- Myron Medcalf, ESPN Staff Writer
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Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action.
Charleston vs. Davidson, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2 -- The Southern Conference title game at the U.S. Cellular Center in Asheville, N.C., features two of the hottest mid-majors in the country. Davidson owned the SoCon’s top scoring offense after averaging 74.6 points per game during SoCon play this season. Plus, the Wildcats only allowed 56.9 PPG in conference play, which is also No. 1 in the league. They haven’t lost since Jan. 14. The veteran duo of De'Mon Brooks (13.5 PPG) and Jake Cohen (14.9 PPG) anchors one of the top mid-major programs in America.
But Charleston, which finished second to Davidson in the SoCon’s South Division, has won six of its past seven games. The Cougars have held three of their past five opponents to 55 points or less. Senior Andrew Lawrence is averaging 17.5 PPG in the SoCon tourney thus far. But the Cougars have already suffered two losses against Davidson this season.
Pick: Davidson 69, Charleston 59
Western Kentucky vs. Florida International, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN -- The most surprising element of this matchup is the fact that Middle Tennessee, the dominant regular-season champ, is not participating in the Sun Belt’s tournament title game. Richard Pitino, son of Louisville’s Rick Pitino, has led the Golden Panthers to the championship matchup in his first season as head coach. They reached the final stage of the conference tournament with a Sunday upset of Middle Tennessee, a loss that snapped a 17-game winning streak for the Blue Raiders. Malik Smith (14.1 PPG) has gone 11-for-16 from the 3-point line in the conference tournament thus far.
Western Kentucky, which finished 10-10 in league play, wasn’t expected to advance this far, either. But the Hilltoppers have a shot at their second consecutive Sun Belt tourney title and automatic berth. T.J. Price (15.5 PPG) might be the best player on the floor.
Pick: FIU 70, WKU 69 (overtime)
James Madison vs. Northeastern, 7 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Network -- Northeastern, the CAA’s regular-season champ, was on the ropes in a Sunday semifinal matchup against George Mason. The Huskies were down by 24 points in the first half but stormed back in the second to earn the two-point win and a spot in tonight’s championship game in Richmond, Va. Guard Joel Smith (16.4 PPG) will be the most talented player in the gym.
James Madison, which held CAA opponents to a league-low 60.8 PPG, squeezed by Delaware in the semis. The Dukes have won five of their past seven games.
Pick: James Madison 66, Northeastern 64
St. Mary’s vs. No. 1 Gonzaga, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN -- The Zags have achieved the program’s first-ever No. 1 ranking. It’s an honorable achievement for a team that’s also in a position to secure a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament entering this evening’s West Coast Conference tournament championship game against Saint Mary’s in Las Vegas. Gonzaga has earned the praise it has received to date. But tonight’s matchup -- within the WCC -- is more significant than any poll.
Last season, the Bulldogs failed to win the WCC tournament or regular-season titles for the first time in nearly 15 years. The Gaels snatched both. So revenge is a factor in the third matchup between these two rivals in 2012-13.
Kelly Olynyk, a national player of the year candidate averaging 17.3 PPG, and his teammates have already defeated Saint Mary’s twice this season. But Matthew Dellavedova (16.2 PPG) & Co. will come out swinging in hopes of avoiding any Selection Sunday drama.
Pick: Gonzaga 74, Saint Mary’s 68
Manhattan vs. Iona, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2 -- The MAAC championship game will pit the league’s top offensive and defensive teams against one another. Iona’s Momo Jones (23.3 PPG) commands the MAAC’s best scoring unit (80.0 PPG in league play). Overall, the Gaels are second in the country with an 81.3 PPG average in 2012-13. But their defense has been suspect all season (league-high 75.1 PPG allowed).
Manhattan (57.6 PPG allowed in conference play, No. 1 in the MAAC) held Fairfield to just 42 points in the semifinals. Loyola (MD) recorded 52 points against the Jaspers in the quarterfinals.
Manhattan and Iona split their two games during the regular season. So who wins tonight? Iona and its fluid offense or Manhattan and its stubborn defense?
Pick: Iona 76, Manhattan 74