- Kyle Whelliston, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Can't tell a Drake Bulldog from a Butler Bulldog? Still don't know your MAC from your MAAC? Or just figuring out which BracketBusters games will have 2008 NCAA Tournament selection implications?
You're not alone. Clip and save this convenient viewer's guide to the sixth annual mid-major festival, and follow along with the action this weekend on the ESPN family of networks.
Saturday BracketBusters games
• VIRGINIA COMMONWEALTH (20-6, 13-3 CAA) at AKRON (19-7, 9-4 MAC), ESPN2, ESPN360.com, 11 a.m. ET
What it means: A must-win for VCU and the CAA if the league is to have its third straight two-bid year. The Rams lost a one-point stunner at home on Feb. 16 to in-state rival Old Dominion, their first home loss of the season, and have dropped to an RPI of 63. Akron's NCAA hopes suffered a serious blow two weeks ago when the Zips' leading scorer and rebounder Jeremiah Wood went down with a knee injury. He's not expected to return until at least the conference tournament.
Key player: Eric Maynor, VCU. You probably remember him from his last-minute heroics last March, when the then-sophomore hit clutch shots to defeat George Mason in the CAA title game and sank Duke in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. As a junior, he's taken full control of the offense, scoring 17.9 ppg and leading the conference in assists with 5.3 per game. On Wednesday night, he scored 13 of the team's final 17 points to overcome Northeastern on the road. And earlier this month, he was named to the 16-man short list for the Cousy Award, given to the nation's top point guard.
Key stat: VCU's defense, a second thought last year, has become the program's calling card. In Anthony Grant's second year, he's transformed a defense that allowed 68 points in CAA contests into a tight crew that's trimmed that average by 10 points. And no team in America locks down the perimeter as well as the Rams do, with a paltry 27.2 percent shooting allowed from long distance. Unfortunately for suddenly undersized Akron, the 3 is its primary weapon.
What it means: Not quite as much as it did two weeks ago. The Patriots and the Bobcats have seen their at-large chances diminish since this game was announced. Ohio Both have lost two of their last four contests to drop back into the 60s in the RPI. Ohio had a two-loss road trip at Toledo and league front-runner Kent State, while George Mason dropped its first home game of the season last Saturday on a buzzer-beating 3 by UNC Wilmington's T.J. Carter. Both teams, however, remain strong contenders to claim the auto-bid from their respective conferences.
Key player: Will Thomas, George Mason. The 6-7 Baltimore native was a sophomore during Mason's 2006 Final Four run, and he had that memorable 19-point, 12-rebound game in the regional final shocker against Connecticut. Now a senior, he's leading the Patriots in scoring (16.2 ppg) and rebounding (10.5 rpg), has 13 double-doubles in 26 games and shoots a blistering 63.2 percent from the floor. He's a strong candidate for CAA player of the year.
Key stat: Ohio has a double-doubling Charm City senior of its own. Leon Williams is a key holdover from the 2005 MAC championship team that pushed Florida to within five points in the NCAA first round. Nearly averaging a double-double (15.6 ppg, 9.9 rpg), the 6-8 wide-body played key roles in Ohio's wins over St. John's and Maryland in December, and he often holds the key to an Ohio victory. When Williams attempts 10 or more shots, the Bobcats are 7-2.
• CREIGHTON (18-8, 9-7 MVC) at ORAL ROBERTS (19-6, 14-1 Summit League), ESPN2, ESPN360.com, 3 p.m. ET
What it means: A chance for the two-time champions of the Summit (formerly known as the Mid-Continent Conference) to show off its facility, fans and the Golden Eagles' new generation of productive players on national TV. ORU began the conference season perfect at 13-0, the best start in league history, before falling at second-place IUPUI on Saturday. For Creighton, it's the opportunity to showcase its seven underclassmen, a group that may well return the Bluejays to the top of the Missouri Valley in coming years.
