NCAA BracketBusters Preview

If you're a diehard hoops fan, you no doubt have been waiting impatiently for this weekend's O'Reilly ESPNU BracketBusters series. With games like Southern Illinois/Butler and Drexel/Creighton, it's like an NCAA tournament without the BCS conferences. And though it may lack the star power of North Carolina and Florida, there are some serious NCAA tournament ramifications on the line.

Overall, there are 102 teams from 16 conferences tipping off on 51 courts across the nation as part of this series. One thing you can bet on for sure is that many of those teams will be on your bracket comes the real Selection Sunday. Cal State Fullerton/Wright State might not jump out at you as being terribly significant, but both teams have a very real shot at landing their conference auto bids. In the eternal search for the perfect bracket (the Holy Grail of college hoops), every chance you get to see a potential tournament team is critical.

We'll take a look at the 14 televised games, plus a few others that may well have an affect on the madness to come (all times Eastern).

Bradley (MVC) at Virginia Commonwealth (Colonial), Saturday, 8 PM, ESPN2

VCU's loss to Old Dominion on Saturday underscored just how precious each game is for mid-major teams. Any slip, and it could be a three-letter postseason instead of a four-letter one. This game against Bradley will be just the second shot against a team in the RPI top 50 for the Rams (they lost to Xavier in November), and they need it badly. Though still sitting atop the Colonial, a home loss here does major damage to their at-large chances.

As for the Braves, their at-large position is perilous at best. They do have wins over DePaul, Southern Illinois and Wichita State, but have also lost at home to Missouri State and Creighton. Neither of those losses is necessarily terrible, but could nevertheless be the difference between Last Four In and Last Four Out. A win here over the top team from the Colonial, plus a run to at least the Arch Madness semis, would probably make Jim Les feel a lot better.

Pick — VCU

Winthrop (Big South) at Missouri State (MVC), Friday, 7 PM, ESPN2

The kick-off game to the festivities, there can be no overstating the importance of this game to Missouri State. Though a win over Southern Illinois at home on Tuesday would probably cement them as the third team in from the Valley, a loss here might still give the committee pause and put the Bears at risk should there be upsets in the Horizon (Butler), WAC (Nevada) or Conference USA (Memphis), or if some non-at-large candidate from a BCS conference plays themselves into the conversation. If they lose to SIU, this game becomes doubly important.

As for Winthrop, this is their last big shot at making an at-large statement (though they look to be the class of the Big South, so should probably get in regardless). Their four losses this year: North Carolina by 7, Maryland by 11, Wisconsin by 3 in OT and Texas A&M by 20. In other words, the Eagles are not going to be intimidated by playing in Springfield, MO.

Pick — Winthrop

Appalachian State (Southern) at Wichita State (MVC), Saturday, 1 PM, ESPNU

Both teams harbor at least some hope of an at-large, and the loser can probably abandon those hopes after this one. The Apps went on the miracle run in Puerto Rico, taking down Vanderbilt and Virginia. They also have wins over Virginia Commonwealth and Southern power Davidson (Davidson's only conference loss). If it weren't for losses to sub-200 RPI teams Elon and UNC Greensboro within five days of each other in January, they would be in much better shape.

Wichita, meanwhile, was once thought to be a tournament lock. They went on the road and beat George Mason, LSU and Syracuse (before anybody realized all three of those teams were about to have down years), but then fell apart in Las Vegas, losing to New Mexico and Southern Call (PJ Couisnard was ill). They then opened up conference play with five of their first eight on the road — and lost all five. Look at them now, though, and they've climbed to a tie for fourth in the Valley with Bradley. A win here (assuming they don't blow it at Drake on Wednesday), and the Shocker revival will continue full steam ahead.

Pick — Wichita State

Drexel (Colonial) at Creighton (MVC), Saturday, 10 PM, ESPN2

Drexel, currently fourth in the Colonial, was supposed to be "the next George Mason" after consecutive road wins at Villanova, Syracuse and Temple put them on the map heading into the new year. Since then, though, they've stumbled against the Colonial's best, going 1-4 combined against VCU, Old Dominion and Hofstra. The Dragons still have semi-decent computer numbers (RPI 50, non-conference strength of schedule of 16), but really need this road win against the Missouri Valley's second best.

Creighton, for its part, has put together a solid season. They have a great RPI (25) and their only losses in their past dozen games are to Wichita State (away) and Southern Illinois (season sweep), a streak that includes road wins at Missouri State, Northern Iowa and Bradley. With three of their last four at home, the Blue Jays look to be locks for the tournament. Even a loss here would probably only cost them a seed line.

