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True Bracket Busters: Only a Few Qualify

   by ASA - 02/19/2010

BracketBuster weekend started in 2003 with 18 teams played in one weekend. The group of mid-major conferences – Mid-American Conference, the Missouri Valley Conference, the Colonial Athletic Association, the Horizon League, and the Western Athletic Conference – stage a series of games where possible “bracket-buster” teams would play each other outside of regular conference play. The idea was to give these mid-major schools more exposure to national audiences than they would otherwise get, and boost their chances of being selected for the NCAA Tournament.

The general outcome has been so successful, that there are over 100 teams participating in the BracketBuster schedule this season.

For many teams outside of the "Big Six" conferences that are fighting for a spot in the NCAA tournament, this weekend is their last real shot to make a statement to support their argument for an at-large bid to the Big Dance.

For many of the teams, it's an opportunity to play on national TV – but does the Bracket Buster concept actually have meaning in terms of selection for the Big Dance?

Jerry Palm, owner and operator of CollegeRPI.com, doesn't necessarily think so.

"What do the games mean? More than anything, face time on TV," Palm said in a statement to USA TODAY. "Rarely has it meant anything in terms of selections."

We’ll take a look at five key games this weekend. These match-ups feature teams that are either on their way to the Big Dance, or are in need of a big win to enhance their tournament resume.

Old Dominion (21-7 – RPI:41 – SOS:93) @ Northern Iowa (23-3 – RPI:23 – SOS:118)

On Friday night, the Old Dominion-Northern Iowa matchup is probably the biggest of the bunch as each team harbors dreams of an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament - should they fail to win their conference championships, respectively.

Northern Iowa clinched the regular-season title in the Missouri Valley Conference earlier this week. Panther’s senior center Jordan Eglseder, the team’s biggest player, second-leading scorer (12.2 ppg) and leading rebounder (7.6 rpg), will miss the game due to a suspension following a DUI arrest last week. Eglseder got a three-game suspension from the team, also missing Tuesday’s win over Creighton. Points won’t come easy in this match-up, with Northern Iowa ranking No. 2 in the nation in scoring defense (55.1 ppg) and Old Dominion at No. 3 (55.8). NIU, which has won 13 straight at home, has dropped its past three BracketBuster games.

Old Dominion at least has a win over a national powerhouse, having won at Georgetown earlier this season. The Monarchs are the co-leaders of the Colonial Athletic Association along with Northeastern, and have a 13-3 conference record. All of their losses have come away from home and they’ve been by an average of 10.2 points per game.

Wichita State (21-6 – RPI:53 – SOS:144) @ Utah State (20-6 – RPI:36 – SOS:95)

Both of these BracketBusters will receive strong consideration for an at-large bid, should they lose in their respective conference tournament. That being said, each team could use another big win, and a victory over a fellow BracketBuster could go a long way.

Utah State is in 1st place in the Western Athletic Conference, 1.5 games ahead of New Mexico State with three conference games remaining (home game vs. New Mexico State to conclude regular season). They started the season 10-6 and looked destined to miss the tourney, but have won 11 in a row and now, barring a late-season collapse, look like a lock for the final 64.

Wichita State needed overtime to get a win over MVC bottom-feeder Evansville on Wednesday. It was the sixth straight game that has been decided by six points or less (win or loss). In contrast to Utah State, the Shockers are going in the opposite direction as the season progresses. After starting 16-2, they are just 6-4 in their previous 10 games and aren’t making the strongest case for an at-large big should they falter.

Siena (22-5 RPI:33 SOS:130) @ Butler (24-4 – RPI:22 – SOS:88)

Butler has already run away with the Horizon Conference regular season championship. They are 17-0 in conference play and have a 5.5 game lead on the 2nd place team. They haven’t lost at home all season and is a lock for the NCAA tournament. They’ve only lost four games all seasons long (neutral court losses to Georgetown, Clemson, Minnesota and road loss @UAB). Last week, Butler was projected as a 6th seed in the big dance and they’ll see if they can possibly improve that with another big win on Saturday.

The Saints’ 15 game win streak ended last Friday at Niagara, and they now face the team who currently owns the nation’s longest winning streak at 16 games in a row. Siena has beaten up on the rest of the MAAC, but struggled in the difficult portion of their schedule early in the season. They lost to Temple, St. Johns, Georgia Tech, and Northern Iowa. Saturday’s game gives themselves and the rest of the country, the chance to see how the Saints stack up against one of the best teams in the country in the Saints’ last chance to get a signature win before the NCAA tourney.

Akron (19-7 – RPI:107 – SOS:217) @ VCU (18-7 – RPI:65 – SOS:140)

This game probably means the most in terms of teams that could use a win for at-large consideration. VCU lost two of their last three games and took a nosedive in CAA standings (currently in 5th). They still have a match-up with CAA leader Old Dominion in their final game of the regular season, so there is still hope for at-large consideration if they can start with a victory against Akron.

Akron currently shares the lead in the MAC East with Kent State. They’ve won five in a row and despite their low RPI, might be part of the discussion for an at-large bid for the tournament. Nine players average at least 13 minutes of playing time and none of those players’ average double figures in points per game. Whereas Akron relies on a bevy of key players, VCU relies on forward Larry Sanders to be a key playmakers. Sanders averages 15.5 PPG (55% shooting), 9.1 RPG, and 2.5 BPG. He punished Drexel with a 29 points, 13 rebounds and five blocks on Tuesday night and VCU will expect another big game from him against Akron.

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