The 10 BracketBuster Games You Don’t Want to MissPosted by KDoyle on February 1st, 2011
Kevin Doyle is an RTC Contributor. His weekly column, The Other 26, explores the minutiae of the twenty-six Division I conferences outside the BCS sextet.
One of the best weekends of the year prior to Championship Week and, of course, the NCAA Tournament, is when the BracketBusters are played. It provides a nice break from conference play, and some of the top mid-major teams in the country have an opportunity to strut their stuff, build up that all-important resume, and have a last opportunity of picking up a quality non-conference victory. Because many of the top games are televised, it is also a great chance for all you guys out there that solely pay attention to the BCS teams around the country to gain some insight of who may have a shot at upsetting a higher seed and advancing a round or two when filling out your Tournament bracket next month. Here are my top 10 BracketBuster game, from tenth to first:
10. Kent State at Drexel—February 18, 9PM (ESPNU)
Neither team is in the running for an at-large bid, but obtaining additional confidence heading into their respective conference tournaments is what both will play for. Drexel is just a step below the top teams in the CAA, while Kent State is right in the mix for the MAC crown as there has not been one team that has truly distinguished themselves. The Flashes, led by Justin Greene’s 16 points and 7.5 boards a night, are one of the more balanced teams in the MAC as five players average nine points or more. Chris Fouch, arguably Drexel’s top player, will really test Kent State’s backcourt.
9. Austin Peay at Fairfield—February 19, 1PM (ESPNU)
Fairfield has been flying under the radar playing in the MAAC this year—not as much attention has been given to the league due to Siena’s return to mediocrity after a great run under Fran McCaffery—and they are one of the hottest teams in the nation. Aside from a tough one point loss at Loyola (MD) in mid-January, Fairfield has not lost since November 23 against St. Joseph’s. They are currently the favorite to win the MAAC, but there are a host of teams nipping at their heels. The Stags will take on an Austin Peay squad that sits atop their league—the Ohio Valley Conference—as well. The game will feature two of the better point guards in the land of mid-majors as Derek Needham for Fairfield averages 14 points and 5 assists, and Caleb Brown for Austin Peay is second in the OVC in assists.
8. Hofstra at Wright State—February 19, 11AM (ESPNU)
Hofstra and Wright State are both teetering on the edge of becoming legitimate contenders in their respective leagues. The Pride got out to a quick 5-0 start in the CAA, but have gone 3-3 in their last six to fall behind Virginia Commonwealth and George Mason. In the crazy Horizon League this year, it is anyone’s best guess who will be the last one standing. Cleveland State with Norris Cole looks to be the current favorite, but Wright State is not far behind. The storyline for this game will undoubtedly revolve around Charles Jenkins who has a legitimate shot of hearing his name called by David Stern on NBA Draft night, but don’t be surprised if Vaughn Duggins for Wright State steals the show. The fifth-year senior has scored in double figures in every game save two, and is the fourth leading scorer in the Horizon League.
7. Vermont at College of Charleston—February 19, 5PM (ESPNU)
Tune into this game for one reason: Andrew Goudelock. You don’t have to watch more than just a half to know that the senior from Georgia may be the best scorer in the country not named Jimmer or Kemba. Bobby Cremins really has something brewing down in South Carolina, and Goudelock is a big reason why. The Vermont Catamounts are not too shabby themselves as they are right with Maine in the running to win the America East. UVM does not have the team or combination that they once had with Taylor Coppenrath and T.J. Sorrentine, but the duo of Joey Accaoui and Evan Fjeld is dynamite. By the way, Fjeld somehow is making the 1970s-style mustache cool again.
6. Ball State at Wofford—February 19
Ball State is in a similar position as Kent State as both squads have matching 5-2 records in the MAC and are in contention for the conference title. What makes this a better game than the Kent State one, however, is that Wofford is right at the top of the Southern Conference vying for the championship. Wofford’s Noah Dahlman has been scoring at will against SoCon competition averaging 23 points a night and will be a handful for Ball State. The Cardinals got off to a blistering start in the MAC, but have lost their last two games in conference and could use a big non-conference win to get back on track.