Pick — Creighton

Old Dominion (Colonial) at Toledo (MAC), Saturday, 6 PM, ESPN360

In another tough draw for the Colonial, this is one of those "big deal if you win, devastating if you lose" games for Old Dominion. That's nothing against a very good Toledo team (don't let the pedestrian 13-10 overall record fool you), but a game against one of their at-large rivals (Missouri State, Wichita State, New Mexico State) would have served them much better.

Despite some tough losses to top teams from other mid-majors (Marist from the MAAC, Winthrop from the Big South), and a horrible loss to James Madison, ODU is still within reasonable range of an at-large. Not only have they been playing well late (seven straight, including at Drexel and at home over VCU), they also have a huge win at Georgetown to anchor their resume. With only four games left in the regular season, the Deacons really can't afford to lose this game.

Pick — Old Dominion

Holy Cross (Patriot) at Hofstra (Colonial), Saturday, 3 PM, ESPNU

At 12-3 and second in the Colonial, Hofstra took a big hit to their at-large considerations when they lost at home in overtime to Drexel (not to mention earlier losses to Northeastern and Delaware). With a road game at Old Dominion on Tuesday before hosting the Patriot League's best (HC is actually tied with Bucknell for first at 10-1, but they have the higher RPI at 67), the Pride really could have used a bigger name this weekend. With there being no chance Holy Cross could land an at-large, the ramifications from this game are much larger if Hofstra loses (which would probably sink any at-large hopes). Otherwise, they still have plenty of work to do.

Pick — Hofstra

Northern Iowa (MVC) at Nevada (WAC), Saturday, 6 PM, ESPN2

With losses in six of their last seven, even the most optimistic of Panthers fans has to admit the at-large hopes are bleak at best. Now with three road games in a row (Creighton, Nevada and Bradley), NIU could be looking at a possible seventh place finish in the Missouri Valley. If there's any hope for a miracle, it has to start with this game against the best team out west not a member of the Pac-10. Nevada is cruising, and should easily have a chance to better their disappointing first-round loss to Montana in the 2006 tournament.

Pick — Nevada

Southern Illinois (MVC) at Butler (Horizon), Saturday, 4 PM, ESPN2

With both teams ranked and in the NCAA lock category, this one is more for fun than at-large considerations (the reason it's ranked so low on this list despite being one of the best games of the weekend). Well, it's actually more about seeding than fun, but it will be fun for fans around the country who haven't gotten a chance to see either of these two "mid-major" powerhouses. It will be interesting see if Butler star A.J. Graves can light up the super-tough Saluki defense, and if SIU's interior duo of Randal Falker and Matt Shaw can overpower the Bulldogs inside.

Pick — Southern Illinois

Ohio (MAC) at New Mexico State (WAC), Saturday, Midnight, ESPN2

The last game of the 2007 BracketBusters series, this game is vital to the already-on-life-support at-large hopes for Reggie Theus' Aggies. With two consecutive losses heading into tonight's game at Hawaii, the polish on the Aggies' resume is more tarnished than they hoped for after a big win over Nevada in January. And like Old Dominion above, they could have used a bigger name than the fourth-best team in the MAC East. It's too bad, though with their top four scorers all juniors, keep an eye out for New Mexico State next year (even if Theus bolts for a bigger job, which has to be a possibility).

Pick — New Mexico State

Cal State Fullerton (Big West) at Wright State (Horizon), Saturday, 8 PM, ESPN360

If you weren't paying attention to Wright State before they beat Butler on Saturday, hopefully now you are. With losses to Coastal Carolina, Bowling Green, and UW-Milwaukee, all with sub-240 RPIs, the chances for a Raiders at-large are still virtually nil. Nevertheless, it is they — not Butler — currently sitting on top of the Horizon League. If I were a bubble team, I would be very worried about Wright State injecting themselves into the bracket with the Horizon auto bid. Fullerton, meanwhile, is a half game out of first in the Big West, with a huge game against first-place Long Beach State on Wednesday. To them, that game is far more important than this one.

Pick — Wright State

Austin Peay (OVC) at Akron (MAC), Saturday, 5 PM, ESPNU

With Akron's loss to Toledo and a resume with some bad losses and no real big win, it's debatable whether the Zips have any shot at an at-large (and I'm being kind, here). Take advantage of the chance to watch Austin Peay, though. The Governors have a three-game lead over second-place Samford, and it would take a major upset to knock them out of the bracket.

Pick — Akron

Utah State (WAC) at Oral Roberts (MCC), Saturday, 7 PM, ESPNU

Third place in the WAC visits the Mid-Con's best. Like Austin Peay, this may be your only shot outside of Championship Week to see one of the lower seeds on your bracket. Remember, ORU has won at Kansas and has a great inside-outside duo of Ken Tutt and Caleb Green.

