The Other 26: Saturday’s Top Five Bracketbuster Games and More…Posted by IRenko on February 22nd, 2013
This weekend marks the end of the decade-long Bracketbuster era — or experiment, depending on your perspective. Sadly, if appropriately, it looks like the event will go out with more of a whimper than a bang. Not a single game features a top 25 team, resulting in little hype for this year’s slate. But for true mid-major basketball fans, no top 25 ranking, or lack thereof, is going to dissuade them from devouring the late season, inter-conference action among the country’s best, under-the-radar-until-March teams. Here’s a preview of the five Bracketbuster games we’re most looking forward to, followed by an updated Top 10, our weekly honor roll, and the most compelling non-Bracketbuster games of the coming week.
- Creighton at St. Mary’s (6 pm, ESPN) — Both teams enter what is perhaps the premier Bracketbuster matchup with a great deal to prove. Creighton’s hot 17-1 start has given way to a rough 5-5 stretch, as the depth of the MVC has taken its toll. In four of those five losses, Creighton’s once unstoppable offense slowed to a pace of less than a point per possession. An at-large Tournament bid remains a safe bet, even with a loss to St. Mary’s, but the Bluejays are no doubt looking to this game to reignite their offense and their season. St. Mary’s, on the other hand, is in desperate need of a quality win for its Tournament resume. Having been swept by Gonzaga, Saturday’s matchup is a virtual must-win for the Gaels. Both teams have highly efficient offenses that rely heavily on the three-point shot. Whichever defense can step up its game may emerge with the win.
- Ohio at Belmont (10 pm, ESPN) — This should be a really entertaining game between two teams who love to run and gun. But for the colors of their jerseys, it may be hard to tell the two apart, as the Bobcats and Bruins have remarkably similar statistical profiles. Both are high-possession squads that shoot more than 40 percent of their field goals from three-point range and rank in the top 20 nationally in forcing turnovers. Both have high effective field goal percentages, but rebound poorly and allow their opponents to shoot far more free throws than they do. Toss in a great point guard matchup between seniors D.J. Cooper and Kerron Johnson, and you have the ingredients for a great nightcap to the day’s action.
- South Dakota State at Murray State (8 pm, ESPN2) — Neither team is as good as it was last season, but both returned their star player. And it’s their matchup at the point guard spot, with Nate Wolters squaring off against Isaiah Canaan, that makes this a must-see game. The two players are the heartbeats of their respective team’s offenses. Each uses roughly 30 percent of all possessions, ranking them in the top 50 in the country. Wolters has been on a particularly nasty tear of late, averaging more than 33 points over his last five games, though two of his 30-plus efforts in that stretch were in defeat. Canaan, meanwhile, is coming off his own 35-point outburst in a win over Morehead State.
- Detroit at Wichita State (4 pm, ESPN2) — Wichita State has bounced back from a recent three-game swoon with a four-game win streak that includes two close victories over Illinois State and Indiana State this past week. They’ll be the favorites against Detroit, but his game has definite upset potential. Detroit is on the upswing, winning six of their last seven, and developing a potent offensive attack with a multitude of options, from Ray McCallum’s attacking ability to Jason Calliste’s three-point shot to Nick Minnerath’s versatile inside-out game to Doug Anderson’s physical interior play. The Titans will try to push the tempo, while the Shockers will try to slow things down and pound the ball inside to their big men Cleanthony Early and Carl Hall, who may find success against Detroit’s mediocre interior defense.
- Denver at Northern Iowa (8 pm, ESPN3) — After a rough 4-6 start to MVC play, Northern Iowa has righted the ship and fought its way back to where we thought it would always be — at the top of the league standings, just a step behind Wichita State and Creighton. They face a Denver team that has flown a bit under the radar, recovering from a slow start to the season to win 13 of their last 14 games. A trip to Cedar Falls will be a test of just how far the Pioneers have come. Expect a low-possession, halfcourt-oriented game, with a steady barrage of three-point shots. The Panthers have a balanced attack, with five players averaging between 9 and 13 points. Denver will turn primarily to Chris Udofia, the versatile forward who is the hub of their Princeton offense.
And now on to our updated Top 10 rankings, weekly honor roll, and the (other) games we’re keeping an eye on …
The Honor Roll is our weekly fixture highlighting the teams, players, and performances that impressed us in the past week.
- The Bilikens’ Bench — St. Louis is slowly turning heads with an 8-game win streak that has them atop the A-10 standings. There’s lots of credit to go around, but the past week’s wins over Charlotte and VCU showed that much of it goes to the team’s reserves. The three leading scorers in the win over Charlotte came off the bench: Cody Ellis (18 pts), Jordair Jett (16 pts), and Jake Barnett (13 pts). Collectively, they outscored the team’s starters. In the Bilikens’ big win over VCU, the same three subs added 34 total points, nearly half of the team’s 76-point total.
- Savannah State’s Defense — Out of 347 Division 1 teams, Savannah State ranks 341st in offensive efficiency. But boy can they play defense. After Stephen F. Austin, they are perhaps the unlikeliest team to be found among the top 20 in the country in defensive efficiency. On Monday, they showed just how good they are, holding North Carolina Central, which featured the best offense in the MEAC, to a measly 0.59 points per possession. Not only was it Savannah State’s best defensive performance of the year, but it dealt North Carolina Central its first loss of the MEAC season. (The two teams now sit second and third in the conference, at 11-1 and 10-2 respectively, but they continue to trail unbeaten Norfolk State, which, in an inexplicably terrible scheduling quirk, will be able to finish conference play without having to play either of its two closest competitors even once.)High Point — working on a 6-game win streak
- Detroit Returns The Favor — On January 17th, Detroit was cruising along at home against Valparaiso, leading by double digits with less than three minutes to play. But the Crusaders staged a furious comeback, scoring 12 unanswered points to emerge with the win. Fast forward a month to the rematch at Valpo, and this time it’s the Crusaders who are up by double-digits in the second half, up by 15 with under nine minutes to play. The Titans went on a 19-0 tear to take a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. Detroit is now a game back of Valpo in the Horizon League standings, and the two teams seem headed for a showdown in the conference tournament that will not only break the season series tie but dispense an NCAA Tournament bid.
