Lots to watch in this year's BracketBusters
Mid-major expert Kyle Whelliston breaks down all 14 BracketBusters TV games ahead of the Friday-Saturday mid-major festival.
You ready for 14 games in a touch over 24 hours? Here's a taste of what to expect when you sit down to your BracketBusters feast:
Winthrop at Missouri State (ESPN2, 7 ET)
Fifteen of the top 20 teams in the RPI have four losses or more, but 21-4 Winthrop currently languishes at No. 81 simply because of its conference affiliation. As head coach Gregg Marshall likes to point out, the Eagles' number went from 58 to 83 after their first five league games and those were all wins. The four losses were all to Top 25 teams (North Carolina, Maryland, Texas A&M and Wisconsin), and the Eagles come into this game with a spotless 11-0 Big South record and a 12-game winning streak.
Don't talk to Bears ringmaster Barry Hinson about the RPI; remember that Missouri State set a record last year as the best-indexed team (No. 21) ever denied an invitation to the Dance. Mo-State is hoping to kick the door in this year, and at 10-6 in the Missouri Valley (19-8 overall), the Bears sit in the No. 3 position in the three- (or four-) bid MVC.
Body parts to watch for: the wrists of Bears star Blake Ahearn (the NCAA's all-time free-throw leader) and the foot of Winthrop's floor leader Torrell Martin (he's four games into a return from injury).
Albany at Boise State (ESPNU, 9 ET)
Hopefully, the Great Danes will be able to get something out of this 5,000-mile round trip: some travel vouchers or perhaps some SkyMall gift certificates. But the America East's best 3-point shooting team may find winning difficult, as its primary strength could be nullified by the Broncos' WAC-best perimeter defense (27 percent 3-point FG defense in league games).
Boise State currently sits in fourth place in the WAC at 7-5, but the Broncos have established themselves as the league's best inside team. No WAC squad has cleaned the glass better in conference play (36.8 rpg in WAC games); its Reggie Larry-Matt Nelson frontcourt combines for 17.7 rpg, and the Broncos' 52.3 percent overall mark from inside the arc makes them the nation's 47th-best team in two-point FG shooting.
Albany -- in second in the A-East following a season sweep by Buster-idle Vermont -- is pinning its hopes on a non-jet-lagged performance by league preseason POY Jamar Wilson (18.0 ppg, 6.4 rpg).
Appalachian State at Wichita State (ESPNU, 1 ET)
There's a sign at the Holmes Convocation Center that reads, "Welcome to Boone - Elevation 3333 feet," and Houston Fancher's Mountaineers are 11-1 in the rarified air this season. They've done pretty well at sea level, too, having beaten Vanderbilt and Virginia in Puerto Rico back in December, along with VCU.
The SoCon North leaders will travel to Wichita's Roundhouse (elevation: 1,305 ft.) to play a WSU team that's followed a Sweet 16 run and a 9-2 nonconference slate (which included wins at George Mason, LSU and Syracuse) with a frustratingly inconsistent Valley season. The Shockers are 8-8 in league play and need a late run if they want to return to the NCAAs. Defense has been a major issue, as other Valley teams have logged a combined 45.3 percent shooting (seventh in the MVC) against them.
Holy Cross at Hofstra (ESPNU, 3 ET)
Hofstra came into the season as the Colonial's buzz team, but took three quick losses to open the season; a run of 12 wins in 13 games followed, though, and the Pride has clawed their way to a third-place standing in the tooth-and-nail CAA.
Holy Cross is tied for first in the Patriot with recent nemesis Bucknell (not pictured) on the strength of a recent 12-game win streak, and can credit a year-over-year improvement in inside play for that. The Crusaders lead the conference with 32.4 rebounds and 3.5 blocks per contest, and gain offensive rebounds on 36.2 percent of their missed shots (75th-best in Div. I).
This game also is a showcase for the best players in the Patriot and CAA, both of whom lead their teams in both scoring and rebounding: Holy Cross' wiry 6-5 senior Keith Simmons (17.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg) and Hofstra's explosive 6-3 scoring machine Loren Stokes (21.1 ppg, 5.8 rpg).
Southern Illinois at Butler (ESPN2, 4:00 ET)
Gene Hackman, as Coach Norman Dale, measured the Hinkle Fieldhouse baskets to show his "Hoosiers" that they were 10 feet high, just like at their home gym. But with the way the Salukis and Bulldogs play defense, the hoops might seem like they're 15 feet off the ground on Saturday.
