The Other 26: Bracketbuster Preview and AnalysisPosted by IRenko on January 31st, 2012
I. Renko is an RTC columnist. You can normally find him kicking off each weekend during the season with his analysis of the 26 other non-power conferences. Follow him on twitter @IRenkoHoops.
In this special mid-week edition of The Other 26, we take a look at all of the premier (read: televised) Bracketbuster matchups that were announced on Monday and offer a guide to the uninitiated on what to watch for. The annual mid-major hoops feast typically offers a host of compelling contests, and this year is no different. In roughly descending order of interest/excitement:
Main Event — St. Mary’s at Murray State (2/18, 6 PM, ESPN or ESPN2) — I was hoping we would get a double main event with St. Mary’s at Creighton and Wichita State at Murray State. Perhaps the Bracketbuster selection committee didn’t rate Wichita State that highly or was intent on giving the undefeated Racers a ranked opponent against whom they could prove their quality. So they sent top 20, 21-2 St. Mary’s to Murray, Kentucky, to set up the undisputed headliner of this year’s Bracketbuster event. Murray State will have a clear advantage from playing at home, but apart from that, this looks like a very close matchup. Offensively, both teams rely heavily on the two lines — the three-point line and the free throw line. Defensively, both teams are pretty good at not giving up many attempts from either of those lines, with the notable exception of Murray State’s tendency to foul too much. Both teams are also somewhat turnover prone, but only the Racers play the kind of defense that is likely to exploit such a weakness. Finally, the Gaels may look to get easy points off of the offensive glass, as defensive rebounding is a liability for Murray State. Which, if any, of these games within the game will determine the outcome? Only one way to find out: tune in at 6 PM on February 18.
Battle of the Supporting Casts — Long Beach State at Creighton (2/18, 10 PM, ESPN2) — Most eyeballs will be trained to watch Casper Ware and Doug McDermott, two of mid-major hoops’ most recognizable players. But I hope that fans will also tune in to get a glimpse of the extent to which these conference-leading teams depends on their supporting casts. LBSU has three other players who average in double figures — Larry Anderson (who also stuffs the stat sheet with 5.0 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game, while shooting 44% from three-point range), T.J. Robinson (who adds 10.2 rebounds a game), and James Ennis. Creighton, meanwhile, has discovered that they can be just as potent, maybe even moreso, when McDermott scores less than 20 a game. Antoine Young’s dribble penetration, Greg Echinique’s inside banging, and the marksmanship of Grant Gibbs and Jahenns Manigat make the Bluejays a much more multi-dimensional team than they’re often portrayed to be. It’s worth noting, too, that each of these teams will be trying to bolster their at-large bona fides in the event that they don’t win their conference tournaments — an especially distinct possibility for Creighton, who will have to get through three games in the always tough MVC to cinch an auto bid.
Most Intriguing Defensive Matchup — Drexel at Cleveland State (2/18, 11 AM, ESPNU) — These two teams thrive off of their defense, but have markedly different styles. Cleveland State applies a good deal of perimeter pressure, forcing lots of turnovers (ranked second in the country) and choking off the three-point line. The flip side of that is their vulnerability underneath and on the boards, and their tendency to foul too much. Drexel, meanwhile, grinds it out in the half court. They don’t allow much from the three point line either, but they invert Cleveland State’s strong turnover percentage and weak rebounding; the Dragons are the best defensive rebounding team in the country and force few turnovers.
Whiplash Alert — Nevada at Iona (1/28, 4 PM, ESPN or ESPN2) — The Wolfpack and Gaels have the largest tempo differential (i.e., possessions per game) of any televised Bracketbuster matchup. While Iona will push the ball behind their playmaking point guard Scott Machado, the Wolfpack will work out of their halfcourt game to get looks for swignman Olek Czyz, big man Dario Hunt, or shooters Malik Story and Deonte Burton. Try not to strain your neck.
