- Kyle Whelliston, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Ready for some auto bids? The fun starts Saturday. Here's a primer to get you through the first weekend of the madness:
Saturday, March 3
Big South (VMI at Winthrop, ESPN, 2 ET)
Virginia Military Institute spent all season as an freakish novelty act, leading the country in points per contest (102.7 a game, 15 points higher than No. 2 North Carolina) and featuring the nation's leading scorer (Reggie Williams, 28.6 ppg). The Keydets' goals were simple: 100 shot attempts per game, 50 3-pointers and 30 forced turnovers. But the 104.4 ppg VMI gave up in league play, leading to a 5-9 league record and a tourney No. 6 seed, made it all seem like just so much harmless fun.
The Keydets, however, stopped being cute when they upended No. 3 seed Liberty and second-seeded High Point earlier this week, earning them a national TV spot in the title game. And to everyone's surprise, VMI came out slow and steady against Liberty, shocking the Flames (who had already beaten the Keydets 122-117 and 118-108) in a relatively plodding 79-78 upset, one that caused chancellor Jerry Falwell to pull the plug on head coach Randy Dutton's tenure. The relative restraint continued in the 91-81 semifinal win over High Point, which also had swept the Keydets in the regular season.
The Keydets' championship game opponent is Winthrop, which just completed the first undefeated season in Big South history (14-0), breezed through the first two rounds by a combined margin of 49 points and carries only losses to four Top 25 teams (North Carolina, Wisconsin, Texas A&M and Maryland). All this has likely earned Winthrop an NCAA Tournament slot win or lose, and the Eagles have already dropped 108 and 109 points on VMI this year. But which Keydets team will show up on Saturday -- the high-octane freak show, or the fundamentals-first squad that lulled Liberty and outglassed High Point (only the fourth time this season VMI has outrebounded a Div. I opponent)? If there's any potentially dramatic scenario for a team that hasn't lost since Jan. 2, this is it.
Atlantic Sun (East Tennessee State vs. Belmont, ESPN2, 4 ET)
East Tennessee State is a member of the Atlantic Sun only because budget cuts forced the school to drop football -- a key qualification for inclusion in the Southern Conference -- two summers ago. For the past two years, the A-Sun tourney has been held in the huge, hulking reminder of ETSU's gridiron heritage: The Mini-Dome, where today's basketball court sits atop yesterday's artificial turf. The homestanding Bucs are the 1-seed with a 16-2 league record (24-8 overall), primarily because they feature the closest thing the run-and-fun league has to a linebacker: 6-foot-9, 250-pound Brad Nuckles, who owned Atlantic Sun paint all season with 11.4 ppg and 8.0 rpg on 51 percent shooting.
But against Stetson in the quarterfinal round, the Bucs found themselves down four to the eighth-seeded Hatters with 10 minutes to go while Nuckles rode the bench with foul trouble. If defending champion Belmont, with its league-best offense, can force Nuckles into fouls and exploit A-Sun POY Courtney Pigram's 40.2 percent shooting percentage (only the ninth-best mark on his team), it could very well cause a fumble and run the auto bid back for a touchdown.
Southern (College of Charleston vs. Davidson, ESPN2, 6 ET)
Speaking of the SoCon with UNC Greensboro and league POY Kyle Hines eliminated (by No. 5 seed Furman on Thursday), all indications seemed to point toward a showdown between this year's two titans.
But then Appalachian State (25-7, 15-3) was upset by Charleston in OT on Friday night, as CofC earned a spot in the title game vs. No. 1 seed Davidson (26-4, 17-1). Now the Wildcats don't get a chance to avenge the 81-74 loss to Appalachian State on Jan. 20, a game in which Davidson's star freshman Stephen Curry (20.7 ppg) shot 1-for-11 from 3.
As in 2004-05 (in which a 16-0 Davidson regular season resulted in an NIT bid), though, a tourney final loss likely will result in NCAA heartbreak. Davidson's RPI of 62 is borderline at best, and the SoCon is the index's 19th-rated conference. The selection committee will have plenty of 20-win teams from power conferences to otherwise fill out its bracket.
Ohio Valley (Austin Peay vs. Eastern Kentucky, ESPN2, 8 ET)
Austin Peay (21-10, 16-4) has been one of the great stories in mid-majordom this season. The Governors entered calendar year 2007 with fifth-place expectations and a ho-hum 5-6 record, but only dropped one OVC contest between New Year's and Valentine's Day. Hometown Clarksville, Tenn., product Drake Reed, a 6-5 sophomore guard, was a revelation: He doubled his year-over-year scoring output to 16.2 ppg, and helped APSU establish itself as both the top offensive and defensive team in the conference on its way to a first-place finish.
But on BracketBusters Saturday, MAC power Akron delivered a 74-57 whipping that exposed Peay's Achilles' heel, which is roughly the size of the key. The Govs, who allow an OVC fourth-worst 51.2 percent shooting on two-pointers and rank 254th in the country in rebounding (29.3 rpg), lost two of three to close the regular season, including a 73-72 loss at a bigger and faster Tennessee Tech squad that outrebounded them by eight.
But Tech lost to Eastern Kentucky in Friday's semifinals, meaning the Govs' nightmare scenario didn't materialize. Will a trip to the NCAAs? Only with a victory over the OVC's No. 2 seed Saturday.
Sunday, March 4
Missouri Valley (title game at 2 ET)
And last on the list but not least, the granddaddy of all mid-major conferences. Arch Madness has begun again in St. Louis, and it's important to remember that in this league, a 20-win season and a high league standing are great and all, but it's how you do this weekend that matters. By Monday morning, it could very well be that everything we've known about the 2006-07 Valley so far is completely wrong.
It's no coincidence that the four Valley NCAA teams last year are the four semifinalists. In the eight straight multibid years of the Valley, every NCAA representative but one -- the 2005 Northern Iowa team that lost in the quarters but rode a 21-9 record to the dance -- has achieved the Arch Madness semis. If you fail to survive quarterfinal Friday, as notable 2006 snub Missouri State did, you're not getting in.
And although nationally ranked Southern Illinois now seems to be the best team in the league by an overwhelming margin, consider the history. No regular-season champion has reached the Arch Madness final since 2003, and the last eight tourney titles have been won by No. 2 seeds or lower.
Kyle Whelliston is the founder of midmajority.com and is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
1dLaurence Edmondson and Nate Saunders