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Thursday, January 12, 2012
Saddle Up: So much drama in the WCC

By Eamonn Brennan

Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action. It does not know how hard being Snoop D-O-double-G really is. Still relatively dramatic, it seems.

No. 17 Virginia at No. 6 Duke, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: The ESPN Stats and Information crew makes my job easier on a daily basis, but rarely more so than today. I don't need to analyze the statistical tendencies of either Virginia or Duke in this space. The stats crew already pretty much nailed it.

Instead, let's briefly reflect on the stakes, which go a little deeper than who will or won't end the season with the second- or third-best record in the ACC. More interesting to me here is the less tangible: Will being at home help Duke solidify its subpar defense? Can Virginia forward Mike Scott -- the subject of a 600-comment thread on Jason King's first Wooden Award projection yesterday, and to date perhaps the most important player to any one team in the country (and also one of the most efficient) -- have his national coming-out party? These are the two storylines heading into this game, and watching them (and others) unfold under the bright lights of Cameron Indoor should be a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

No. 23 Gonzaga at Saint Mary's, 11 p.m. ET, ESPN2: If you're looking for non-NBA reasons to stay up and watch basketball all night, and you feel like the Pac-12 might not do it for you this season (gee, I wonder why), you've got a couple of options. You've got the Mountain West. You've got the West Coast Conference.

Both come highly recommended, particularly at the top, but the WCC has its own brand of charm. Maybe it's the small gyms, maybe it's the occasionally remote Pacific Northwest locales, maybe it's the still-a-mid-major feel of almost all of the league. Whatever it is, these days it's more than charm. The WCC title race -- which for so long was less a "race" than Gonzaga's casual jog around the block, with occasional stops to gossip with neighbors --  has gone from a Zags-dominated affair to one shared nearly equally by Gonzaga and arch-rival St. Mary's. And now, thanks to conference realignment (your friend and mine), BYU, too.

All of which is why tonight's game is one of the better reasons you'll get this season to stay up way past your bedtime watching college hoops. Gonzaga is still this league's favorite, easily the most impressive team we've seen, one that has played its typically brutal nonconference schedule and shined through most of it. The addition of Kevin Pangos has made this team much more balanced than last season's edition; a slimmed-down Elias Harris is playing productive basketball again; and the addition of silky lefty Sam Dower to the Bulldogs' frontcourt has made them multi-dimensional and very difficult to guard.

But make no mistake: St. Mary's isn't just trying to knock off Gonzaga anymore. It isn't just trying to upset the balance of power. It isn't playing rivalry spoiler. The Gaels have their own designs on a league title and NCAA tournament berth, and given how well they've played on the offensive side of the ball this season -- they're scoring 1.14 points per possession on offense, 11th-best in the country (per Pomeroy) -- this position is fully reasonable.

With the exception of various potential upsets along the way, this game is one of four or five -- played between St. Mary's, BYU and Gonzaga (the Gaels already impressively beat BYU, 98-82, on Dec. 29)  -- that will determine the result of one of the most quietly entertaining conference title chases in the country. It has the bad blood of a rivalry mixed with major postseason implications. What else could your hoops-loving heart possibly desire?

Everywhere else: Minnesota will travel to No. 8 Indiana, where the Hoosiers have been very tough but (as Michigan proved last week) hardly impervious to close games. ... No. 20 Mississippi State will try to avoid a loss to the upset-minded Tennessee Volunteers, who downed Florida (albeit at home) last weekend. ... Wisconsin is at Purdue; let's see if either of these jump-shooting teams can catch fire in time for the heart of Big Ten play. ... And, in Pac-12 play, Colorado has a chance to prove its 3-0 start and status as the lone undefeated team in Pac-12 play is real with a road date against putative favorite Cal. Who knows? It's the Pac-12. Something weird will probably happen.