- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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Saddle Up is our daily preview of the day's best basketball action. We're officially into that oh-so-awesome part of the season when a healthy portion of your daily hoops regimen will be happening during the day, necessitating Saddle Up's move to the morning. So let's do this.
Because trying to Saddle Up for every specific game on today's raucous conference tournament slate seems somewhat foolish (if not downright impossible) let's instead highlight five numbers, concepts or jargon you should watch out for in the next, oh, 16 hours or so. We'll cover every single game tomorrow, when the task is especially Sisyphean. More fun that way, right?
Special note: I'll be chatting the entire day starting at 12 p.m., alongside Brett, Diamond, and a whole batch of the college hoops faces you know and love. Join us, won't you?
OK, onto the things:
1. Big East bubble madness! The best conference in all the land features at least three teams sitting soundly on the bubble entering today's games -- Seton Hall (probably out), South Florida (probably out) and Notre Dame (probably in). South Florida has the best chance of all three to make an impression on the committee with its second-round game against No. 22 Georgetown. The Hoyas are still a ranked, talented team, but one that's very susceptible to upset, and the Bulls have the confidence of knowing they can beat John Thompson III's team anywhere in the country. (Thanks to Dominique Jones' 29 points and eight rebounds, the Bulls beat Georgetown at the Verizon Center on Feb. 3.)
South Florida's bubble standing will have a lot to do with how Seton Hall -- first-round survivors of one of the craziest games you'll ever see -- fares against Notre Dame. The Pirates have played themselves back into the tournament conversation in recent weeks; beating a hot Notre Dame team in the midst of its own late-season tournament run would be a nice little boost. One of the worst in the conference on the defensive end, Seton Hall will have to either find a way to stop Notre Dame's league-leading points-per-possession numbers ... or do its best to keep pace. Either way, both games should be entertaining. (And South Florida-Georgetown tips in a few minutes. Get that ESPN360 loaded!) Oh, and don't forget about Cincinnati, which could use a win over Louisville and then some to get back into bubbleland.
2. Big 12 bubble sadness! The Big East is full of bubble and seeding implications. The Big 12? Not so much. Joe Lunardi currently lists the Big 12's top seven seeds -- Kansas, Kansas State, Baylor, Texas A&M, Missouri, Texas and Oklahoma State -- as locks for the tournament. The remaining five teams -- Colorado, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Iowa State and Nebraska -- aren't at all on the bubble. It would take a momentous run by any of those five to mean something for bubble purposes. Do any of them have what it takes? Eh. Doubtful. But funny things happen in tournaments, and if any of the bottom five have a chance at a run, we'll seed the seeds of that run in today's first four games.
3. It ain't easy being Northeast. Without getting too fatalist, a word of advice for the Northeast conference tournament winner, which will be either Robert Morris or Quinnipiac: Live it up. The Northeast champion would do well to enjoy tonight's celebration, because being in the NCAA tournament and being from the NEC has for 28 years meant one thing: a first-round tournament loss. Yes, the NEC has been in the tourney for almost three decades now, but the entrant has never won a first-round tournament game, according to the uber-helpful folks from ESPN research. If No. 1 seed Quinnipiac finishes the job, the Bobcats will have won the NEC and made the NCAA tournament for the first time ever. And it'll be the first school to start with the letter Q to ever play in the Big Dance. Triple the party! Could a first NCAA tournament win be all that far behind?
4. The Pac-1? Or 2? Consensus on the Pac-10 has remained relatively stable since, oh, November: This is a one-bid league. Arizona State and Washington have both crept closer and closer to the tournament in the last few weeks, but both are still on the outside looking in; Mike Montgomery's Cal team is the lone at-large inclusion. That said, if either team can force its way through the first few rounds of the Pac-10 tournament -- or, obviously, win it -- they could potentially turn the Pac-10 into a two-big league with an option for three. Bad news for bubble teams. Good news for the west coast's most prominent, and most disappointing, conference.
Which is all a long way of saying that the Pac-10 tournament starts today, officially, with one totally forgettable game: Washington State-Oregon. There is a slight bit of drama here, though, regarding Oregon coach Ernie Kent's job. Yesterday, Kent told his players he'll be out as coach after the season is over. Will the Ducks win one (or, preferably for Ernie, three) for the Gipper? Or will they, like so many other teams faced with obvious coaching turmoil, fold in and end the season on a dour note?
5. The big country. Clean air and kitchens full of food aren't the only reason to turn your attentions westward today. No, there's a rather intriguing conference tournament match up on hand -- Weber State vs. Montana -- the winner of which will represent the Big Sky conference in the NCAA tournament. Both are familiar names; the Wildcats and the Grizzlies share the most conference tournament titles in league history, and today's game will mark the fifth time the two have met to decide the title. Look out for Weber State sophomore guard Damian Lillard, the purest scorer you've never heard of.