<
>

Saddle Up: More auto bids on the line

3/6/2012

Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action. Conspiracy Keanu just totally blew its mind.

The Big East tournament is officially underway, so keep your eyes peeled for updates from Kieran Darcy and Dana O'Neil throughout the afternoon and evening. For now, though, let's preview the three games with automatic bid implications on the docket tonight -- conference championships in the Sun Belt, Summit and Horizon. One quick observation: The following three games include appearances from the Leathernecks, Jackrabbits, Titans, Crusaders, Hilltoppers and Mean Green. The obvious conclusion: Having an awesome team nickname guarantees a trip to your conference's tournament title game. That's the only explanation.

Western Kentucky vs. North Texas, Sun Belt championship, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2: The way most conferences (i.e., all of them except the Ivy League) handle their automatic bids (with the AQ going to the conference tournament champs, as opposed to the winners of the regular season), is a trade-off between fairness and fun. All things considered, Middle Tennessee, which was clearly the Sun Belt's best team all season, would be the league's best representative in the NCAA tournament. Until its second-round loss to Arkansas State, the Blue Raiders were even a fringe at-large contender. But, well, they lost to Arkansas State. That means an otherwise excellent season will probably end in the NIT, while one of these two teams will fly the Sun Belt flag in next week's NCAA tournament. And that, particularly in the case of Western Kentucky, is where "fairness" can happily take a backseat to good, old-fashioned March fun.

See, the Hilltoppers have not had a good season. You can tell as much from their 14-18 overall record, or their 7-9 mark in the Sun Belt, or their No. 197 overall rank in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency. Or, you could harken back to Jan. 5, when Louisiana-Lafayette beat WKU with six men on the floor on the final possession, a comedy of errors that ended with then-WKU coach Ken McDonald's firing. And look at the Hilltoppers now: If they beat North Texas tonight -- a team led by former elite (and academically ineligible) Missouri recruit Tony Mitchell -- they'll be in the NCAA tournament. How cool is that? OK, if you're a Middle Tennessee fan, don't answer that. But for the rest of us, I'd say the trade-off at work here is one we'll happily continue to make.

Detroit at Valparaiso, Horizon League championship, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: After the losses of Shelvin Mack, Matt Howard and Gordon Hayward (and a handful of other key players from two straight miracle runs to the Final Four), the Horizon League no longer finds itself wedged beneath the steel-toed boot of a dominant Butler program. Valpo saw to that this past weekend, when it dumped Butler 65-46 in the league's tournament semifinals. On the other side of the bracket, Detroit's talented bunch -- including guard Ray McCallum Jr., who two years ago spurned top high-major schools in favor of playing for his dad at Detroit -- advanced past a fading Cleveland State squad. It's hard not to give the advantage to the Crusaders, given the way they systematically handled Butler and its anemic offensive attack Saturday.

But this game will have a different feel: Neither team specializes in defense (Valpo and Detroit finished ranked No. 5 and No. 7, respectively, in adjusted defensive efficiency in the Horizon League this season), but both are excellent on offense. And Detroit's attack -- McCallum's athletic prowess mixed with the stellar offensive rebounding of former Indiana transfer Eli Holman -- is sure to give Valpo some serious issues on its own floor. But that's another huge advantage: This game takes place on Valpo's campus, in Valpo's gym, the benefit of owning the top record in Horizon play this season. Should be a good one.

Western Illinois at South Dakota State, Summit League championship, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2: If you're an average college hoops fan, chances are you haven't seen South Dakota State's Nate Wolters on live television yet this season. If so, man, are you missing out. Wolters, a 6-foot-4 guard, leads his team in points (21.5), rebounds (5.1), assists (6.1) and steals (1.7) per game, and he has produced those stellar numbers while posting a top-10 usage rate nationally (32.4 percent) and still maintaining a glittery 117.4 offensive rating. The dude can ball. Chances are the Jackrabbits take this title home tonight; they're playing a hot but clearly inferior Western Illinois team on their own floor in Sioux Falls, S.D., and they have one of the best players in the country, forget the conference, on their side. If they don't win, it would be a massive upset and a major bummer for the NCAA tournament, which is always at its best when as many Nate Wolters types are involved as possible. But hey, upsets happen. Crazy things happen. Look at Western Kentucky. Best bet: Watch Wolters tonight. You can never be too safe.