The BracketBusters started back in 2003 with the intention of helping out the little guy. The theory being that mid-major schools would get an opportunity to face a quality opponent with a chance of hopefully improving its at-large status. However, in practice, the fact remains that there are very few at-large bids awaiting mid-major schools, so while the premise sounds good, few if any schools over the years have helped themselves with a BracketBuster win. Actually, I think one could argue fairly convincingly that while a BracketBuster win does little to help a team’s at-large status, a BracketBuster loss can all but ‘kill’ it. That being said, far be it for ESPN to let the facts get in the way of the hype. The ‘family’ of ESPN networks is promoting its latest BracketBuster weekend by proclaiming 57 games games, involving 114 teams from 14 conferences and one Independent. It all begins with a televised doubleheader on Friday night when Virginia Commonwealth (20-8) visits Wichita State (22-5) at 7:00 ET on ESPN2, followed by Kent State (17-8) at Drexel (17-9) at 9:00 ET on ESPNU.
VCU finished last year 27-9 after winning the CBI tourney but it’s safe to say the Rams sure don’t want to wind up defending that title this postseason. The CAA sometimes, but not often, gets an at-large bid but this year George Mason and Old Dominion own better at-large resumes than the Rams. As for Wichita St, the Shockers are tied with Missouri St at 13-3 in the MVC and the Shockers are well aware that their 25-9 record last (including a loss in the MVC tourney title game) was not enough to save from them from being regulated to the NIT. Wichita St is a perfect example of a team being hurt more by a BracketBuster loss than being helped by a win. As for the second game Friday between Kent St and Drexel, forget about it. The Golden Flashes entered this season with 20 wins or more in 11 of the last 12 years and are just three short or reaching 20 wins again this year but Kent St is well aware that the MAC hasn't received an at-large bid since 1999. Drexel plays in the CAA and its only path to the “Big Dance” is by winning the CAA tourney.
Eight games will be televised on Saturday, beginning at 11:00 ET in the morning with Hofstra (18-9) at Wright State (17-12) and ending at 11:00 ET in the evening with Montana (19-7) at Long Beach St (16-10). In between, three games deserve special mention, Missouri State (21-6) at Valparaiso (19-8) at 5:00 ET on ESPN2, George Mason (22-5) at Northern Iowa (19-9) at 7:00 ET on ESPN2 and Utah State (24-3) at St Mary’s (22-5) at 9:00 ET on ESPN2. The final game worthy of mention will be played Sunday at 1:00 ET, when Cleveland St (23-5) plays at Old Dominion (21-6)on ESPN or ESPN2. Missouri St was just 11-20 in 2009 but last year won 24 games and the CIT championship. It’s NCCA or bust this year for the Bears, who last went ‘dancing’ back in 1999 when Steve Alford led them into the Sweet 16 (most recent of the school’s eight NCAA appearances). An at-large bid is not out of the question for the Bears, meaning a win here means something. As for Valparaiso, no true college basketball fan will ever forget Bryce Drew’s game-ending three-pointer which gave the Crusaders a first round 70-69 upset over No. 4-seed Ole Miss in 1998. Valpo is a huge surprise in the Horizon League this season coming off 9-22 and 15-17 seasons but again, no at-large bid will be available for the Crusaders so a win here is nice but unless they win the Horizon tourney, it’s “NIT, CBI or CIT-time” for them.
George Mason is best-known for its ‘Cinderella’ run to the 2006 Final 4, where the Patriots lost 73–58 to eventual national champion Florida in the national semifinals. This year’s team seems destined to make its sixth NCAA appearance under highly-respected head coach Jim Larranaga, either as CAA tourney champs or as an at-large team. The Patriots enter this game at Northern Iowa on a 12-game winning streak as well as on a 13-game ATS winning streak. As for the Panthers, they are coming off the best season in school history last year, one in which they went 30-5 and made it all the way to the Sweet 16, knocking off No. 1 Kansas in the second round. However, the only way this school gets its seventh NCAA trip is by winning the MVC tourney, as only Missouri St and Wichita St have at-large chances out of this conference.
Saturday’s “Game of the Day” is Utah St at St Mary’s. Utah St is ranked 25th in the AP poll (24th in the coaches’ poll) while St Mary’s is unranked by the AP but the coaches rank them 23rd. Most “bracketologists” have the Gaels in the Big Dance win or lose in the WCC tourney, although their 74-66 loss at 6-21 San Diego Wednesday night sure didn’t enhance their at-large chances. St Mary’s won 28 games last year and made the Sweet 16, a feat Utah St hasn’t accomplished despite all its success under Stew Morrill. Morrill came to Utah St prior to the 1998-99 season and beginning in his second season, has won at least 23 games in each of the last 12 years. The Aggies have earned seven NCAA bids during that span but own just one NCAA win, an upset of No. 5 seed Ohio St back in 2001. The Aggies got an at-large bid last season but they sure don’t want to count on receiving one this year. A loss here at St Mary’s would all but ensure they wouldn’t receive one in 2011, meaning a WAC tourney title would be a must.
