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February 25, 2009

SCS.comThe Bracket Buster weekend is designed to give mid-major teams one last chance to get a non-conference win over another mid-major team of equal caliber. The games featuring Utah State against Saint Mary’s and Davidson taking on Butler were the marquee battles and ones that could go a long way on Selection Sunday. But teams such as Siena and Creighton were not granted the opportunity to get a very good win that they may have deserved.

Saint Mary’s and Butler were the clear winners on Saturday night. Saint Mary’s took care of Utah State, while Butler got a much needed win over Davidson with an injured Stephen Curry. The Gaels have struggled since Patty Mills went down to injury and have to hope he comes back for the West Coast Conference Tournament, while also hoping the selection committee takes into account that their struggles came without perhaps the country’s best point guard. Despite the win, the Gaels still are not a lock for an at-large berth.

Without Mills, Saint Mary’s fell to Gonzaga twice, then lost to Portland, followed by a setback at Santa Clara. Needless to say, Saint Mary’s desperately needed a win. Matched up against a ranked Utah State squad could have been either a blessing or disaster. Thankfully for the Gaels, Mickey McConnell, Omar Samhan, and Diamon Simpson came through in a big way scoring 57 points on only 28 shots, about as efficient as a trio can perform. With the win, the Gaels can once again feel somewhat decent about an at-large berth as they sit at 22-5 with wins over Providence, San Diego State, and this past weekend against Utah State. However that may not be enough as their RPI is still in the 50’s and they pretty much need a win over Gonzaga, which would probably have to take place in the WCC finals.

The other big winner this weekend was more of a sure thing than Saint Mary’s, but all the same, Butler was struggling. After starting the season at 19-1, with its lone loss coming to a very good Ohio State team by three points, the Bulldogs were looking towards a fairly high seed. However, a case of the midseason blues struck and they had gone 3-3 over the six games heading into Bracket Buster weekend. Facing Davidson and its star Stephen Curry in what was almost a tournament game for the Wildcats surely was not an easy task for a team that simply wanted a win. However Butler rose to the occasion and pretty much secured their at-large berth if they struggle in Horizon Conference Tournament, which is certainly a possibility. Green Bay and Cleveland State will provide the biggest challenges for Butler.

As much as Butler needed to win that game, Davidson needed it even worse. With Curry injured, but playing though the pain, Davidson was desperate to avoid back to back losses. For a team that holds wins over West Virginia and North Carolina State, while also giving Duke and Oklahoma plenty of trouble, Davidson looks like a different team with Curry hobbling. One major difference between this team and last year’s Cinderella run was simply that Curry is asked to run the point while shouldering even more of the offensive load than he did last season. And his body appears to now be paying the price, at the worst time. Right now, Davidson’s top priority should be getting its star healthy for the Southern Conference Tournament since an at-large berth is almost certainly out of the question. Bob McKillop is a phenomenal coach who will know what buttons to push with his team just like he did last season.

Davidson’s partner in the biggest loser of the weekend was Utah State, who is now a very interesting case if they do not win the WAC Tournament. With only 3 losses, the Aggies post a gaudy record, however their only significant win away from their conference was against Utah. Saint Mary’s would have been a nice feather in their cap if they stumble in postseason play. If they win the remainder of their regular season games then lose in the conference finals to Nevada, they should be good in terms of an at-large bid. That would give them the aforementioned win over Utah, two wins over Boise State and two over Nevada as well as being a 30 win regular-season WAC Champion. Although, should they fall short; Utah State will surely look back at this past weekend as a blown opportunity that could have sealed their berth.

There were important games aside from the previously mentioned battles. Most notable, Siena defeating the Missouri Valley Conference leader in Northern Iowa. However, in my opinion, matching up Siena with Creighton would have been more beneficial to each team. Yes, Creighton trails Northern Iowa in the standings, but has a more realistic at-large chance than Northern Iowa, as slim as those chances may seem. But back to the Missouri Valley in a little bit, Siena is one of the more interesting stories in the country and could become the most hotly debated team when Selection Sunday rolls around. The RPI’s validity will without a doubt be put to the test.

Siena got the win over Missouri Valley leader Northern Iowa giving them their fifth win over a RPI top 100 team and jacking their rating into the mid-twenties. A regular season conference champion with a RPI of 26 and a 5-4 record against the top 100 would normally be considered pretty much a lock for at least a berth in the big dance. However, Siena is anything but a certainty. Their problem could be that there are no notable wins on the schedule, Boise State, Northern Iowa, Saint Joseph’s, Buffalo, and tough losses to Pittsburgh and Kansas are the most notable chips of their season. Should the Saints stumble in the MAAC Tournament, how much validity the committee will give to Siena’s swollen RPI will be fascinating. After all it is supposed to be an accurate index of ranking teams from varying conferences, and Siena happens to have a rating that appears higher than the eye test would indicate.

Outside of this group, there is not much to mention in regards to at-large berths and the impact that the Bracket Buster will have on those selections. But it is a great chance for good teams from smaller conferences to get a weekend where they are in the spotlight. There seems to be a small group that takes their shots at this weekend, claiming that only a handful of games matter. This could be true, however the benefit of playing on ESPN for a young team could greatly benefit them when the conference tournament comes along or even next season when getting their early season chance against a Kentucky or a Kansas arises. Suddenly those cameras are not as bright and the intimidation factor is not so large.

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