Key player: Robert Jarvis, Oral Roberts. He's short in stature (5-11) and hails from Humble, Texas, but there's nothing diminutive about this junior guard's numbers (or his long, flying, braided hair). Jarvis leads the Golden Eagles in points (15.7 ppg) and is hitting 42.1 percent of his 3-point tries. He's also a fantastic free-throw shooter, nailing 85.4 percent of his shots from the stripe.
Key stats: Expect a defensive battle. Creighton's young bunch excels in forcing turnovers, averaging 24 caused cough-ups per ballgame. Oral Roberts is extremely good at stopping shots -- its 40 percent field-goal defense is best in the Summit and ranks 26th nationwide.
• NEVADA (17-9, 9-4 WAC) at SOUTHERN ILLINOIS (15-12, 10-6 MVC), ESPNU, 4:30 p.m. ET
What it means: Sweet 16 nostalgia. Nevada has enjoyed four straight trips to the Big Dance (and four NCAA wins during that stretch), but a youth movement forced by graduation and early NBA draft exits has put the streak at risk. Southern Illinois struck deep into March last season with a Sweet 16 run, but the 2007-08 team's road troubles have kept it at mid-table in the Valley behind Drake and Illinois State. But with proven NCAA-caliber coaches in SIU's Chris Lowery and Nevada's Mark Fox, either or both teams could find a way to win three in a row at their conference tournaments to return to the big bracket.
Key player: JaVale McGee, Nevada. The Wolf Pack's 6-11 sophomore sensation will likely be the face of the program until the next decade, unless he fulfills his pro-ball destiny early. McGee is second on the team in scoring (13.2 ppg) behind stalwart senior Marcelus Kemp's 20.4, and he has already emerged as the true heir to Nick Fazekas' rebounding throne with 7.5 rebounds per contest. Not only does he provide superior glass-cleaning services, he smudges it up pretty good too. He averaging 2.8 blocks per game and adjusts countless other attempts.
Key stat: Opponents who enter SIU Arena often find themselves vastly outnumbered. A rabid crowd of 5,700 Salukis fans serves as the metaphorical "sixth man" on the court, as well as the seventh, eighth and ninth too. And with a 10-2 record at home (including the first 2007-08 Valley defeat of front-running Drake), Southern Illinois is just as nails-tough as it's ever been. It has been the road that's been the reason for the team's struggles. The Salukis are just 2-9 and scoring just 58 points per game (10 less than at home) away from the raucous confines.
• No. 18 DRAKE (23-3, 14-2 MVC) at No. 8 BUTLER (25-2, 14-2 Horizon), ESPN2, ESPN360.com, 5 p.m. ET
What it means: It's a battle between two nationally ranked mids that are very nearly mirror images of each other. Both packs of Bulldogs do it with hustle, sweat and grit, and they have impressed with their ability to cover up on-court shortcomings with excellence in other areas. Drake has already clinched its first Valley title in 37 years but needs this win to feel safe on the bubble after two losses -- to Southern Illinois and Bradley -- in three games. Butler heads into the game on an nine-game tear and has much more margin for error with its superior strength of schedule.
Key player: Matt Howard, Butler. The 6-8 freshman has made an instant impact in the B-Bulldogs' frontcourt and has brought new dimension to a team that built a reputation for the sterling guard play of A.J. Graves and Mike Green. During January, Howard (13.2 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 60 percent shooting) bullied his way inside to become the team's leading scorer in seven consecutive games.
Key stat: "Drake" is the new slang for "unselfish." Josh Young, the D-Bulldogs' primary point-getter at 16.2 ppg, has led Drake in points in only eight of the team's 26 games. The second-leading scorer, Leonard Houston (14.0 ppg), has only topped the points parade in four games. All told, six Drake players have been the team's leading scorer in a game.
