Twenty-six of the nation's best "mid-major"/non-BCS/non-Big Six/non-power conference teams will do battle on the many-tentacled World Wide Leader in Sports affiliates on February 18. Just about every college hoops fan knows about the Bracket Buster. A full 100 teams are participating this year (nearly a third of Division-I teams!), and this casting of a wide net has landed several intriguing matchups that could have an impact on Selection Sunday. Thirteen of the fifty games will be televised on ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU or ESPN360. Well, not exactly thirteen, because ESPN360 is a pay-per-view internet service.
ESPNU general manager Burke Magnus seems to be the man behind the Bracket Buster matchups. In an article by Kyle Whelliston, the Dean of "Mid-Major" hoops writers, Magnus explained the difficulty in selecting certain teams over others. Overall, it appears Magnus did an admirable job. Like any selection process, a couple of teams felt snubbed by their exclusion from a televised matchup, but there are good reasons for most of those snubs. Teams with lower RPI's that were selected over higher RPI teams are generally teams that currently sit atop their conference standings. That explains the selection of teams like Western Kentucky, Northern Arizona, Albany, and Kent State. Many critics may point to Ohio's inclusion as a head-scratcher, but on Sunday they were 66th in the RPI. They are currently 109th due to back-to-back losses to Miami-OH and Kent State. Magnus certainly cannot be expected to predict the future. Ohio made a lot more sense just a few days ago.
In my estimation, the only teams that have legitimate gripes are Bradley and Manhattan. The tremendous success of the MVC put so many teams in televised slots that Bradley was probably pushed out by the sheer number of fellow Valley Boys. That is unfortunate because Bradley is a talented club that has won five of six games recently and owns wins over Northern Iowa and Creighton. Manhattan recently lost leading scorer C.J. Anderson "indefinitely" due to academic woes, so that may have played into their exclusion. Beyond that, most of the matchups seem to make sense.
1. Bucknell at Northern Iowa
This is the marquee game. Apart from a monumental meltdown, these teams are going to be in the bracket. Not only that, but most bracketologists have UNI as a 4/5 seed and Bucknell as a 7/8 seed. These are not "upset" teams. These are teams that people expect to win in the NCAA Tournament. That said, this game means a lot more to Bucknell because this is their only high-profile game left. UNI has logged a number of nice wins and plays in the stacked MVC. The highest rated opponent remaining for the Bison is #132 RPI Holy Cross.
2. George Mason at Wichita State
Though it will certainly be less heralded, this might be the most important game for any individual team. If George Mason wins the regular season Colonial title, but loses in the conference tourney, they have the look of a classic bubble team. A win on the road against an NCAA-quality club like Wichita State might be enough to push them over the top.
3. Missouri State at Wisconsin-Milwaukee
If either of these teams fails to win their conference tourney, they likely will be bubble teams at best. UW-Milwaukee has a staggeringly healthy RPI of 22 today, but they have no high-quality wins, two sub-100 RPI losses, and no highly-rated opponents left on the schedule. The loser of this game is likely relegated to winning their conference tourney and may be there already.
4. Louisiana Tech at Southern Illinois
I doubt that Louisiana Tech can secure an at-large bid whether they win or lose this game. Southern Illinois had it's 33-game home winning streak snapped last night by Indiana State, a team that had formerly lost eleven in a row. Put that game away in the X-files. That is weird stuff. This is a damaging loss for SIU since they already have losses to Monmouth and D-II Alaska-Anchorage on their profile. This is a must-win for both teams. It is a bonus that the nation will get to see LA Tech's beastly forward Paul Millsap.
5. Akron at Nevada
Neither have the look of an at-large team, but both could get there if they finish strong. Lack of quality wins will hurt both of them, so this is also a must-win for both teams. The big draw here is watching Wolfpack big man Nick Fazekas.
6. Fresno State at Creighton
This looks to be a total mismatch. Creighton has won seven of the last eight including a season sweep of Northern Iowa. They are likely going to be in the bracket. Fresno State is a decent team, but has no chance of receiving an at-large bid. This game is a result of the imbalance of quality between home and away bracket buster teams.
7. Marist at Old Dominion
One would think that this is also a big mismatch, but Marist has won eight straight games including wins over Manhattan and at St. Peter's. The Monarchs are locked in a cage match with four of five other teams for Colonial title crown, but they have been considered the favorite since day one of the season and are certainly alive for an at-large bid. ODU will be favored in this game, but they would be wise to take the Red Foxes seriously.
8. Northwestern State at Utah State
Utah State is making a real push as of late, but they have slim hopes of an at-large bid due to the grand total of zero games played against RPI Top 50 clubs. Sadly, this game is not going to offer them much. They already have a strong RPI. They need a high-quality win, and while NSU is a very good team, they play in a poor conference which is only going to swell their RPI from here on in.
9. Buffalo at Iona
Iona was in pretty good shape to challenge for an at-large bid until their recent stumble at St. Peter's. The have a win over Iowa State that does not look as good as it once did as well. Buffalo is 4-5 in their last nine and has no chance at an at-large.
10. Northern Arizona at Western Kentucky
Two teams in sole possession of first in their conferences will do battle in this one. Northern Arizona owns the nation's longest winning streak (nine), and WKU is 9-1 in their last ten games. If these two can maintain their Salma Hayek-level hot play, this could be a really nice matchup. Northern Arizona's RPI is too poor for at-large consideration, and WKU certainly could have done without the home loss Pacific and the road loss to Troy. The Hilltoppers' at-large chances rest only with winning out and losing in the Sun Belt title game, and even that probably leaves them short.
11. Samford at Ohio
Ohio has dropped an astounding 40 slots in the RPI since Sunday. Samford was recently bludgeoned at Murray State. These are two teams looking to start new streaks. Neither can get an at-large bid.
12. Butler at Kent State
Kent State is 9-1 in their last ten, while Butler has won three straight. This game would be a lot more interesting if the Bulldogs had not had a late January swoon in which they dropped games to Youngstown State and Loyola-Chicago.
13. Albany at Virginia Commonwealth
Preseason America East favorite Albany got off to a rough start (1-5), but has won 11 of 13 and is now the frontrunner in the conference. Plus, their nickname is the Great Danes. That's always a bonus. VCU is one of many solid Colonial teams. They may not be George Mason or ODU caliber, but they are tough team that stands a chance of winning the CAA tourney.
So enjoy the carnival of non-power conference hoops coming on February 18. Of course, many of these matchups will look a lot more (or less) important by then. A lot can happen in two weeks. These are some of the best teams that do not play in Big Six conferences, and many deserve a lot more publicity than they are getting. A professor of religious studies once told me, "You cannot just refer to him as Paul (writer of many New Testament letters). If you can't bring yourself to call him Saint Paul, then at least call him Mister Paul." ESPN and major media types might feel the need to refer to these teams as "mid-majors." Well, if you cannot bring yourself to simply call them "good basketball teams," at least refer to them as mister mid-majors. Most of them have earned a modicum of respect.