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Saddle Up: Will VCU and Drexel dance?

3/5/2012

Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best college hoops action.

VCU vs. Drexel, CAA final in Richmond, Va., 7 p.m. ET on ESPN/ESPN3.com: Will the CAA be a multiple-bid league on Selection Sunday? Tonight’s conference tournament title game between the Rams and the Dragons might determine that. The loser of the matchup will still deserve consideration. VCU (No. 54 RPI) has lost just one game since suffering a six-point road loss to Drexel in their only previous meeting this season Jan. 8. The Rams also have a nonconference win over Seton Hall.

Drexel has won 19 in a row. And the Dragons (No. 65 RPI) beat the Rams and George Mason on their way to the CAA’s regular season title. VCU, a Final Four team last year, lost most of its starters from that team but Bradford Burgess (13.5 ppg) has been a critical leader for Shaka Smart’s squad, which has played well down the stretch. Drexel is known for its suffocating defense. The Dragons’ first two CAA tournament opponents (UNC-Wilmington and Old Dominion) recorded 47 and 51 points, respectively.

Should be another thrilling CAA finale. For the winner, an NCAA tourney guarantee. The loser, however, will have to sweat it out on Selection Sunday.

Fairfield v. Loyola (Md.), MAAC tournament championship in Springfield, Mass., 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2/ESPN3.com: Sydney Johnson has found more postseason success a year after leading Princeton to the NCAA tournament via a last-second shot over Harvard in the Ivy League playoff. Fairfield struggled early (the Stags lost five out of six from Dec. 22 through Jan. 13), but they pulled off one of the biggest postseason upsets thus far with an 85-75 victory over Iona Sunday.

Loyola (Md.) has won three in a row. It finished second in the MAAC standings to Iona. The Greyhounds owned the league’s No. 2 scoring defense this season (64.5 ppg allowed). The Stags have the league’s top scoring defense (61.7 ppg allowed.) Both have obviously come on strong.

But it’s shocking that Iona missed the tournament title game despite possessing three of the most talented players in the country (Scott Machado, Michael Glover and Lamont “Momo” Jones). So this matchup is proof of the craziness that defines college basketball in March.

No. 18 Saint Mary’s v. No. 25 Gonzaga, WCC title game in Las Vegas, 9 p.m. ET on ESPN/ESPN3.com: Both squads have earned at-large bids to the NCAA tournament. So this isn’t about résumés or Selection Sunday jitters. This matchup is about one thing: bragging rights.

Yes, the Gaels earned the WCC regular season title. And they did it alone this year. It was the first time since 2000 that Gonzaga failed to earn a share of the WCC regular season championship. But the Zags have won 10 WCC tournament titles since the 1998-99 campaign.

If the Gaels win the WCC tourney, they’ll achieve the sweep of the regular season and tournament titles. But the Zags crushed the Gaels the last time they met (73-59 win in Spokane, Wash., on Feb. 9). And if they beat them again tonight, well, they’ll still have a stake in the “best in WCC” conversation. Saint Mary’s shot 50 percent from the field and only committed five turnovers when they beat Gonzaga in their first matchup this season. Gonzaga returned the favor by shooting 53 percent in the second meeting.

Davidson v. Western Carolina, Southern Conference tournament title game, 9 p.m. ET on ESPN2/ESPN3.com: Bob McKillop’s squad showcased its postseason potential when it pulled off a neutral-site upset over Kansas during the nonconference slate. The Bulldogs earned the Southern Conference’s south division title with a 16-2 record. De’Mon Brooks (15.9 ppg) and Jake Cohen (13.9 ppg) are a potent combo.

Everything about Davidson’s season has pointed toward a tournament title game appearance. It’s not surprising. Western Carolina, however, will play for the league’s automatic bid despite accruing an 8-10 conference record in the regular season. Harouna Mutombo –yes, he’s related to Dikembe (nephew) – has averaged 18.3 ppg for the Catamounts in his team’s last three games. The Catamounts have scored 82 points in each of their last two outings.

It’s hard to imagine a Western Carolina victory. But it’s surprising that it’s even playing for an opportunity to earn an invite to the Big Dance. Gotta love March Madness.