Pick — Oral Roberts

Albany (America East) at Boise State (WAC), Friday, 9 PM EST, ESPNU

The fourth-place team in the WAC hosts the second best in the America East. This game is at least worth watching in case Albany beats out Vermont for the auto bid. The 16-seeded Great Danes gave Connecticut all they could handle in last year's tournament.

Pick — Boise State

Kent State (MAC) at George Mason (Colonial), Saturday, 4 PM, ESPN360

At 7-8 in the Colonial, George Mason needs to sweep through the conference tournament for the automatic bid if they want to reprise their miracle run of 2006. Kent State is in the same boat, though they look to be better positioned going into the MAC tournament. There really aren't any at-large ramifications to this game. I would have picked Hawaii-Long Beach State or Sam Houston State-Fresno State instead.

Pick — George Mason

Others with potential at-large impact:

Miami (MAC) at Indiana State (MVC), Saturday, 2 PM

Since Indiana State has beaten at-large candidates Purdue, Wichita State and Northern Iowa at home this year, it would be better for those teams if the Sycamores could turn back Miami, currently sitting at third in the MAC East.

Towson (Colonial) at Bucknell (Patriot), Saturday, 2 PM

If Bucknell can stop Gary Neal (25.5 ppg), you would have to take that into consideration in picking against them if they come out of the Patriot over Holy Cross.

Evansville (MVC) at Samford (OVC), Saturday, TBD

Like the Indiana State game, it would bode well for the MVC bubble teams if the Missouri Valley's seventh best could beat the Ohio Valley's second best. It may be a bit of a reach, but you never know what is going to swing a selection committee member's mind.

Hawaii (WAC) at Long Beach State (Big West), Saturday, 10 PM

For Big West pride, I would expect Long Beach to be up for this game against a WAC team that already has wins over Oregon State, Hofstra, Nebraska and Creigton.

Sam Houston State (Southland) at Fresno State (WAC), Saturday, TBD

The Bearkats (not a typo) are one of four teams that could come out of the Southland, while Fresno is coming off a big win over New Mexico State and has a non-conference win over Creighton. Neither team is in the at-large conversation, but I see Fresno as having an outside chance to steal the WAC auto bid.

Iona (MAAC) at Delware (Colonial), Saturday, 7 PM EST

The teams are currently a combined 6-45. One of them is getting a win on Saturday. That'll be nice.

The Rest

UW Milwaukee (Horizon) at Drake (MVC)
Ball State (MAC) at Illinois State (MVC)
Bowling Green (MAC) at Morehead State (OVC)
Detroit (Horizon) at Buffalo (MAC)
Central Michigan (MAC) at Illinois-Chicago (Horizon)
Manhattan (MAAC) at Eastern Michigan (MAC)
UW-Green Bay (Horizon) at Northern Illinois (MAC)
Valparaiso (Mid-Con) at Western Michigan (MAC)
William & Mary (Colonial) at Fairfield (MAAC)
James Madison (Colonial) at Siena (MAAC)
UNC Wilmington (Colonial) at UNC Greensboro (Southern)
Maine (America East) at Northeastern (Colonial)
Elon (Southern) at Georgia State (Colonial)
Pacific (Big West) at Montana (Big Sky)
San Jose State (WAC) at Northern Arizona (Big Sky)
Eastern Washington (Big Sky) at UC Santa Barbara (Big West)
Portland State (Big Sky) at Cal-Poly (Big West)
Canisius (MAAC) at Coastal Carolina (Big South)
Liberty (Big South) at Niagara (MAAC)
Jacksonville State (Ohio Valley) at Tennessee-Chattanooga (Southern)
Eastern Illinois (OVC) at Loyola (Illinois) (Horizon)
Eastern Kentucky (OVC) at Youngstown State (Horizon)
Murray State (OVC) at Rider (MAAC)
Louisiana Tech (WAC) at Southeast Missouri State (OVC)
St. Peter's (MAAC) at Tennessee-Martin (OVC)
Loyola (Md) (MAAC) at Tennessee State (OVC)
Northwestern State (Southland) at Tennessee Tech (OVC)
Colgate (Patriot) at Marist (MAAC)
Cleveland State (Horizon) at Cal State Northridge (Big West)
UC Riverside (Big West) at Idaho (WAC)
UC Irvine (Big West) at San Francisco (WCC)

Seth Doria is a freelance writer and poet living on the out-skirt of St. Louis. For weekly NCAA Sleeper Watch updates, daily notes, and picks from the world of sports, and semi-insightful political commentary, visit The Left Calf.

Comments and Conversation

February 16, 2007

samuel Hammons:

Seth Doria, your a really good reporter if you can get articles like these!!!

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