5. George Mason at Northern Iowa—February 19, 7PM (ESPN2/ESPN3.com)
Northern Iowa is currently the hottest team in the Valley having won seven straight as they sit just a game behind Wichita State and Missouri State. Similar to the Panthers, George Mason has won seven in a row in the CAA and are a game behind conference leader Virginia Commonwealth. The games from here on out for both squads carry such weight because each team has an outside shot at an at-large berth—albeit a very outside shot—and if either were to slip up in the conference tournament this game will carry all the more importance. UNI has one of the toughest defenses in the country relinquishing just 58 points a contest, and they will certainly look to make life difficult for Cam Long and Ryan Pearson who are lethal from behind the arc.
4. Missouri State at Valparaiso—February 19, 5PM (ESPN2/ESPN3.com)
Valparaiso, picked to finish fourth in the Horizon League in the preseason behind Butler, Detroit, and Cleveland State, has been the surprise team in the HL having gotten out to an 8-2 start. The league is still by-and-large wide open, but Valpo can legitimize themselves even further with a victory over Missouri State. The Bears, led by All-League player Kyle Weems, are neck-and-neck with Wichita State for top dog in the Valley and will be a formidable test to two of the HL’s best: Brandon Wood and Cory Johnson who both average 16 points a game.
3. Cleveland State at Old Dominion—February 20, 1PM (ESPN or ESPN2)
It is at this stage of the Busters where we can seriously talk about teams with aspirations of attaining an at-large berth. If either falters in their conference tournaments, this game suddenly becomes very important. As you well know, Cleveland State got off to that blistering undefeated start to begin the year, but hit a roadblock losing two straight games to Butler and Valpo; they are back on their feet now and sitting pretty in first place in the Horizon. As for Old Dominion, they may be relying on an at-large bid as winning the CAA is far from a foregone conclusion with three other teams right there with them. The clear storyline of this game is how ODU’s defense—one of the best in the country—will cope with Norris Cole. Cole is the Horizon League’s top scorer averaging 20 points a night, and few teams have been able to contain him.
2. Virginia Commonwealth at Wichita State—February 18, 7PM (ESPN2/ESPN3.com)
I’m really liking these games that pit the CAA against MVC as both leagues are very comparable and are two of the better mid-major conferences. As for the game itself, it will be Wichita State’s incredible depth—10 players average five points or better—against Virginia Commonwealth’s big three: Jamie Skeen, Bradford Burgess, and Joey Rodriguez as all average in double figures. I say big three instead of four because the Rams have been playing without their top outside threat Brandon Rozzell who has been sidelined with a hand injury. Injuries and depth aside, both teams are seeking that last signature non-conference win prior to the tournament. The Rams looked like a top 25 after their first five games having dismantled Wake Forest (who hasn’t?), pushing Tennessee to the brink, and then defeating UCLA. As for the Shockers, they also began the year in impressive fashion playing well at the Maui Invitational as they almost knocked off the Connecticut Huskies. They failed in their last opportunity to pick up a signature non-conference victory falling to San Diego State.
1. Utah State at St. Mary’s—February 19, 9PM (ESPN2/ESPN3.com)
The real obvious choice for the best BracketBuster game features two of the country’s top offensive units and best teams out west. Utah State had early season chances to pick up quality wins against BYU and Georgetown, but failed to capitalize. Similarly, St. Mary’s played consecutive games against the Mountain West’s two top teams—San Diego State and BYU—but faltered in both. I believe that both squads have done enough to garner at-large bids—assuming they do not have a UCF-like collapse the rest of the way—so this game becomes a great resume builder for the Aggies and Gaels. These are two of the most efficient and fundamentally sound offenses around, so expect to see impeccable shooting and solid inside play by Tai Wesley (Utah State) and Mitchell Young / Rob Jones (SMC). Jones is more of an outside threat rather than an inside one, however, but standing at 6’6 you have to respect his ability to go inside as well.