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Bracket Busters

   by ASA - 02/17/2007

Very little attention is paid to the ESPN bracket-busters as it is a collection of games featuring mid-major teams that very few spectators know anything about. But recent NCAA Tournament runs (i.e. George Mason) from these very mid-major teams has shown that these programs can play at an extremely high level. Three top-16 teams will be in action, highlighted by a showdown between No. 15 Southern Illinois and No. 12 Butler. I’ll look at four of the more intriguing bracket-buster matchups, starting with the Salukis and Bulldogs.

Southern Illinois at Butler
This game pits two of the top mid-major teams in the country as the 24-3 (17-6 ATS) Bulldogs play host to the 22-5 (14-11-1 ATS) Salukis. Southern Illinois sits alone atop the Missouri Valley Conference standings with a 13-3 league mark and is currently riding an eight-game winning streak. Butler is a half-game behind Wright State for the top spot in the Horizon League and has been the surprise of the college basketball season. The Bulldogs were picked to finish sixth in the Horizon this year but have used a Preseason NIT championship run to propel themselves into the upper echelon of the mid-major scene.

Both of these squads win with defense, which could lead to the lowest scoring affair of the bunch. The Salukis are third in the nation with just 55.7 points allowed per game but the Bulldogs aren’t far behind as they are sixth with 56.4 points surrendered a game. The factor that could separate these evenly matched teams could be Butler’s home-court advantage. It is an unblemished 14-0 (8-1 ATS) at home this season and has won by an average margin of nearly 20 points per game, with 13 of those wins coming by double digits. Southern Illinois hasn’t been a bad road team, though, as it’s 8-5 SU and 8-4 ATS this season, including impressive wins over Missouri State, Wichita State and Creighton.

Barring a complete collapse, both of these teams have more than likely already locked up a spot in this year’s tournament. Butler and Southern Illinois are two highly-skilled, highly-disciplined, well-coached teams that will be well-prepared for this contest. A win for either team will go a long way toward improved seeding in the tournament so it’s assured that both teams will show up. This contest is the marquee matchup on the bracket buster slate and promises to be a very competitive game.

Austin Peay at Akron
This bracket buster is the only one that features two teams on top of their respective conferences, as Austin Peay leads the Ohio Valley and Akron controls the Mid-American and both are doing so by a wide margin. The Governors are 18-7 (13-8-1 ATS) for the season and own a 3.5 game lead with a 15-2 record in conference play. The Zips, meanwhile, have been head and shoulders above the rest of the MAC. Akron’s 19-5 overall record (9-9 ATS) is four games better than any other team in the conference and its 10-2 conference mark is good enough for a 1.5 game lead in the competitive MAC East.

The Zips have been led by a group of players that form the most experienced roster in the conference. Their top six scorers are all of at least junior status with seniors Romeo Travis and Dru Joyce, both high school teammates of LeBron James, setting the tone. Travis has long been one of the top players in the MAC and Joyce makes the perfect floor general for this veteran squad. Austin Peay hasn’t just won in conference action; it has dominated, winning by an average of more than 12 points per game. Most of that success has come at home, though, as its scoring margin falls to an average of just plus-4.1 points per game on the road. The Governors could struggle against an Akron team that has gone 12-2 SU at home this season with an average margin of victory of 21.9 points.

These two programs have climbed to the top of their respective conferences with very little fanfare. It’s highly likely that both teams will need to win their conference tournament in order to receive an invite to the Big Dance. A win in this game could improve each team’s postseason resume so you can expect a hotly-contested game.

Winthrop at Missouri State
The visiting Winthrop Eagles haven’t been heard from much since making some big waves during the non-conference season. That’s not from a lack of effort. The Eagles raised some eyebrows by pushing ranked squads North Carolina, Wisconsin and Maryland all the way to the final buzzer and have carried that momentum over into a dominating conference season. Winthrop leads the Big South Conference by 2.5 games with an 11-0 record in league games. The Eagles are 21-4 overall this season with the four losses coming at North Carolina, Wisconsin, Maryland and Texas A&M. All four teams were ranked at the time and three of the four are currently ranked in the top 10.

Missouri State is similar to Winthrop in that it received some early-season attention due to impressive non-conference play. A majority of that attention was due to a 66-64 neutral court win over Wisconsin. Since then, the Bears have gotten lost in the muddled Missouri Valley Conference. Missouri State is in third place in the conference with a solid 10-6 league mark to go along with a 19-8 (14-10 ATS) overall record but hasn’t really done anything to distinguish itself from the rest of the pack.

The common bond between these two programs is current-No. 3 Wisconsin. Winthrop lost by three at the Kohl Center – a place where teams go to lose – when the Badgers were ranked 12th while Missouri State downed Wisconsin by two points on a neutral court when the Badgers were ranked seventh. If the Eagles had gotten Wisconsin on a neutral court, they may have matched Missouri State’s win. The difference in this game could come down to who has the better showing, Winthrop’s Torrell Martin – who lit up UNC for 25 points and Wisconsin for 31 – or Missouri State’s Blake Ahearn – who tops the Bears and is fifth in the MVC with 15.2 points per game. Each team’s fortunes could lie in which of those players performs better.

Ohio at New Mexico State
Two high-scoring offenses will be on display when Ohio travels to play New Mexico State, making what will be the most entertaining bracket buster. Both teams have shown the ability to light up a scoreboard on any given night and that should make for an entertaining, fast-paced contest. The Aggies average 79.7 points per game while the Bobcats aren’t far behind with 74.6 a contest. Both of those averages could very easily be met and surpassed with a lot of time left on the clock as neither team is that strong defensively.

Ohio relies on its starting five perhaps more than any other team in the country. The Bobcat starting lineup accounts for 91.4 percent of the team’s scoring, 77.3 percent of its rebounding and 80 percent of its assists. While Ohio doesn’t get much bench production, it hasn’t had to as the starting five is very good. Forwards Leon Williams and Jerome Tillman form one of the best interior duos in the Mid-American Conference and guards Whitney Davis and Bubba Walther spread the floor with solid outside shooting. New Mexico State utilizes a more balanced offense that has led to 11 games of 80 or more points and three with 100 or more points. The junior foursome of Justin Hawkins, Tyrone Nelson, Fred Peete and Hatila Passos are the team’s top four scorers and combine for 46.4 points and 24.1 boards a game.

This is definitely the game for those who prefer an offensive-minded game. For all the joy that Butler-Southern Illinois will bring fans of hard-nosed defense, Ohio-New Mexico State will do the same for fans of offense. These two teams are a combined 25-18 in the over this season and another high-scoring affair can be expected this time around.

Don’t miss the college winners this weekend from ASA, Inc on this same website! We have isolated several great plays and expect to build the bankroll on Bracket Buster Saturday. Best of luck!

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