• MIAMI (OHIO) (13-12, 7-6 MAC) at VALPARAISO (15-12, 6-9 Horizon), ESPN Classic, 6 p.m. ET
What it means: A classic chance to see Valpo's Athletics-Recreation Center (ARC) filled to golden-shirted capacity again, just like it was two weeks ago for the Butler game on ESPN2. The Crusaders have stumbled, losing seven of their last nine. The MAC reigning champion Redhawks have been wildly inconsistent, with matching five-game winning and losing streaks in the past two months.
Key player: Michael Bramos, Miami. After spending most of the 2006-07 season as the team's fourth offensive option, the 6-5 Michigan native exploded on the conference scene during last March's MAC tourney in Cleveland, scoring in double figures in each of the Redhawks' three wins there. This season, he leads the team in scoring with 15.3 ppg, and is one of the league's most reliable workhorses, averaging 35.2 minutes per game.
Key stat: This will be the first-ever BracketBusters game to be shown live on ESPN Classic.
What it means: An opportunity for an up-and-down Cleveland State to maintain its positive momentum heading into its conference tournament. The Vikings won seven straight to jump out in front of the Horizon League but took on a five-game losing streak to go 7-5. Now, however, the team is on the upswing, winning four of five to climb back into third place behind Butler and Wright State. Marist, for its part, has lost five of its past six to fade out of a hotly contested MAAC race.
Key players: J'Nathan Bullock and Cedric Jackson, Cleveland State. The Vikings have established a nice inside-outside combo, with slashing guard Jackson and bullish forward Bullock averaging a combined 28.7 points and 10.9 rebounds. And since they're both juniors, they stand to keep CSU in contention in 2008-09, after Butler's senior guards graduate.
Key stat: The Red Foxes miss Jared Jordan, the point guard who led the team to a 2007 NIT victory and went on to be drafted 45th by the Los Angeles Clippers. Last season, Jordan's 8.7 assists helped Marist lead the MAAC with a 1.34-to-1 team assist-to-turnover ratio. This year, the team averages more turnovers than assists (.86-to-1).
• RIDER (18-9, 11-5 MAAC) at CAL STATE NORTHRIDGE (18-6, 10-2 Big West), ESPNU, 9 p.m. ET
What it means: Both teams will take a few days off from heated conference races to take a Buster break. Rider was in the lead for the MAAC one-seed but has lost three straight to fall into a four-way tie for first. Northridge, a school with only two winning seasons since joining the Big West in 2001, finds itself in a virtual tie with Fullerton for first on the strength of hot offense (78 points in league games) and flash-freeze defense (65 points allowed).
Key player: Jason Thompson, Rider. A sure-fire selection in the NBA draft, the 6-11 senior was named to the Wooden Award's midseason top 30 list. Accumulating the numbers necessary to attract scouts' attention has been no problem for Thompson -- he's averaging 20.3 points, 11.7 rebounds and 2.9 blocks, and he recently became the first player since Wake Forest's Tim Duncan to achieve three 20-point, 20-rebound games in a season.
Key stat: The Broncs will travel the 2,756 miles between Lawrenceville, N.J., and Northridge, Calif. The Matadors will repay the favor sometime in the next two seasons by playing at Rider's Alumni Gym, thanks to the rules of the BracketBusters event, which mandate a return game.
• UW MILWAUKEE (13-12, 8-7 Horizon) at BRADLEY (16-12, 9-7 MVC), ESPN360.com, 9 p.m. ET
What it means: It's a pair of Sweet 16 teams from 2005 (Milwaukee) and 2006 (Bradley) that have made recent statements against 2008's crop of hot mid-majors. Tuesday, UWM pushed Butler to overtime at home. Earlier this week, Bradley did what no other team has done this year -- defeat Drake in Des Moines.
Key player: Daniel Ruffin, Bradley. The Braves struggled during a month while their star senior guard recovered from a sports hernia, and they played their way off the at-large board. But since the nation's active leader in assists returned in late January, Bradley is 7-2. The 5-10 spark plug is all the way back. He's averaging 14.5 points in those nine games, which is also his season average.