Both teams crossed the 20-win mark in early February, thanks in large part to unyielding D. Southern Illinois allows its opponents just .920 points per possession (32nd in Div. I), while Butler allows just .909 (24th). This game will also be a clash of two of the slowest teams in the nation, as SIU averages 61.6 possessions per 40 minutes (11th-fewest nationally; the national median is 69) and Butler averages 61.0 (seventh-fewest).
Both these teams are virtually assured of spots in the Big Dance thanks to their excellent nonconference work and strong league records, so this is more of a SeedBusters game. That said, the day's premier matchup should be an old-school hoops feast for the senses.
Kent State at George Mason (ESPN360, 4 ET)
The broadband service ESPN360 is, in fact, 180 times better than ESPN2, so folks who don't like the SIU-Butler slowdown throwdown can fire up their 21st century technology and go forward into the past with two teams that are true mid-major pioneers.
The 2002 Golden Flashes busted perceptions about how far a team from this level could go when they dropped Oklahoma State, Alabama and Pittsburgh on the way to the Elite Eight, and nobody needs a reminder of what Jim Larranaga's Kryptonite Kids did a year ago.
This has been a tough honeymoon season for GMU, though, as a good defense hasn't been enough to counter a disappointing offense (or CAA-worst 65 percent free-throw shooting) on the way to an 8-8 league record. Jim Christian's Kent Staters are hanging tough in the MAC East behind Akron, but a team that effectively tops out at 6-7 has had trouble getting inside, drawing fouls and grabbing rebounds.
Austin Peay at Akron (ESPNU, 5:00 ET)
Nobody had them picked much higher than fifth, but Austin Peay effectively has arrived a year early in the Ohio Valley Conference. Dave Loos has overcome the loss of two key starters from last season's team and has stormed the league the tune of a 15-2 OVC record, 2½ games clear of the field.
Peay's primary secret has been a defense that brick walls the perimeter (30.2 percent 3-point FG allowed, 16th-best in Div. I), a real weapon in a guard-dominated league. The secondary secret is the guy in jersey No. 2, sophomore Drake Reed (16.1 ppg), who's exploded onto the OVC scene by doubling his 2005-06 freshman scoring output.
The homestanding Zips of Akron can light it up from 3 (Div. I 29th-best 39.2 percent shooting), but they can kill you inside, too (27th-best 53.5 percent two-point shooting). This game should come down to whether or not APSU can handle the Big Loverman, Akron's 6-7 senior Romeo Travis (13.7 ppg).
Northern Iowa at Nevada (ESPN2, 6 ET)
Since the BracketBusters pairing announcements, no TV team has fallen as hard or as quickly as UNI. The Panthers' defense has been solid enough (MVC third-best 64.1 ppg allowed in league play), but they've lost five of six since being matched up with Nevada, mostly due to a complete offensive blackout -- in those five Missouri Valley losses, Ben Jacobson's squad has averaged 55.8 points.
Northern Iowa, at risk to miss the NCAAs for the first time since 2003, will need every ounce of defense it can muster against the high-powered Nevada Wolf Pack which, at 11-1, have feasted on their WAC opponents. Sporting 48.7 percent team shooting, Nevada can beat you anywhere on the floor with 6-3, 6-5 and 6-11 scoring options who average more than 13 ppg apiece.
The best-known of those three is the last -- Nick "The Big Freak" Fazekas, who at 20.8 ppg and 11.7 rpg is one of only three players to average over 20 and 10 per game (Texas' Kevin Durant and Rider's Jason Thompson are the others).
Old Dominion at Toledo (ESPN360, 6:00 ET)
If Northern Iowa has done the most to undermine itself among the 28 TV teams in the past two weeks, Old Dominion has done the most to improve its position. The Monarchs simply have not lost since a dropped decision at in-state rival VCU on BracketBusters selection eve, and have used that eight-game win streak to move from a middling 5-3 league mark to second place in the CAA (20-7 overall). Five of those opponents have been held below 60 points, and ODU boasts the best field-goal defense in the conference (39.2 percent).
What looked like a good RPI matchup on Jan. 28 is now a No. 50-No. 93 spread, but MAC West-leading Toledo is coming off an emotional home win over MAC East-leading Akron. Stan Joplin's squad gets most of its points from three players 6-5 and under (42.8 ppg combined), but we'll see Saturday if it can handle ODU's double-figure, internationally flavored frontcourt of Valdas Vasylius and Arnaud Dahi.
