Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Before and After: 1/21



VMI at Radford: For one-bid leagues, a regular season title in mid-major basketball is a little like winning a Golden Globe. Winning one matters a lot to the people involved. A lot. They do mean something in the bigger picture, as much as a lot of people enjoy looking down on them. They're a ton of fun both to earn and to receive, and maybe almost as much as fun for those of us lucky enough to be cheering along (particularly, in the case of the Globes, when Mad Men actresses are involved). But ... but ... they're both the next-best prize, the thing that's really, really nice but not what you really want. That thing comes later.

To their eternal credit, the Big South has done their very best to change that dynamic, moving their conference tourney to campus sites--championship game included--and playing every game at the home of the higher seed. In the Big South, you can't just say "wait until the conference tourney" when a midseason loss means that tourney just became exponentially more difficult. A regular season title matters in every league, but in the Big South, it matters matters.

Which is why the biggest game on tonight's slate sees the legendary VMI Keydets, fastest basketball team in the country, travel to Radford to take on the Highlanders. Like Gardner-Webb in 2007, VMI started the year off with a bang by upsetting Kentucky at Rupp (as you probably recall), but unlike GWU, the Keydets have backed that upset up with several other impressive accomplishments: a takedown of the A-10's Richmond, a 14-3 overall record, a 10-game winning streak and perfect 6-0 conference record heading into last Saturday's home match with 12-6 (3-3) Liberty.

And that's where, if this was a cheesy sitcom or television commercial, the sound guys would have inserted the record-scratching sound. The Flames handed VMI a decisive 91-80 defeat, knocking VMI back into a first-place tie with ... wait for it ... Radford. The Highlanders have yet to beat any of the other three Big South teams above the 200-mark in the Pomeroy ratings (VMI, GWU, and Liberty, with the Flames actually leading the way), having lost the only such game they've played--at home to Gardner-Webb--by 20. But a win tonight to take over sole possession of first would make the Highlanders a serious threat to snag not only the regular season crown, but--because this is the Big South--an automatic NCAA bid.


Western Kentucky 63, Middle Tennessee St. 61: I said in the last edition of B&A that a close WKU win in this game would likely signal that whatever transpires between these two teams in the regular season will be mere prelude to a final titanic clash in the Sun Belt tourney, and as a two-point win on a last-second putback most certainly qualifies as "close," I'm standing by that. MTSU's hangover loss to Arkansas-Little Rock two days later means WKU (and UALR) have firm grips on the Belt regular season division titles, but this is a case where a regular season match-up really has settled very, very little.

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