Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action. It would like to thank Ken Pomeroy for introducing the term "bid thieves" into the lexicon last season. As if adjusted efficiency wasn't generous enough.
VCU vs. Old Dominion, CAA Championship, ESPN, 7 p.m. ET: Pretty simple stuff here: If VCU wins, the Colonial is almost certain to get three teams -- Virginia Commonwealth, Old Dominion and George Mason -- into the NCAA tournament. If ODU wins, then VCU is almost certain to go to the NIT. In other words, if you're a fan of one of the teams on the bubble cutline (raise your hand if you support Michigan State, Clemson, Virginia Tech, Boston College, Colorado, Alabama, Georgia, Missouri State, or -- well, you get the picture) then you, by default, will be rooting for the Monarchs this evening. You need that extra bid. That at-large spot could be the difference between a trip to the NIT and the Big Dance. It's as big a game as your team won't play all season long.
But even those unconcerned about tournament implications should tune into this one. VCU-ODU isn't just a matchup of two of the nation's best mid-major entities. It's also a heated rivalry, one CAA Hoops detailed in a midseason article that will catch you up to speed with the quickness. Bottom line: The Rams and Monarchs share a history on the court -- where they're near-equals in 30 years of competition -- and off. Tonight, that rivalry is renewed, and there just so happens to be a conference tournament title and NCAA berth at stake. Forget your team's bubble position; any real hoops fan misses this game at her own peril.
Saint Mary's at Gonzaga, WCC Tournament Championship, ESPN, 9 pm. ET: Here's a question: Are both of these teams in the NCAA tournament?
Your immediate reaction might be: no. That reaction is understandable. It is also, at this point, wrong.
No, neither team has the best at-large resume in the world. Saint Mary's lost consecutive February games to San Diego, Utah State and Gonzaga, and its only top-50 RPI win came against St. John's all the way back during the ESPN Tip-Off Marathon on Nov. 22. (Feels like yesterday, doesn't it?) Gonzaga's best win came against Xavier in December, long before the Musketeers rounded into the impressive, cohesive unit they've since become.
But both teams have more to offer on their resumes than some of the uglier at-large bubble hopefuls out there, and both are in OK shape now that they avoided the ignominy of a WCC tournament upset on the way to the title game. (Gonzaga, for its part, nearly lost to San Fransisco on Sunday night; had USF not given a bad foul late, and then called a timeout when none were remaining, the Zags might be in much worse bubble shape.)
This title matchup is good news for the bubble -- neither team can truly "steal" a bid now -- and bad news for those looking for added tournament intrigue in the manner of VCU-ODU. But this title matchup is great for the WCC, and great for college hoops in general. The game features the West Coast Conference's top two programs. In an age when most rivalries are watered down, where players and coaches get along behind the scenes even as fans blast each other on message boards, these two programs happen to genuinely dislike each other. They are playing for an automatic NCAA tournament bid, but they're also playing for something just as important: legitimate conference superiority. The Zags have been the WCC's signature team for at least a decade. The Gaels are desperate to prove that there's room for more than one owner at the top.
In other words, the bubble doesn't need to move for this to be a big game. No, the Gonzaga-Saint Mary's rivalry has earned that distinction all on its own.
Everywhere else: Check the scoreboard for the rest of the mid-major tournament action tonight. Is Champ Week awesome or what?