- Myron Medcalf, ESPN Staff Writer
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Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action.
No. 20 Wisconsin at Minnesota, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: At some point tonight, Bo Ryan will scream at an official in response to a call he doesn’t like. At some point tonight, Minnesota fans will probably yell something that rhymes with “Duck the Badgers!” Why? Because these two teams don’t like one another. And this is what happens when Wisconsin travels to the Barn. But I’m not sure the stakes have ever been higher for Gophers coach Tubby Smith in a Wisconsin-Minnesota matchup. His program is struggling. There’s a very negative vibe about his job status swirling around the Twin Cities. This is a legitimate must-win situation for the Gophers (17-7, 5-6 Big Ten), who have lost six of their past eight games. Wisconsin, however, is climbing. The Badgers have won four of their past five and re-entered the Big Ten title conversation. The champion of the Big Ten could end the season with three or four conference losses, so Wisconsin (17-7, 8-3) doesn't have much room for error. It’s essentially also a must-win for a Badgers team that still has to face Ohio State and Michigan State before the end of the regular season.
St. John’s at No. 12 Louisville, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: Anything could happen in this matchup, right, with two teams that are often unpredictable? St. John’s will be facing the Cardinals without coach Steve Lavin, who lost his father, Albert “Cap” Lavin, last weekend. The Red Storm are coming off Sunday's lopsided 77-58 loss at Syracuse. And every night, St. John’s (15-9, 7-5 Big East) is fighting for its NCAA tournament future. This is a team on the bubble. A win against Louisville could pay big dividends on Selection Sunday. But Lavin’s squad tends to excel only in spurts. There’s nothing sexy about this Red Storm program based on the numbers alone. It is, however, an athletic, talented crew that can contend with the Big East’s best. Chris Obekpa is the top shot-blocker in the country (4.3 bpg).
But Louisville is one of the worst matchups for this young group. The Cardinals are first in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy. They’re experienced at every position, but they don’t always play like the more mature group. Take Saturday, for example. A team that should have finished off Notre Dame instead suffered a five-overtime loss. It was thrilling for fans, but the truth is Louisville should have won in regulation. The drama was unnecessary. But the drama -- as Louisville fans know all too well -- was not that foreign for Russ Smith and Co.
No. 5 Gonzaga at Saint Mary’s, 11 p.m. ET, ESPN2: This is the only team that can stand in Gonzaga’s way. In the West Coast Conference, it’s Gonzaga ... and everyone else. Maybe. The Gaels put up a fight in the first matchup between the teams (an 83-78 loss for Saint Mary’s on Jan. 10) even though Matthew Dellavedova went 4-for-15 from the field. They haven't lost since, winning nine straight. They’re ranked fifth in adjusted offensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy. Gonzaga, however, is ranked fourth. This is a battle between a pair of offensive powers, and this is a true rivalry. Saint Mary’s earned both the conference and postseason tourney titles last season. If the Zags win tonight, then they’ll likely regain the WCC crown. But it will not be easy. There's too much on the line in this rivalry matchup.
Elsewhere: No. 9 Arizona at Colorado features a Buffaloes squad that has won five out of six. Arizona has not been invincible. The Wildcats suffered a 77-69 loss to Cal on Sunday that created more uncertainty about Arizona’s status in the Pac-12. The loss makes UCLA-Cal more interesting, too. Does any team want to win this league? If so, please stand up.