One of the best parts about the closing weekend of the league tournament rush is that there’s always a team or two from these conferences playing this weekend that get in serious range of an automatic bid, despite their lowly status in the conference. They would have no chance as an at-large candidate, expected to be one-and-done fodder in these sectionals, but spring a few upsets forcing bubble teams everywhere to nervously look over their shoulder. These are Bid Thieves. And we have three of them on the loose during the 16-game schedule today that will go a long way, if not finalize the Field of 65 bracket. Teams who left flat final impressions like Virginia Tech, Florida and Ole Miss might fall by the wayside if these burglars break in. Teams like Rhode Island, Illinois and Washington, who feel like maybe they’re done enough to get in, might be best served to add another win today to help stave off the roaming thieves. Their attempts at extending their runs will be one of the primary afternoon storylines. We’ll know before night falls whether or not all these thieves have been rounded up or if any remain on the run looking to spoil someone’s selection day.

THOU SHALT NOT STEAL. UNLESS ITS MARCH AND AN NCAA BID IS ON THE LINE

Championship Week Saturday begins this year like it has now for several years running: A heavy-chalk, top-seed, tournament lock Conference USA regular season champion going head-to-head with an ultimate bid stealer. The suspects involved have turned over from the previous run. And perhaps there’s even a lot more drama involved because the degree of difficulty for the burglar disguised as Cinderella is lower than in years past. UTEP took over Conference USA in February and won the league going away. As good as they’ve played, they are not the power monster Memphis has been in running this sectional four years in row, keeping it a one-bid league each time. Just to put the degree of difficulty into perspective, during the 4-year Memphis vice grip on the league the Tigers were favored in the CUSA Title games by an average of 14 points. Today, the Miners are just 6.5-point chalk against a team it finished eight games better than in the standings. About the only negative for UTEP right now are the whispers that coach Tony Barbee is a shortimer with eyes on Depaul.

 Louisville transfer Derek Caracter gives them an NBA talent down low, so there is still some element of prime cut out there that most of this league cant match. But the Miners are more than that. This team would have been in the mix in the post-Calapari void in the CUSA race without Caracter. They get some high end production from a lot of guys. Randy Culpepper is explosive and leads them in scoring. Julyan Stone led the team in assists and is one of the league best defenders. Arnet Moultire crashes the boards and is among the league leaders in rebounds along with Caracter. But he’s also an excellent passer and active defender. The can fill it up as the 28th best shooting team in the nation, and put a lid on it as their 14th ranked field goal and 21st ranked three-point defense indicates. They’re tall going 6/7, 6/11, 6/9 among their starting frontcourt. When has life ever been better for Miner fans? I’m going to say in the closing seconds of their 1991  1992 second round win over Final Four contender Kansas. Although this team could pull the same sort of feat. They have the talent. And the swagger. They havent lost since January 13th.

Conveniently, that team who beat them was the Houston Cougars. Houston went 7-9 in CUSA play and was the seventh-seed in this field. But after wins over East Carolina, Memphis and Southern Miss the last three days, they stand a win away from the NCAA Tournament. Despite a lot of angst over an uneven season, the Cougars have their best chance in nearly two decades at making the final tournament bracket. Ah, the redemtive powers of March. Houston has the 310th ranked scoring defense and you can get 2-pointers on them all day long. But, they’re more than happy playing the whole game trying to get three for your every two. They average 78.6 points per game and are they are efficient enough from behind the arc that their volume of treys taken has an impact. Aubrey Coleman is the stud scorer, averging 26 points per game. You have to think he needs to drop at least 30 for the Cougars to win. But, they rotate in 3-4 other guards who are decent three point shooters. The one big guy who gets serious run is Maurice McNeil, who doesnt score much, but is one of the leagues better rebounders. You wonder if the Cougars will need some sort of career night of out Kendrick Washington or Sean Coleman to win this one. They are the Cougs #2 and #3 big men, but only get about 15 minutes per game. But, they’ve upped their production the last three days while on the court. Coleman has chipped in with a couple key buckets each of the last two nights. Coleman was a beast on the boards against Memphis on Thursday with 11 rebounds. Given the height advantage in the Miner’s starting rotation, they’ll be used to try to offset in spots. Will they add anything when out there?

