The annual bracket buster weekend is upon us which means that March is just around the corner. We get a chance to grade dozens of possible plucky upstarts in hopes of discovering the perfect future #11 or #12 NCAA Tournament seed destined to make bracket waves next month. Most years, the bracket buster weekend is just a celebration of mid-major hoopdom with very little truly on the line. Let’s face it, for the most part these teams wont be getting at large bids by virtue of their bracket buster win.
This year I thought it might be a little different with so many mid-majors having stellar seasons. I thought the weekend was going to be the Colonial Athletic Conference. To me, how their teams fare this weekend will be the biggest storyline. When I am wisting hyperbole, I’ve mentioned that as many as six CAA teams could win NCAA tournament games. To be more practical, that number might really only be four. But, still, for a league that is not guaranteed a second bid into the dance, anything the CAA can do to put its teams in the most positive light is important to try to secure anything more than the automatic qualifier that comes with winning the league tournament. That brings us to this weekend. With five showcase games somewhere on the ESPN dial, the league has a chance to really impress and with an excellent showing really build momentum for 2, maybe even 3, bids into the field.
Well, the weekend already has its biggest loser. And, its the CAA. See, the event began last night and two of the league’s more viable teams were shellacked, albeit on the road, by fellow mid-majors. Considering one of those clubs was the league leader and the other had the most impressive OOC wins, it was a rotten night for the CAA and they may have cornereed themselves back into one bid only territory.
Northern Iowa broke Old Dominion alst night in Cedar Falls. The Panthers elite defense did a number on the Monarchs as ODU had no offense the first half. The second half provided more scoring for both teams, but ODU never really threatened the lead and NIU cruised to a 9-point win. This game was between the leaders in the CAA and Missouri Valley Conference, so it was a marquee game of this event. For NIU, its the best OOC win they have and might be enough to bank a tournament bid this runaway winner of the MVC crown fall in the MVC Tournament. It was a killer loss for the Monarchs. To be sure, their resume looks nice. If they rebound and hold on to the CAA regular season crown, they still have wins at Georgetown and Charlotte to their credit as part of an ambitious non-league slate that also included single digit losses away from home against Missouri, Mississippi, Dayton and Richmond. They played a much tougher They are an 11-seed the current Bracket Matrix, by virtue of their first place standing. But, they lost a key chance to really lock in for at large position regardless of what happens the rest of the way. Meanwhile, dont sleep on NIU. The Matrix has them as 7-seed and they are now 17-9 ATS. While last night’s Over hit, it’s also worth pointing the Under is 17-6 on posted total. Maybe NIU and the Under will be a March money train.
Meanwhile, another strong CAA team went down in flames last night when Iona, of the MAAC, thumped William/Mary 69-53. The game was never really close. With a histoty of being a league punching bag and after a 10-win campaign last season, the Tribe are league contenders. At 2 games back of ODU and Northeastern, W/M probably wont with the league title, which is sometimes a necessary chip for a mid major to snag an at large bid. But, the Tribe offers a compelling resume with road wins at Wake Forest and at Maryland. But, I dont think those games will stand out with a 16-point beatdown to a MAAC team not named Siena this close to Selection Sunday. I thought the Tribe provided an interesting mid-major argument if they won out in the regular season, but last night’s loss muted the argument to say the least.
It also crushed the CAA. I had dreamed of them getting a sweep in the five key games league teams played on TV this weekend. Instead, they are 0-2 with two of their more intriguing tourney prospects showing just how not ready to wear they really are. I dont know if the league can make up any ground today. They could win all three of their spotlight games, but none of today’s teams play anybody as impressive as NIU, nor do they have the OOC chips the Tribe have. It’ll be a good showcase, but I remain firm in the belief that the biggest loser of Bracket Buster weekend, the CAA, has already been determined. Anyway, a quick look at the highlighted buster games today, including the games involving the other three CAA teams, Northeastern, VCU and George Mason.
Siena at Butler, 11:00 AM, ESPN2, Butler -8……A killer game. It’s Butler deliberate, lifted right out the 1950s, Hoosiers style of game versus the frenetic up and down the court pace of Siena. Oh, and it helps that these are two of the better teams in the country. We all know Butler’s story. Perennial tournament team. Known for first round upsets and making March headlines. But, dont forget the Saints have qualified for the Round of 32 in back-to-back years. This game has the feel of a true 8/9 game in the tournament, except I feel both teams could be deserving of better seeds than that.Currently, Butler is a 6-seed in the Matrix as the Horizon Champ and Siena is a 12-seed as the MAAC champ. Both have lapped the field in their respective leagues. Butler is in the Dance, regardless. The same cannot be said for Saints. But, that could change with a win here. If they win out, but, say, get upset in the MAAC title game, a win over Butler might still keep Siena in the field.
Morgan State at Murray State, noon, ESPNU, Murray -12…..regardless of circumstance these teams arent going anywhere near the final tournament field unless they cut the nets down in the conference sectionals. Murray State is a 13-seed in the Matrix as the Ohio Valley Champ and Morgan State is just a 15-seed as the MEAC Champ. But, this game intrigues me nevertheless. For starters, these teams are a combined 29-1 in their respective conferences. Are you saying you are not interested when Ohio Valley and MEAC royalty go head to head? Turn in your hoop fan card then, brah. Beyond that, I have personal reasons for paying attention here. I’ve been a big fan of Murray State ever since Popeye Jones roamed the paint for them going on 20 years ago. They almost pulled off some major tourney upsets back i that era including famously taking #1 seed Michigan State into OT back in 1990. But, they never did wear Cinderella’s slipper. Nor have they since even though it seems like they make the Dance every year. If ever a program desveres a weekend in March turning the nation on, it’s Murary. And whenever that does happen, I’ll be rushing the nearest court I can find.