The BracketBuster weekend concludes Sunday when Cleveland St visits Old Dominion. Cleveland St went 26-10 two years ago with an NCAA appearance, the school’s first since the infamous Kevin Mackey led the Vikings to a Sweet 16 appearance in 1986 with wins over Bob Knight's Indiana Hoosiers and St Joe’s (Vikings lost to Navy on a last-second basket by David Robinson, just one game away from the Elite 8). CSU fell to just 16-17 last year but this year leads the Horizon at 12-4 but with two bad losses to Butler, an at-large selection is iffy. Old Dominion is in a three-way tie with VCU and Hofstra (12-4) in the CAA (behind 14-2 George Mason) but owns a stronger at-large resume than either the Rams or Pride. There can be little doubt in this one that the winner clearly improves its at-large chances, exactly what the BracketBuster weekend was created to do. Every once in awhile, ‘they’ get it right.
After Ohio State lost at Wisconsin last Saturday, it left Coastal Carolina with the nation’s longest active winning streak at 22 in a row. The Chanticleers also found themselves ‘knocking on the door’ of both major polls last Monday, ranking 27th in the coaches’ poll and 28th in the AP poll (found under “others receiving votes”). However, Coastal Carolina lost 59-57 at home to a Gardner-Webb team on Tuesday, that entered having lost 14 of its previous 16 games. Coastal Carolina did not make a single field goal in the final 6:42. It was its first conference loss in the Big South (15-1) this season, leaving only Texas (Big 12) and Princeton (Ivy League) as conference unbeatens.
Texas moved to 11-0 in Big 12 play (9-2 ATS) with a 73-55 win Wednesday over Oklahoma St. It marks the school’s best conference start since it opened 13-0 in the Southwest Conference during the 1962-63 season. Ten of Texas' Big 12 wins have been by double digits with only its nine-point win over Baylor falling short. The Longhorns visit Lincoln, Nebraska on Saturday, where the Cornhuskers are 15-1 this season. Princeton has won or shared 27 Ivy League titles and made 23 NCAA appearances but hasn’t won the league crown since 2004. However, the Tigers enter the weekend winners of 17 of their last 18 games and with a 7-0 Ivy League mark (Harvard is 7-1 with its lone loss coming at Princeton). Princeton plays at Yale (5-3 in league play) Friday night and at Brown (2-6) on Saturday.
At the other end of the ‘food chain’ we find Centenary, which remained the nation’s lone winless team this season, losing 81-61 at home on Tuesday to Oral Roberts. The loss dropped the Gentlemen (bad nickname) to 0-28 this season (0-12 in the Summit League) and extended the nation’s longest active losing streak to 33 games. Centenary does not play again until Feb 24 when it hosts Western Illinois (which is currently 7-18). Centenary better win that one, as its final regular season game is on Feb 26 at home vs IUPUI, which at 10-4, is the Summit League’s second-place team. Joining Centenary as still winless in conference play are Towson (0-16 in the CAA), Georgia Southern (0-15 in the Southern Conference) and Fordham (0-11 in the A-10). Fordham, 1-42 in the A-10 since the beginning of the 2008-09 season and losers of 37 consecutive league games, plays Saturday at Xavier (18-6 / 9-1). Georgia Southern plays Saturday at home vs The Citadel (9-19 / 5-10) while Towson plays a BracketBuster game at home vs Loyola-Maryland of the MAAC on Saturday, which means the Tigers can’t pick up that first conference win this weekend.
Let’s hear it for DePaul, which won 79-76 at Providence Thursday night, ending more than just a few losing streaks in the process. The Blue Demons snapped a 12-game overall losing streak (last win came back on Dec 22 at home vs Florida Atlantic), as well as a 29-game road losing streak (last road win came 67-63 at Illinois-Chicago way back on Nov 22, 2008!). It also marked DePaul’s first Big East win this year (now 1-12), ending a 24-game Big East regular-season losing streak plus a 25-game losing streak in all Big East competition (including conference tournament games). However, DePaul is still just 2-47 in Big East regular-season play since the beginning of the 2008-09 season.
I’ll return Monday with a mid-season NBA update with my next CBB Notes set for Friday, Feb 25.