When they beat the Miners two months ago, they actually made two less shots than UTEP. But they hit eight more treys, points that UTEP couldnt keep up with. McNeil had a double-double. The Cougars guards hit the glass hard and delivered. Culpepper for the Miners only had nine points. Coleman led all scorers on 50-percent shooting with three treys. Copy that script, they’ll at least have a chance.

ACC BID THIEF BOWL IN THE WORKS?

In the ACC, we’re a couple results away from a pure Bid Thief Bowl Sunday afternoon. Should we name it after Charles Shackleford? Remarkably on semifinal Saturday, the 11th and 12th place teams, the bottom two of the regular season standings are still alive. Both are suddenly two games away from the NCAA Tournament. Miami upset Virginia Tech and North Carolina State stole the show from Florida State.  They’re both another upset away from making things very interesting tomorrow. Yeah, it’s too hard to make the NCAA Tournament. Let’s expand, so that there would already be room for one, maybe both of these teams. Who needs all this needless drama!?!?!  Personally, I want to see either both of them win, or both lose, for aesethics purposes leading into the finals. I’d love to see the former. It would be so goofy to see the last place teams play for a bid. Somebody from the bubble would be goner and they wouldnt know it. Talk about adding drama and spice into the final arguments in those closing hours before the selection.

I’ll throw out the master of obvious and say Miami has the harder chore. They’re playing Duke. They’re 11-point dogs. It’s first place versus last place. Is Duke for real as a legit Final Four contender?  Cynics would answer no. Then whine they wont get evidence for their case this weekend because once again Duke has been granted a gift draw in the ACC Tournament. But the Canes have been somewhat of a thorn for the Devils. In their six matches since their ACC marriage of convenience with one another, the Canes have played them to within eight points three times and pulled off one upset win. That includes a 7-point loss a month ago in Miami. The Canes actually had a 12-point lead at intermission. They shot 55-percent against the Devil’s 40th ranked FG defense. But Duke hit 13 treys and the Canes turned it over 22 times, critical numbers during the second half that Duke dominated. Oh, and Dwayne Collins had 21 points. The Canes getting this far without their top scorer has become one of the top stories of the season.

The second game really is a coin flip. Tech won the only game between the two this year by two points. Like the Canes, the Pack were up at halftime. Although that margin was just by a bucket. Georgia Tech nearly played itself off the bracket due to having no wins over anybody over the bottom dwellers of the league. After solidying their at-large by finally beating a team from the upper division (with a hat tip to a bad call), they’re now another win over one of the league’s bottom teams from playing for an ACC Championship. At the very least, this talented bunch seems to have a renewed focus. This is the second time in four years that Sidney Lowe and company have made a major underdog run in the ACC sectionals. The latest Cinderella run came at the expense of FSU. I truly believe the Noles are an excellent defensive challenge for most teams. But, they lack firepower so when a kid like NC State’s Scot Wood drains a six-pack of treys, they’re going to be involved in a close game. In today’s foe, the Packs finds a Yellowjacket team that when clicking is as high scoring an outfit out there. But, they’ve been young, inconsistent and prone to sloppy, sleep walking play. How will this sometime immature team handle a situation where they’re technically not playing for anything while there’s no tomorrow for the the Pack? We have a classic motivational difference in this game that really reminds me of bowl season. But dont take that as a betting lean. At least not for now.

 Like I said, I’m pulling for both to win, or neither. I’ve stated how if one is guaranteed a bid it stokes all the flames of discussion. If its just one of them, they will still be longshots to win tomorrow so there’s a good chance all the arguments about who would lose a bid would be hot air. But I think its just as juicy if Tech and Duke play in the finals. I think they could be the two most talented rosters in the league. Tech has underachieved record wise trying to mesh some of it together. I think they could give Duke a serious battle. And there would be a lot of talent on the floor on watch.

I’ll have a posts about the Bubble and Picks later in the day. Expect something before 11 am