Louisiana Tech at Northeastern, 1:00, ESPN2, NE -8.5…..the event schedulers didnt do the Huskiers any favors. Tied for first atop the CAA standings with ODU, the Huskies wont get the chance this weekend for a signature win they way ODU did. That’s not to say Tech is a scrub. The Bulldogs area 20-win team, but they are in third place in the WAC. Nobody gets points for beating a third place mid major team. Northeastern buried themselves with a December losing streak, but they’ve won 16 of their 18 games. If they win this one, close out with wins over Hofstra and at George Mason and get all the way into the CAA finals before losing, you’re looking at a team’s “just” 23-10, but 21-3 since Christmas. I dont think its good enough, unless they are the outright regular season CAA Champ. You can see why not getting one of the top Bracket Buster teams as a foe for the weekend hurts their cause. It’s a matchup of the 16th best scoring Defense of NE vs the 39th ranked scoring Offense of La Tech. The Bulldogs dont have great defensive numbers and the Huskies are a pretty good shooting team. They’re 16-9 ATS. I think they roll the Techsters.
Nevada at Missouri State, 3:00, ESPN2, Mizz St -5……How does this game forward anybody’s interest as far as speaking up for mid-major bubble teams. The Wolf Pack are in a tie for third in the WAC. Missouri State is in seventh place in the MVC with a 7-8 league record. These teams arent going anywhere near the field unless they win their league postseason fields. No offense to either team, but this game speaks to the failure of bracket buster weekend. These teams arent contenders. How come they cant match up better games and put them on TV?
Akron at VCU, 4:00, ESPNU, VCU -9…….VCU continues to just chug along, slowly developing into a mid-major power territory. If they stay on this sort of path, I can see this program turning into another Xavier or something. They lost a 2-time CAA player of the year and their head coach. Yet, here they are flirting with 20 wins and at 10-6 in CAA will finish in the upper division and give them a good seed going into the CAA Tournament. They have wins over bubble teams Oklahoma, Richmond and Rhode Island. And, like past Ram outfits, they are more than capable of going on a roll as their four different four-game winning streaks attests to. What if they win this game and then beat James Madison and win at ODU to close the season and get as far as the CAA finals. It would be another winning streak. And, they’d be 23-8 with some nice OOC wins. Given their history, maybe they sneak a bid. Beating Akron, the best team in the Mid-American Conference is a must. This will be a matchup of the Rams offense, in the top 20-percent of most categories, and the Zips defense, themselves in the top-20 percent of those categories. Usually I’ll take defense in those games, but I also wont bet against VCU on their home floor.
Charleston at George Mason, 8:00, ESPN2, Mason -5…….with just a 16-11 overall record, George Mason doesnt have much chance of an at large. Probably none at all. But, at 11-5 in the CAA after a pretty tough OOC slate, Mason is a legit contender in the CAA sectional next month. Given their March history, nobody should be surprised to see the Patriots make such a run and then even win a game in the NCAAs once they get there. But, man they have to reverse their February blues. After closing January out with a 7-game winning streak, Mason has lost four of five games. They have to get back to that kind of ball if they expect any March success. No better time to turn it around then against College of Charleston, current leader of the Southern Conference. The Cougars have won 12 of 15 with a win over North Carolina during that stretch. With Jim Larranga and Bobby Cremins, its a compelling coaching matchip as well.
Western Carolina at Kent, 8:00, ESPNU, Kent -8…….Western Carolina is just in fourth place overall in the Southern Conference, but as their win over Louisville in Decemeber shows they are a sleeper in that sectional next month. Kent is tied at 10-3 atop the MAC standings and given their past tournament runs at the start of the decade are about as Brand Name as the MAC can get. They are battle tested with road losses against Pitt, Xavier, USF and Northeastern. They have a chance at 25 wins, but wont sniff the field unless they win the MAC Finals. This will be a fun game, but I am paying close attention to both Kent and Akron. They play each other two weeks from today in the regular season finale. The winner will win the regular season crown. I expect the teams to play again the following weekend in the MAC Tournament. It’s compare and contrast time in advance of those two games that will decide everything in the MAC.
New Mexico State at Pacific, 10:00, ESPNU, Pacific -5.5……a regional bracket buster clash with more bragging rights between west coast conferences on the line than anything as far as the tournament goes. The Aggies are in second place of the WAC and Pacific is in second place in the Big West. Both programs have won conference titles and been in the Dance in recent seasons. Both are threats in the league sectionals. It’s some late night scouting for some future bets in those fields, amirite?!?!?!
Wichita State at Utah State, 11:59, ESPN2, USU -7……….Utah State is a mid-major power. They always put up guady records. But, its never good enough for a tournament bid if they cant win the WAC finals. Maybe a win over the second place Missouri Valley team will be enough of a chip this time if they win out from here, but bow out in the WAC championship game. Currently, they sit in first place in the WAC, and, as a result, own a Matrix 13-seed right now. This game might be the most important of the day after the Siena/Butler game and it tip 13 hours later. Their are stakes on the line for the Shockers. They’re a solid 11-5 in the Valley. They dont have much on their OOC resume other than a win over Texas Tech. But, a win at USU, where nobody wins, would be huge. Say they get to the league finals and lose to NIU? With a win tonight, they would have a final 27-7 mark from a league that often gets multiple bids into the field. Three people are already putting them in their field this morning, but could they pull in more support. A win today would help that cause.