Key stat: Since the mid-December dismissal of leading scorer and rebounder Torre Johnson (17.8 ppg, 8.0 rpg) in the wake of assault charges, the Panthers are 10-5. They were 3-7 with Johnson on the roster.
• SIENA (16-10, 11-5 MAAC) at BOISE STATE (20-6, 10-3 WAC), ESPN360.com, 10 p.m. ET
What it means: Two leaders from far-flung leagues, together for the first time since a 82-80 Boise win that opened the 1993-94 season. Fourteen years later, Siena is one of four 11-5 MAAC teams and offers the most athletic squad in the conference. Boise State remains the best-shooting team in the nation (51.6 percent), has won eight of nine games and recently became the WAC's first 10-win team.
Key player: Edwin Ubiles, Siena. This explosive 6-6 forward can run the break as well as anyone at this level, and was named co-Rookie of the Year in the MAAC in 2006-07. Now, the sophomore Saint averages 17.2 points per contest, has nine 20-plus games this season and recently dropped 37 on Loyola (Md.) in a losing cause.
Key stat: With its speed and depth, Siena has been able to simply run a lot of teams off the court. However, the Saints have had their struggles matching up with athletic forwards, outrebounded by double-digit margins in four of their past six games. Boise State will provide a tough test indeed with the WAC's premier frontcourt pair -- seniors Reggie Larry and Matt Nelson combine for 34.6 points and 16.5 rebounds.
• KENT STATE (22-5, 11-2 MAC) at No. 20 SAINT MARY'S (23-3, 10-1 WCC), ESPN2, ESPN360.com, 11:59 p.m. ET
What it means: Perhaps the BracketBusters contest with the most on the line. With an RPI in the 40s and a five-game winning streak, Kent State could pick up a gigantic road win over a team with an RPI of 26, which would put Kent squarely on the bubble and perhaps lead to the MAC's first at-large bid since 1999. SMC has won six in a row, but a loss at home could put a serious dent in the résumé of a team that's attempting to shore up at-large status. It's a distant replay of the championship from Saint Mary's holiday tournament in December 2005, a last-minute 61-59 Gael win.
Key player: Patrick Mills, Saint Mary's. The Gaels' freshman phenom has a world of experience -- he's played and excelled for Australia's national team -- that your average prep newcomer can't match. The lightning-fast Mills made his initial splash in America with a 37-point explosion in a December upset of Oregon, and he currently leads the team with 15.2 ppg and 3.6 apg.
Key stat: Saint Mary's has better rebounding and defense, and Kent State offers better overall shooting. However, the winner of this game will likely come down to tempo. The Gaels love to get out and run, using very little clock, and Kent will try to keep things slow. If you're watching the game, keep a scratch pad and count Saint Mary's possessions. When the Gaels are held to below 64, they're 1-2.
Sunday BracketBusters game
• WRIGHT STATE (20-6, 12-4 Horizon) at ILLINOIS STATE (19-8, 11-5 MVC), ESPNU, 6:30 p.m. ET
What it means: A chance to see the second-place teams in two conferences that will likely be two-bid candidates should Drake and/or Butler falls in the MVC and Horizon tourneys, respectively. It also means an extra day of BracketBusters fun -- the Illinois state girl's basketball championships are being held Friday and Saturday at Redbird Arena, necessitating a schedule change.
Key player: Osiris Eldridge, Illinois State. As a sophomore, No. 0 is averaging a MVC-leading 16.7 ppg and is shooting 49.7 percent from the floor, many of his baskets coming off picture-perfect dribble-drives from the perimeter. The 6-3 Chicago product is a strong front-runner to be named 2008 Valley Player of the Year. It would look great on his mantle next to his 2007 freshman of the year award.
