TUPELO, Miss. -- Valdosta State's men's basketball team proved to be the best of the East this season.

Next question? Can the Blazers beat the best of the West?

Answers come beginning today in the first round of the Gulf South Conference tournament being played at the BancorpSouth Center in this northeast Mississippi city.

Valdosta State (20-6) plays Harding (16-10) in the third game of the first round at 6:30 p.m. (Eastern). VSU has moved the game broadcast to WWRQ-FM 107.9.

The West side of the Gulf South Conference has proved to be the beast of the league. The last five tournament champions have come from the West Division, including Henderson State's back-to-back-to-back titles the last three years.

In those three years, when the Gulf South expanded the tournament to eight teams, the East has only won three (of 12) first-round games. In 1999, with the tournament at the league's most northeastern school (Lincoln Memorial), the West went 4-0.

"It's been clear those teams have been more physical," said VSU head coach Jim Yarbrough. "But what I think we've done here, and the West recognizes it, is we've brought in a tough brand of defense.

"Right now, we can't worry about reputations. It's one game at a time. It's survive and advance."

Yarbrough also wants his team, which won the school's first Gulf South East regular-season title by winning its last four games, to make its own history.

Valdosta State hasn't won a Gulf South Conference tournament game since 1985. It hasn't played in the tournament since 1997.

"If you take care of business like you're supposed to, the end result will come out," Yarbrough said. "If we can keep it going, we will be a tough team to play."

The game features the Gulf South's No. 1 scoring offense (Harding) against the No. 1 scoring defense (Valdosta State).

Harding is 11-3 when it scores 80 points or more. VSU, which is 17-2 when it holds teams under 70 points, lost both games this season when it allowed 80 points or more.

Harding was held under 70 points just twice, splitting those games.

Harding, which won three of its last four games to make the tournament, is led by all-conference performer Aaron Farley, a 5-foot-10 junior guard who averages 17.4 points. The other four starters average in double figures.

"They've got the best two shooting guards in the league. (Farley) is unreal. There is no shot too far in his range," Yarbrough said. "We have to play disciplined defense. We can't fall asleep, can't have a mental lapse."

The VSU-Harding winner will play the Delta State-Montevallo in the semifinals at 4 p.m. (Eastern) Saturday. The championship game is at 2 p.m. (Eastern) Sunday.



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