 10 or 15 most accurate offensive squads in the country -- and under first-year coach John Groce, Brandon Paul & Co. were given a mandate to fire at will. They did, and the shots went in, and when you both shoot and make a lot of 3s, there's not a lot defenses can do to stop you.
You also know the Illini have since fallen off in a major way. They're just 2-5 in Big Ten play, and losers of five of their last seven. Why? Because they're not making shots. In fact, no Big Ten team has shot the 3 worse than Illinois in league play; the Illini are shooting just 24.5 percent while still shooting the third-highest rate of 3s to field goal attempts (40.1 percent) in the conference. When you shoot a lot of 3s and they don't go in, defenses don't even have to work to stop you. (It hasn't helped that Illinois' opponents have made 37.6 percent of their 3s. When it rains, you know?)
So the fundamental question to ask about Illinois is whether it can get hot from deep once more. In the long term, U of I fans would probably just like to see their team settle into something like mean 3-point accuracy, and that would be fine for the rest of the year. But at Michigan State? Against a team that is demonstrably better in basically every way? The Illini need to get really hot right now.
No. 8 Arizona at Washington, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN
We haven't had much reason to check in on Washington this season. It was actually kind of nice of the Huskies to lose at home to Albany all the way back on Nov. 13; it was a swift confirmation that Lorenzo Romar had a rebuilding job on his hands, and that there wasn't going to be much to see here in 2012-13.
For the most part, Washington has lived up to that impression. There have been patches of impressive play, particularly in the first four Pac-12 games, when Washington started with three straight road victories at Wazoo, Cal and Stanford, followed by a win over Colorado at home. (The Nov. win over St. Louis was nice, too.) But Washington quickly lost its next three conference games, and while one of those was a hard-fought five-point loss at Oregon, another was a home loss to Utah. If you want to be generous, you can call that a wash.
Which is not to say that Arizona won't have its share of challenges to deal with Thursday night. The first is containing guard C.J. Wilcox, who not only takes 30.8 percent of UW's shots but shoots 41.9 percent from 3-point range and 50.6 percent from inside the arc. Those are the kinds of numbers that can add up to explosive individual performances, at least every so often, and you better believe Sean Miller will have a defensive plan for Wilcox at the ready.
Other than that, the Wildcats merely need to bring their offense along for the ride. Washington's defense is OK at best, and the Wildcats are approximately 10 times more talented, but weird things can happen on the road in conference play. If Mark Lyons & Co. keep things running smoothly, Arizona should be fine.
Elsewhere: Huge A-10 game for St. Louis on Wednesday when the famed Butler Bulldogs come to town. Brad Stevens' team has taken the A-10 by storm and looks set to dethrone not only the Billikens and preseason favorite Saint Joe's but perennially dominant programs like Temple and Xavier, too. There are many challenging games for Rotnei Clarke & Co. left before they can talk about hoisting the A-10 title in their first season, but few will be quite as difficult as this. … UConn is at Providence. … Drexel is at George Mason, which just makes me pine for the old CAA. … Arkansas at Alabama wins your "nondescript SEC game of the night" award. … and Gonzaga will have to keep things moving on the road at Loyola Marymount.