The Jayhawk-Slayer Bowl — Northern Iowa at Virginia Commonwealth (2/17, 7 PM, ESPN2) — Kansas fans may want to avoid tuning into this contest between the two teams who scoffed at the Jayhawks’ one seed and derailed their Final Four dreams in the last two Tournaments. But for the rest of us, this should be an entertaining matchup that pits strength against strength. VCU will offer an active pressure defense, which forces lots of turnovers and cuts off the three-point line, against UNI’s heavily three-point-dependent offense that does an excellent job of taking care of the ball.
Catch a Shooting Star — UT-Arlington at Weber State (2/18, 8 PM, ESPN3) / Akron at Oral Roberts (2/18, 2 PM, ESPN or ESPN2) — These two games will feature two of the best, and perhaps most efficient, offensive players in the country. Weber State’s Damien Lillard leads the nation in scoring with 24.2 ppg. He shoots over 44% from three-point land and over 90% from the foul line. He has an assist-to-turnover ratio of almost 2.0, and oh, by the way, he’s second on his team in rebounding, adding 5.8 boards per game from the point guard position. Lillard will have his work cut out for him against a UT-Arlington team that likes to push the tempo and force turnovers. As good as Lillard has been, Dominique Morrison has arguably been better since mid-December, when Oral Roberts began their current 13-game win streak. During this stretch, DoMo has averaged 23.8 ppg on 59.1 percent FG shooting, including a remarkable 61.7 percent from three-point range. Morrison will try to continue his success against an Akron team whose stellar play over the last month and a half has put it atop the MAC standings.
Biggest Mismatch — Wichita State at Davidson (2/18, 12 PM, ESPN or ESPN2) — Yes, I know the Wildcats beat Kansas in Kansas (City, technically). But that’s the only win that they’ve registered against a team in the RPI top 100. On Saturday they lost at Samford. And while Wichita State may not be a top 25 team, they’ve clearly amassed a more impressive body of work, good enough to be the second best road team in the Bracketbuster event. They’re ranked 12th and 15th by Pomeroy and Sagarin, while Davidson is ranked 83rd and 79th. Even the more charitable RPI puts these teams at 31st and 67th, respectively. I’m not suggesting that this game can’t or won’t be close, especially as it’ll be played at Davidson. But I wish the committee had sent the Shockers to Cleveland State or Oral Roberts, where they might’ve faced a tougher matchup that could do more for their Tournament at-large hopes.
Wait Till Next Year — Valparaiso at Loyola Marymount (2/17, 9 PM, ESPNU) / Buffalo at South Dakota State (2/18, 1pm, ESPNU) — Tune into these games for a sneak preview of two teams that could make some noise next year: Valpo and SDSU. Valparaiso, which currently sits at second in the Horizon League, doesn’t feature a single senior in its rotation. South Dakota State, meanwhile, has taken hold of second place in the Summit League behind junior sensation Nate Wolters and a supporting cast that includes just one senior. With their respective conference leaders (Cleveland State and Oral Roberts) featuring at least three senior in their starting lineups, don’t be surprised if both of these teams are preseason conference favorites in 2013.
Best Matchup of 2011 — Old Dominion at Missouri State (2/18, 5 PM, ESPNU) — On the flip side, with no disrespect to either of these teams, this would have been a really exciting matchup — if it had happened last year. This year, not so much. Missouri State won last year’s MVC regular season crown, but this year, apart from a win at Creighton, they’ve been decidedly so-so, with a 6-5 record in MVC play. ODU sits a 9-2 in the CAA, but that record has been inflated by a weak conference schedule to-date.
Free Throw Shooting Contests — Drake at New Mexico State / UNC-Asheville at Ohio (2/18, 3 PM, ESPNU) — No one in the country gets a larger share of its points from the free throw line than New Mexico State. And few teams in the country put their opponents on the line as often as Drake. In other words, Wendell McKines and his up-tempo team look primed for a free-throw line parade. To top off what is likely to be a whistle-fest, Drake is itself one of the top 20 teams in the country at getting to the foul line. The UNC-Asheville – Ohio contest may produce a similar result, as the Bulldogs, like NMSU, push the tempo and get a large share of their points from the line, while the Bobcats suffer from fouling too much.