- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action.
Cincinnati at No. 10 Louisville, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN
Did you jump off the Louisville bandwagon? It's OK to admit it. After all, those three straight losses in late January -- falling apart late and failing to protect home court against Syracuse, following it up with a lackluster performance at Villanova, looking truly ugly against Georgetown (before we knew just how good Georgetown was) -- were at least worth considering. They had some of you shaken. And what about that five-overtime loss at Notre Dame? Sure, sure, you lose in five overtimes, a deep sub who doesn't play a minute of regulation (Garrick Sherman) scores 17 points on you after the opponent's star forward fouls out, and you sort of have to admit that maybe it just wasn't your night. But Russ Smith's performance in that game did happen, those horrible decisions replaying over and over, and if on Sunday, Feb. 9 you were suddenly disinclined to trust the Cardinals with something so important as your Final Four bracket, you could be forgiven.
All of that concern, valid though it may have been at the time, is starting to look a little silly now. Louisville got right after the loss in South Bend, thanks in no small part to a schedule that went St. John's, South Florida, Seton Hall and DePaul, a veritable sample platter of some of the Big East's worst teams. That allowed the Cardinals to rebuild some confidence, if that was even a problem in the first place. At the very least it allowed Smith & Co. to shake off the gross aftermath of that loss to the Irish and plow forward toward bigger and more important goals.
After Saturday's ugly but wholly impressive win at Syracuse, I think we can all evaluate the Cardinals sanely once more. If you thought Louisville was a national title favorite in October, you shouldn't change your opinion now. This is the team you signed up for: a great defensive squad (the nation's No. 1 adjusted efficiency defense pretty much all year, a stifling group on the perimeter backed up by an elite shot-blocker and rebounder in Gorgui Dieng), a hit-or-miss offensive outfit, a quirky and off-kilter star guard (Smith) and a coach as good as any in the country, who always seems to have something up his sleeve. If Cincinnati is to spring this upset tonight, its only real hopes rest in trying to: (a) guard and (b) not allow Smith and Peyton Siva to force steals, which is the one offensive thing Cincinnati has really done well throughout Big East play. But it appears Louisville is absolutely who we thought they were, and this being March, they are not a team you want to play anywhere -- the Carrier Dome, its own building, Madison Square Garden, you name it.
Baylor at Texas, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN
One of these teams is 5-11 in its league, 13-16 overall, barely ranked inside Ken Pomeroy's top 100 (No. 97, to be exact) and scoring only 0.97 points per possession in Big 12 play. The other is 17-12, 8-8 in the Big 12, and itself only narrowly cracking the point-per-trip barrier (1.03) in league play. And this is undoubtedly the most fascinating game of the night.
Don't get me wrong: That is not meant as an insult to Cincinnati-Louisville or the rest of the selective Monday night slate (OK, maybe Texas Tech-Kansas, just a little bit). It's actually pretty straightforward. It's about Baylor, and the chance to see how the Bears respond when they're cornered with their season on the line.
It is the final week of the regular season, and Baylor is currently nestled among Joe Lunardi's first four out. The Bears are, put simply, fighting for their tournament lives. They're doing so after one of the most heartbreaking and brutal losses you'll ever see (and probably have already, numerous times). In short, Baylor's last-second (literally) baseline inbounds was overthrown the full length of the court without (according to the referees) being touched by any player. It resulted in a Kansas State baseline takeover, which resulted in a wide-open shot for Rodney McGruder, which resulted, of course, in a last-second Kansas State win.
Other than the Jayhawks, you can't do much better in the Big 12 than beating the Wildcats; their NCAA tournament profile is pretty stellar. And Baylor had its chance, and it missed it -- and missed it in one of the most spectacular ways possible.
Now Baylor has to essentially pretend like Saturday never happened and get it together in time to hold off a Texas team that is no easy out with star guard Myck Kabongo back in the building. A loss at Texas would be a bad one, RPI-wise. It certainly wouldn't be résumé-neutral, even if the committee takes into account (and it will) Kabongo's return.
And Saturday was just two days ago. There has been no time for rest and recuperation and orange slices, let alone the deep psychological arthroscopy required to pluck out whatever scar tissue remains from losing like that barely 48 hours ago. It is not unfair to say that this game will be the deciding moment in Baylor's season -- the moment it bucked up and pressed ahead, or the moment it folded from the stress. Not bad for a nondescript conference game between two teams with 13 combined conference wins, huh?