The first Saturday of championship fortnight is one of the most magical days of the college season. While a lot of the major conferences wrap up their regular seasons and prepare for knockout play, a couple of smaller conferences typically take center stage nationally with the first NCAA tournament bids at stake. It's a great day for watching.
This year will be a strong example of that. There are multiple major big-conference throwdowns on tap, and both the Ohio Valley and Atlantic Sun finals will feature marquee showdowns between the two teams perceived to be the best in the league. Belmont will take on Murray State in a mouthwatering OVC clash while Mercer will try to protect its home court against Florida Gulf Coast, which is looking for the school's first-ever NCAA tournament bid.
Both of those games should be excellent, but neither is close to the main tournament story tomorrow.
Late Friday night came shocking news from the West Coast Conference. Loyola Marymount, which finished league play 1-15 and hadn't won a game since Jan. 10 before the WCC tournament opened on Wednesday with the 8-9 game, stunned Santa Clara in the quarterfinal, making it three wins in three nights for the Lions. LMU is now two wins away from pulling a virtual UConn (there's actually a day off between the semis and final, so it would be five wins in six days here) and heading to the NCAA tournament at 13-22 overall, perpetrator of the biggest auto-bid heist ever.
Six of their last 11 losses in league play came by three points or fewer, so maybe the Lions were just due. Now the story improbably lives on for at least one more day. There have been a number of other teams that have made the NCAAs with a losing record, but LMU would have the third-worst winning percentage ever in the NCAAs. And with all due respect to the Florida Internationals and Fairfields of the modern era, there's no way any of those surprise runs would top this.
Why is that? Well, because Gonzaga's waiting in the semifinal.
You know, the top-ranked team in the nation. The one that went 16-0 in the league and is looking hard at a 1-seed for the NCAA tournament. The one whose fans travel in droves to Vegas every year for this event. The one that beat Loyola Marymount by 19 and 45 points in their two regular-season meetings. And yes, the one that hasn't played since Saturday and will be facing a team playing its fourth game in four days.
Chances are the run ends tomorrow. OK, that's putting it mildly. It would take an upset of TCU-over-Kansas proportions without home-court advantage for the Lions to survive. But this is great for the WCC either way, because the league now is guaranteed a major story in Monday night's final. It's also great for LMU, a school best known nationally for the magical NCAA run after Hank Gathers' tragic death in 1990, to have another moment, especially at the end of such a difficult season. For one night, Loyola Marymount is the talk of the nation again. Maybe they should take their first free throw tomorrow left-handed, just to see what happens?