(CBS Local)- Though “Conference Championship Week” doesn’t officially start until next week, when most conferences will be offering up their automatic bids to the Big Dance, there are a few early birds. One of those conferences, the 10-team Colonial Athletic Association, tips off its quest to crown a champion in Washington, D.C. this Saturday with the semifinals and finals set to air on CBS Sports Network on Monday and Tuesday night.

The tournament is a fascinating one as the top five seeds are separated by just three games in the standings. The Hofstra Pride earned the regular season crown for the second consecutive year, and they enter as the favorite. But there is also a chip on their shoulder, because of the way last season ended: with Joe Mihalich’s group watching as Northeastern celebrated punching their NCAA ticket by defeating the Pride.

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Westwood One and CBS Sports Network college basketball analyst Donny Marshall knows a thing or two about the drive to make the tournament, having helped lead the UConn Huskies to three appearances in the late 90s. He says that while Hofstra’s players may downplay the importance of the game on the outside, treating it like any other, there is no doubt that the team’s senior leaders are stressing the importance of avoiding last year’s fate.

“Look, let’s face it, we’re grown ups, we know that there are a lot of other things in life that you’re going to stress out about, you’re going to struggle through. But, right now, the most important thing in the world, is getting to the NCAA Tournament. I promise you that,” said Marshall. “For three seniors on that Hofstra team there is nothing more important than to get there and erase those bad feelings of last season.”

Hofstra guard Desure Buie. Credit: Hofstra Athletics

The Pride start three seniors in guards Desure Buie, Eli Pemberton and Tareq Coburn, all of whom were on the floor for last year’s disappointing finish. And, entering as the one seed, Hofstra is given the highest win probability by Ken Pomeroy. But their rival, who ended their tournament dreams last year, is close on their tail.

Northeastern, led by senior guard Jordan Roland, finished the season at an even 15-15 overall and 9-9 in CAA play. But, while that record may not inspire confidence, there is more to the team than meets the eye. Of those nine conference losses, six came by three points or fewer and two more were five point margins. The bottom line is, the Huskies played a lot of close games. And, they do one thing particularly well which could help them get over the hump in tight games in a conference tournament setting.

“When you have a guy like Jordan Roland who can score in so many ways, you’re going to be tough. The top five teams in the conference all feel like they have that one guy that can erase a lot of your issues. But, the thing with Northeastern is, it goes back to attention to detail, they shoot their free throws better than anyone in the country,” said Marshall. “I don’t want to minimize taking care of the ball, rebounding all of that. But let’s face it. These games, conference tournament games, they’re going to come down to you have to make your free throws late. If you don’t you go home.”

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Northeastern head coach Bill Coen. Credit: Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The Huskies currently lead the nation in free-throw shooting percentage, hitting at an 80% clip on the year. Add that to their marksmanship from deep (36.5% on the year, 37th), and you have a combination of factors that makes Bill Coen’s team very difficult to play. They enter the tournament as the sixth seed and face a matchup against a Towson team that beat them on the final weekend of the regular season. So, there’s no guarantee they make it past the quarterfinals, but with Roland and their shooting ability, Northeastern is a dangerous squad.

When it comes to X-factor players who can take over games, Roland is among several guards in the conference capable of doing so. But, only one team, Dane Fischer’s William and Mary, can boast a truly dominant inside presence like the one the Tribe has in Nathan Knight.

“If you haven’t seen him, you have to see this kid play,” said Marshall. “He, to me, should be the MVP of that tournament and could be the X-factor in pushing them over the top.”

Knight is averaging a double-double on the season, 20.6 points and 10.5 rebounds per game while swatting 1.5 shots and knocking down a three per game. Combined with fellow senior Andy Van Vliet (7’0″ 231 pounds listed), the Tribe can make life miserable for opponents on the interior. It will be a fascinating matchup to watch in the neutral site, winner-take-all format of the conference tournament. Can Hofstra erase the memories of last season’s defeat? Will William and Mary’s twin towers be too much to handle inside? Will the Huskies shooting put them over the top? Or, does Towson’s depth outlast its opponents.

We will begin to find out all the answers to those questions on Saturday afternoon when the tournament begins with eight-seed Drexel meets nine-seed UNCW before seven-seed Elon takes on James Madison in the opening round. The quarterfinals tip off at noon on Sunday, with Hofstra drawing the winner of Drexel/UNCW.

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It all culminates in semifinals action Monday, March 9th at 6 & 8:30 p.m. EST on CBS Sports Network followed by the final on Tuesday night at 7 p.m.