Utah State at Oral Roberts (ESPNU, 7 ET)
ORU has the most to gain from this one. Barring a conference tourney run to the WAC auto bid, RPI No. 64 Utah State looks like the third wheel in a 1½-bid conference with Nevada and New Mexico State. But despite an 8-4 league record, the Aggies are 19-7 overall -- one win away from an eighth straight 20-win campaign -- and have only missed the NCAAs twice during that stretch.
The No. 95 Golden Eagles are a virtual lock for the Mid-Continent's 1-seed in a conference tourney that was predetermined to be held on their home floor in Tulsa. Tune in to catch one last regular-season peek at Oral Roberts' senior combo of Ken Tutt and Caleb Green (35.6 combined ppg), the most exciting and potent inside-outside tandem in mid-majordom for the past three seasons.
Cal State Fullerton at Wright State (ESPN360, 8:00 ET)
Two weeks ago, this seemed more of an individual-matchup sideshow than anything else, with Fullerton's 6-0 Bobby Brown (19.4 ppg) going head-to-head with Wright's 5-11 Dashaun Wood (19.8 ppg). This game got a whole lot more interesting last week, though, as the Raiders turned Feb. 10 into their own private ButlerBusters Saturday. A convincing 77-65 home win shined the spotlight on what has now evolved into an eight-game winning streak and a 20-8 season, and on a team that has shot better from the field (46.4 percent) and the foul line (77.2 percent) than the Bulldogs.
The Raiders' league 13-2 mark places them a game up (tied in the loss column) on Butler, and a theoretical Wright State win in the league tourney next month would result in a two-bid Horizon.
Fullerton will try to play fast and furious (77.2 possessions per 40 minutes, seventh-fastest in Div. I), hoping to rebound from a 94-84 home loss to Big West rival Long Beach State.
Bradley at VCU (ESPN2, 8 ET)
On Feb. 8, 2006, Bradley was 7-7 in the MVC, and nobody could have foretold its Sweet 16 run. On Feb. 8, 2007, the Braves were 7-7 and once again an afterthought. Jim Les' team has won two straight since then to pull into fourth place, even without 7-0 behemoth Patrick O'Bryant, who left early for the NBA last summer. No matter -- the Braves and 6-8 senior center Zach Andrews have transformed themselves into a fast, fun team that leads the conference in 3s (43.0 percent, third in the nation).
That provides a great matchup with the VCU Rams, who lead the Colonial at 14-2 on the strength of hot 3-point shooting of their own (39.9 percent, 19th in Div. I). Neither team rebounds the ball that well; the Braves, at 27.0 rpg, are the 26th-worst carom collectors in the country.
Drexel at Creighton (ESPN2, 10 ET)
As we learned last year, scheduling a late BracketBusters game at Creighton just gives its crazy fans a chance to, um, drink some creative juices. Expect the Bluejays' backers to bring the best handmade ESPN-acronym signs of the day to what should be a packed Qwest Center, and expect the stars of MVC second-place Creighton -- Nate Funk ( 17.3 ppg) and Anthony Tolliver (13.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg) -- to bring their A-games.
The Dragons are coming off an embarrassing Valentine's Day massacre at William & Mary (60-47), showing the same stagnant offense that killed their at-large hopes. If they can't get their bigs to move without the ball and get their guards open shots (which they were able to do in big wins over Villanova and Syracuse), this one might end up being an Omaha-ha-ha laugher.
Ohio at New Mexico State (ESPN2, Midnight ET)
In the late game, it's "no defense? no problem." Ohio has five double-figure scoring threats led by center Leon Williams (14.8 ppg), but has trouble stopping the bleeding, with 71.2 points allowed in 25 games -- in the 12-team MAC, only Northern Illinois has given up more. The Bobcats have lost two in a row, the most recent being a 79-48 poleaxing by aforementioned Akron.
New Mexico State's 73.4 ppg allowed is just a tick better than WAC-worst Idaho, but few players in the league can match the offensive output of 6-5 junior Justin Hawkins (15.9 ppg, 7.0 rpg). The Aggies just snapped a two-game losing streak of their own with a 71-68 win at Hawaii, and they sit in second place at 9-3 and remain the favorites for a theoretical second WAC bid -- if only because they've already shown the ability to beat Nevada (80-73 on Jan. 20) and will host the conference tourney.
Kyle Whelliston is the founder of midmajority.com and is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
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