With so much parity in the Big Sky Conference women's basketball tournament, fresh legs will be at a premium.
That's where the advantage comes in for top-seeded Eastern Washington (19-10) and second-seeded Montana (15-13). They don't have to play Thursday like the rest of the six-team field in Cheney, Wash., so they'll have more in the tank for the semifinals Friday, playing against teams with tired legs.
They may also benefit from fresher legs Saturday. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. The only thing for certain this year are the starting times.
"I can't remember a time when there were only three games (separating) first and sixth," Montana coach Robin Selvig said of the final league standings. "Eastern has four losses and seven losses is sixth. That's pretty tightly jammed."
Rarely has the difference between the No. 1 seed and the rest of the tourney field seemed so negligible. The Eagles split their season series with Montana, No. 3 seed Sac State, No. 4 Idaho State and No. 5 Portland State. Sixth-seeded Montana State lost to the Eagles twice, but both games were close.
"With almost everyone seeming to have a win over everyone else in the league, I don't know how anyone wouldn't be looking at it as having a good shot (at winning the tournament)," Selvig said. "And not only were there not a lot of differences in wins and losses between the teams, there were a ton of close games.
"Almost every team could look at it and pick about four games and wonder what could have been if they'd pulled them out. That's where you have to give credit to Eastern, because they did pull them out."
From Montana's perspective, there is more way than one way to extend its season past the conference tournament. The Lady Griz can earn their third straight NCAA tournament berth with wins on Friday and Saturday. Or they can likely pick up a WNIT berth if Eastern wins the tournament.
Montana earned its No. 2 seed with a bit of magic last week. Not only did the team win back-to-back road games for the first time this season, it cashed in on Sac State's loss at Idaho State and Portland State's loss at Eastern.
"I liked our toughness," Selvig said of come-from-behind wins at Northern Colorado and Northern Arizona. "I thought that was going to be one of the keys.
"We are who we are, but there's only been one game we didn't have a chance to win the last minute of in conference. So you have to figure we've got a chance this weekend."
Selvig believes the team that finds a shooting rhythm will have the inside track. But he's quick to add it's not as simple as that. His players agree.
"I think defense - that's what it's come down to," Montana senior guard Shaunte Nance-Johnson said. "Eastern, their defense is so catty, help-side defense, pressure, pressure, pressure.
"We have to be on board with our zone defense. We have to talk in our zone in order to stop those teams that have now figured out how we're going to move and what we're going to do in our zone. Before we weren't allowing ourselves to adjust to the offensive looks they were giving us. When we saw they'd change we'd stick to the same rules. Now if they do this or that, then we have a counter in our zone. Now we're more aware of the shooters."
Fellow senior Shadra Robison believes the Lady Griz gained a big dose of confidence last week. This weekend's games won't seem so much like road tests because it's just a three-hour bus ride to Cheney and Montana typically has good fan representation in the small Washington town.
The only team that will have better fan representation is Eastern. They've been close to unstoppable in league games at Reese Court, with their only loss coming on Feb. 6 against Sac State, 78-69.
"We have to bring energy and we have been doing that all year with our rebounding and defense," said EWU coach Wendy Schuller, whose team has never won the Big Sky conference tourney. "Those areas are where we have to make it happen.
"I was happy to see us score 78 points against Portland State (last Saturday) and get going offensively because that has been our Achilles all year long. It is going to be important for us to not only defend and rebound, but also to be able to score a little bit. We have some high-powered teams in this league that can get the ball up and down the court and are dangerous."
Eastern has been exceptionally good in back-to-back games this season, going 7-1. That will give the team confidence if it can get past the semifinals on Friday night.
"We have great depth and that has helped us," Schuller said. "It'll be important."
The team carrying the most momentum into the tournament is Idaho State (15-14). The Bengals will take a six game win streak into Thursday's contest against Portland State, a team it edged two weeks ago in Pocatello, 63-61.
The one Big Sky team the Bengals have not beaten this season is Montana. Coach Seton Sobolewski was asked about the Lady Griz in Tuesday's news conference, and he noted that his team has played UM close.
"We're confident we can improve on our mistakes and play them more competitively and maybe have a chance to win," he said. "It's nice if you do play them this year it's not in Missoula, so you don't have to worry about their homecourt advantage."
If Thursday's games go according to seeding, Montana will face Sac State on Friday at 4:30 MST. The teams split this season, with both registering convincing home wins. The Hornets' 100-83 win over Montana on Feb. 20 ended a string of 27 straight losses to the Lady Griz.
"That was the biggest win in program history," Sac State first-year coach Jamie Craighead said of the senior day win. "I told our team that we could give our seniors a really good parting gift, beating Montana for the first time in program history."
The darkhorse in this year's tournament is Montana State. But there's no reason to believe the Cats can't get things done, starting with a win Thursday over a Sac State team they've already beaten twice.
"When you know a team very well and you had success you want to reiterate the things you've had success with," MSU coach Tricia Binford said of the Hornets. "At the same time you can take away the things that you struggled with. We want to make sure we attack their press better.
"We match up very well which is why we've had success in the past."
Notes: Montana will be taking a booster bus to Cheney, Wash. It will depart the Adams Center at 11:45 a.m. Friday, with a return trip to Missoula on Saturday at a time to be determined based on Montana's result from its semifinal game. The cost of the trip is $160 per person (based on double occupancy). The cost covers transportation, lodging at the Doubletree Hotel in Spokane and a premium seat in the Lady Griz cheering section. Reservations may be made by contacting assistant marketing director Brent Reser at 243-2250 ... All games in the tournament may be viewed live at www.bigskytv.org, with the championship game televised regionally by Altitude Sports and Entertainment.