Saddle Up: Hoops season in Alabama

January, 8, 2013
1/08/13
1:33
PM ET
Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action. It is the greatest caller in the history of this show, PAWWWLLLL.

Alabama at No. 10 Missouri, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: I'm not sure whether Alabama fans are totally aware that they have a basketball team. I know for certain that today, the day after their Crimson Tide once again assumed their rightfully ordained place atop the college football universe, that they couldn't really care less about what the basketball team is up to tonight or has been up to lately.

But for the rest of us, for whom the national championship game marks the early edge of college basketball's most intense and interesting regular-season months (and also a huge decrease in sleep for yours truly), I'll tell you what Alabama basketball has been up to lately: losing.

The first loss came at Cincinnati, and it was a brutal one, the product of a last-second end-to-end Cashmere Wright buzzer-beater. At the time, the fact that Bama coach Anthony Grant's team played to within one possession on the road at Cincinnati was an affirmation of what we assumed was true about the Tide before the season started: That Trevor Releford and Trevor Lacey were a backcourt core to be contended with, and Alabama would be one of the top defenses in the country and top teams in the SEC.

Since that Dec. 1 loss, though, it's been all downhill. A home loss to Dayton. A home loss to Mercer. A home loss to Tulane. In all, the Tide begin SEC play at 8-5 with a nonconference résumé that makes their chances of getting to the NCAA tournament exceedingly long.

Tonight would be a good, albeit difficult, place to turn things around. The Tide aren't defending anywhere near their usual level under Grant, which is bad news when you're heading to Missouri to face Frank Haith's talented and versatile Phil Pressey-led group.

No. 15 Ohio State at Purdue, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: How good is Ohio State, exactly? After 14 games, two of them in the Big Ten, I have to be honest: I don't really know.

To be clear, I don't think OSU's dreadful performance at Illinois -- in which it shot 30 percent from the field and was never competitive with the Illini -- is a data point worth worrying about. But it is a data point, and others say that the Buckeyes haven't beaten anyone remotely good, and that anytime they've played anyone better than bad (November performance at Duke aside), they've looked pretty rough doing it.

As of now, the biggest issue with this team appears to be its interior play. With no "true" go-to post player -- Deshaun Thomas, good as he is, is a hybrid who likes to roam the perimeter, too -- the Buckeyes aren't rebounding their own misses like they did last season, and they aren't getting to the line nearly as much. You almost don't need tempo-free data; you can see it when they play. Until that changes, the Buckeyes will be limited.

Plus, there are no real gimmes in the Big Ten this season, but that's especially true at Purdue. Interesting game.

Pittsburgh at No. 19 Georgetown, 9 p.m. ET, ESPNU: Ohio State and Pittsburgh have a lot in common thus far this season, namely that I'm pretty sure both teams are good (if not top-10 good, then top-20 good). Both teams' per-possession data backs that up. But both teams' résumés paint a far less-flattering portrait, and their play on the floor hasn't been all that much to look at, either. As such, tonight marks a major chance for Pittsburgh to reclaim the early portion of its Big East season, which it has begun by losing rather shockingly at home to Cincinnati and on the road at Rutgers. The Panthers' offense let them down both times, which is not a good thing to have said about you when you go play Georgetown's smothering, ball-deflating D.

Elsewhere: Much as I'd love to tell you the first day of college hoops after football season is packed with tantalizing matchups, I'd rather be honest: There's not a whole lot out there tonight. DePaul will see if it can make any early Big East noise at Connecticut. … Clemson will be thrown into the Cameron Indoor Woodchipper. … Creighton should have no issue with Drake. … Baylor should have no issue at Texas Tech, which is about as bad as high-major basketball teams get. (No offense, Wake Forest.) … And fans of the America East get what should be a pretty entertaining Vermont trip to Boston U. Enjoy.
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