Not invited? Blame conferences
Bracket Buster Saturday took a major step forward by expanding its field from 18 to 46 teams in 2004 and extending invitations to teams in 11 conferences.
The conferences involved in next year's event could take one more step for 2005 and declare the final Saturday in February a nonconference day for all of their members.
Do that and Bracket Buster Saturday would be flawless. The event would have no holes. No mid-major teams that could end up being potential NCAA Tournament at-large teams -- or winners -- in the NCAA Tournament could elude the event.
The conferences that aren't participating -- the Mountain West (Wyoming wanted in but commissioner Craig Thompson blocked the move), the Ivy League and Big Sky -- will ultimately lose if they don't get the publicity or the extra power ratings just weeks before the NCAA Tournament.
Here are five possible matchups that could feature NCAA teams in the 2004 Bracket Buster Saturday:
Gonzaga at Tulsa
This is not a dream -- it's a lock. Gonzaga has its best team under Mark Few, and the Zags could still be a top 10 team in late February, going into a frenzied environment in Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane will be a work in progress and might desperately need a win over Gonzaga to be a bubble team.
Manhattan at Akron
The Jaspers' Luis Flores is the best guard in the East Coast, but gets little exposure though he's a preseason Wooden All-American. Matching Flores up against Akron's Derrick Tarver and Johnny Hollingsworth could produce decent ratings. These are also the two favorites in the MAAC and the MAC, respectively.
College of Charleston
The Cougars love to get up and down and could run into two of the better mid-major guards in Martell Bailey and Cedrick Banks. Once again, these are the favorites in the Southern and the Horizon leagues. These are two leagues that don't get the exposure they so richly deserve.
The Rainbow Warriors could be the surprise team out of the WAC and have the size to compete with the Cajuns' Michael Southhall. Hawaii is going to have to travel to the Central or Eastern time zone again this year, but last season they came up with a Bracket Buster win at Kent State. The Warriors aren't afraid of road trips, since they've gone mostly foreign on the roster.
at Fresno State
This was one of the best games a year ago, and a Buster rematch wouldn't be such a bad idea. The teams should compete for top spots in the MVC and WAC, respectively. The Bluejays still have the shooters to cause some fits for the Bulldogs, but Fresno State will get gritty play inside that could make this one another hard-fought late February game.
The Mid-American and Missouri Valley made all of their members available for Bracket Buster Saturday. The Horizon League fell one team short, leaving out Wright State because of scheduling issues.
The WAC included five of its 10 members, leaving out an SMU team that could be a surprise in the league. The Sun Belt had just three members invited. Gonzaga is the only West Coast Conference team in the field and will play Tulsa again in a home-and-home series that was folded into the event (this season's game will be in Oklahoma). UC Irvine (Big West), UNC Wilmington (Colonial), Manhattan (Metro Atlantic), Austin Peay (Ohio Valley), and College of Charleston and East Tennessee State (Southern) were the only representatives from their respective leagues.
Home and road teams were set this week. Getting coaches to commit to a road game toward the end of their conference season was the toughest part of setting up the event, but 23 will do it and be better off for it come tournament time.
The Feb. 21 matchups won't be made until Feb. 1, which is the smart move. Still, guessing in September which teams will be competing for the various conference leads (not to mention NCAA at-large berths) isn't easy.
Utah State or UC Santa Barbara could end up being a frontrunner instead of Irvine in the Big West. What if Drexel or Old Dominion or VCU ends up being the top team in the Colonial come February instead of Wilmington? Morehead State could end up passing Austin Peay in the Ohio Valley.
These are the chances the event, and these leagues, took by selecting only a handful, or just one team. The beauty of taking entire conferences like the MAC and the Missouri Valley is there is no guessing, and the event is certain to get the best teams from these conferences on television.
Having every team in every mid-major conference available to play in the event would alleviate scheduling concerns. College of Charleston coach Tom Herrion said he pushed during the Southern meetings to get the whole league involved in the second-year event, but some coaches balked at the idea. Now the Cougars and East Tennessee State will benefit from stepping out of the conference on the third Saturday in February.
Scheduling issues prevented Wright State from joining this year's Bracket Buster Saturday. Thompson didn't want Wyoming in the event because of its "mid-major" tag (which is really short-sighted). Taking just the Cowboys out of the Mountain West in a league that has a Saturday-Monday schedule would be difficult.
"By making it a nonconference weekend (for the MAC and the Valley) we've deepened the pool," MAC commissioner Rick Chryst said. "We're only strengthening the event and putting out a better product. We'll get good matchups and be able to see what everyone has accomplished through January."
Remember, the teams must play their way into the 10 television spots. Gonzaga at Tulsa is one of the locks to be on ESPN or ESPN2, although it has yet to be officially announced. And don't be surprised if Illinois-Chicago, Butler, Akron, Creighton, Southwest Missouri State, Manhattan, Charleston, Hawaii or Fresno State play their way into television games.
Bowling Green coach Dan Dakich said last season that Central Michigan would have received the necessary television time instead of his squad under the current format. Central Michigan wasn't invited last season, and a depleted Bowling Green was included in the field. Under this new format, Central Michigan would have played its way into the television spots, and the country would have seen a glimpse of Chris Kaman before the NCAAs when he led the Chippewas to a win over Creighton and ultimately a loss to Duke.
Speaking of Central Michigan playing Creighton in the NCAA Tournament, that first-round game is the type of matchup the Bracket Buster Saturday can produce on a yearly basis. No one said boo about two mid-major teams meeting in the first round of the NCAAs. That's why two mid-major teams playing on the third Saturday in February should be looked at like an early round NCAA game. The teams that are put on television should be NCAA-worthy and have the potential to win a game or two in the tournament a few weeks later.
Dakich said his team got a thrill just seeing the 2003 matchup with UIC being billed throughout the week on ESPN's Bottom Line. The promotional benefits are immeasurable. Getting on television during the heart of the ACC, Big Ten, Big East, Big 12 and SEC seasons is also worth making a road trip in late February.
"It helped us to play that game (against Tulsa in Spokane) because two nights earlier we lost to Portland," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. "But we came back and beat a really, really good team, which ended up being one basket away from the Sweet 16 (Tulsa lost by a point to Wisconsin). That win definitely gave us confidence. But going to Tulsa from Spokane in February will be tough, especially since it's a tough place to play. But we agreed to do it."
And ultimately the Zags will benefit. So, too, will the Golden Hurricane.
As for the teams not in the field from nine of the 11 conferences that aren't including all of their members? They could wind up being the real losers on Feb. 21.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.