Key stat: Wright State, the 2007 champions of the Horizon, must believe that blowouts are overrated. During its current 10-game conference winning streak, the Raiders have won by an average of 3.2 points. Four of those victories were by a single point.
Friday BracketBusters games and results
DAVIDSON (20-6, 18-0 SoCon) at WINTHROP (18-9, 9-3 Big South), ESPN2, ESPN360.com, 7 p.m. ET
What it means: Charlotte-area mid-major bragging rights. The visiting Wildcats have won 16 straight games and boast a perfect SoCon record, but their at-large candidacy was likely erased by a 2-6 nonconference record and close-but-no-cigar losses to Duke, UNC and NC State. Bob McKillop's team, which streaked to a perfect 16-0 SoCon record in 2004-05 but was denied an at-large bid after a semifinal loss in the league tourney, knows its job. The Wildcats have beaten SoCon opponents by an average 17 points. In the first season of the post-Greg Marshall era in Rock Hill, S.C., Winthrop is leading but not dominating the Big South, a conference the Eagles have practically owned since 1999.
Key player: Stephen Curry, Davidson. The 6-foot sophomore, son of former NBA sharpshooter Dell, was tabbed as a special player in his first season but has evolved into a magical one. The fifth-leading scorer in the nation (25.8 ppg) has earned three SoCon player of the month nods this season, and he is amassing a growing list of "where-were-you-when" games that Davidson fans will remember for a long time. Like, for instance, his 38-point effort in Davidson's conference opener at Appalachian State or the 41-point outburst that helped the Wildcats dig out of an early 20-point hole at UNC Greensboro on Feb. 13.
Key stat: Before leaving for Wichita State last summer, Marshall coached Winthrop to seven Big South tournament championships. But none of his NCAA teams beat two ACC squads in the same year, a feat accomplished with wins over Miami and Georgia Tech under Randy Peele this season. And none of Marshall's teams played defense quite like this first Peele-led version. The Eagles have held conference opponents to 54.6 points per game, have only given up 70 or more once in league play and haven't allowed more than 75 since a 76-71 loss to Ole Miss on Dec. 13.
Final result: Davidson 60, Winthrop 47
• UC SANTA BARBARA (20-6, 9-4 Big West) at UTAH STATE (18-9, 8-4 WAC), ESPNU, 9 p.m. ET
What it means: With both teams hovering in the 80s and 90s of the RPI table, it's a chance for old Big West buddies to catch up. Both teams were perennial BWC contenders until two seasons ago when Utah State moved into the WAC. But the Gauchos and Aggies, picked to finish high in their respective leagues, have hit simultaneous swoons. USU has dropped three straight to fall out of first place after a 5-0 conference start, and UCSB languishes behind Cal State Fullerton and Cal State Northridge in the Big West race.
Key player: Jaycee Carroll, Utah State. The All-American senior guard is a 2,000-point career scorer, and he currently leads the WAC with a 22.3 ppg average. He's on track to end his Utah State career by hitting 50 percent or more shots in three of his four years in Logan, and he's already assured of hitting at least 40 percent of his 3s in all four of his collegiate seasons. Yet this season is his best shooting campaign yet. He's shooting nearly as well from 3 (51.7 percent) as he is overall (52.8 percent).
Key stat: Look for a lot of flying rubber in this one. USU and UCSB love shooting the 3, and both teams are remarkably proficient from beyond the arc. Led by Carroll, Utah State makes 40.1 percent of its attempts (18th in the country), while 20.4 ppg scoring machine Alex Harris and the Gauchos convert on 41.5 percent of their tries (No. 4 nationally). When it comes to stopping the long bomb, however, the Aggies are in the bottom 50 in 3-point field goal defense (37.6 percent), while UCSB is No. 18 with 30.6 percent allowed.
Final result: Utah State 72, UC Santa Barbara 59
Kyle Whelliston is the national mid-major reporter for Basketball Times and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
Here is a viewers' guide and breakdown of the BracketBusters matchups this weekend.