- Stevie Taylor Picks His Spot — Through 44 minutes and 47 seconds of Ohio’s overtime victory over Kent State, reserve guard Stevie Taylor had compiled a line full of zeros: 0-1 FG, 0-0 FT, 0 rebounds, 0 assists, 0 steals, 0 blocks, 0 turnovers, and 0 fouls. No matter. But with 13 seconds left, Taylor hit a clutch three-pointer to break a 75-75 tie and avoid an upset loss on the Bobcats’ home floor.
- Houston’s Reggie Miller Moment — Sure, they ended up on the losing end of a triple overtime thriller, but give credit to Houston for scoring five points in the last five seconds of regulation to force the extra sessions against Tulsa. After a pair of free throws gave Tulsa a 70-65 lead, the Cougars threw a long inbounds pass and converted a layup, then stole the ball on the ensuing possession, allowing Jherrod Stiggers to fire home an off-balance three-pointer at the buzzer.
- Longwood and Liberty Go the Distance — How do you get a 102-101 finish in a 40-minute college basketball game? Easy. Just score a combined 55 points in the final four minutes. In a wild ending in which Liberty almost came back from a 12-point deficit, the two teams traded a barrage of baskets in the closing minutes unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Liberty’s Davon Marshall compiled a line over those four minutes that was worthy of an entire game: 18 points on 6-of-7 shooting, including 5-of-6 from three-point range.
Looking Forward: What We’re Watching
Bracketbusters aside, here are the games to keep an eye on over the next week.
- St. Louis at Butler (2/22) — This should be an intriguing contest between two teams that are evenly matched on paper. The Bilikens are rolling, but Butler will have the homecourt advantage and the attendant “Hinkle Magic” on its side. Butler has lost only one A-10 game with its full-strength lineup (i.e., with Rotnei Clarke and Andrew Smith not injured) — but that loss was a nasty 17-point defeat at St. Louis. The Bulldogs coughed up 23 turnovers in that game, demonstrating a tendency that has plagued them all season. They’ll likely need to tighten their ball security to emerge with a win this time around.
- New Mexico at Colorado State (2/23) — Coming into the season, most expected the UNLV vs. San Diego State matchups to be the MWC’s headline-grabber, but this game between the conference’s two emerging powers is shaping up as the real main event. Colorado State hasn’t lost at home in 28 games, and a win over the visiting Lobos will pull them into a first place tie. In other words, expect a raucous atmosphere. They may not be able to control the crowd, but if anyone can hold Colorado State’s relentless offensive rebounding in check, it might be the Lobos, who do an excellent job of protecting their glass. If they do, Colorado State, which doesn’t take too many threes, may have to loosen its air attack a bit against an otherwise stout New Mexico defense whose major vulnerability is the three-point shot.
- Akron at Ohio (2/27) — Akron has yet to lose a conference game, and Ohio’s only loss is to Akron. The Bobcats will try to even things up as the battle shifts to their home turf. In the first game, Akron point guard Alex Abreu outplayed his counterpart, D.J. Cooper, compiling 21 points and nine assists to Cooper’s 14 and one. If the Bobcats lose the backcourt matchup again, they’ll be in trouble, because the Zips have the better front line, featuring seven-footer Zeke Marshall and burly forward Demetrius Treadwell. The Bobcats also need to force more turnovers than they did last time (12), as it’s their defensive strength and they need it to neutralize the Zips’ advantage on the boards.
- Davidson at Elon (2/27) — Davidson has quietly cruised through the SoCon this year, compiling a 15-1 record while dominating their foes on both ends of the court. But they’ll have a genuine, if unlikely, challenge on Wednesday when they take on the North Division leaders. Prior to this season, Elon had never won more than 15 games, and only once finished above .500, since it joined Division 1 in 1997. But the Phoenix currently sports a 19-8 record, including 12-3 in Socon play and 11-1 over their last 12 games. Their upset chances may be hindered a bit by the sore ankle that is bothering their leading scorer, 6-10 center Lucas Troutman. On the other hand, the home crowd, despite being one of the smallest in Division 1 (1,585 at capacity), will surely provide a boost as Elon hits the homestretch of the most successful season in school history.
- Southern at Texas Southern (2/28) — The SWAC may be the worst conference in all of Division 1 (yes, even worse than the Great West), but that doesn’t mean they don’t have their own highly-competitive games to offer. On Thursday, the two best teams in the league, each with just two conference losses, will square off with an eye on a 1 seed in the conference tournament. Texas Southern has the SWAC’s best offense and Southern its best defense, but neither is a slouch at the other end of the court. Southern will lean on guard Derrick Beltran and forward Malcolm Miller, while Texas Southern will be led by its own inside-out combo of Omar Strong and Fred Sturdivant, who is coming off a near triple-double performance in which he tallied 21 points, 10 rebounds, and 8 blocks against Mississippi Valley State. The Tigers also feature Oklahoma State transfer Ray Penn at the point.
- Mercer at Florida Gulf Coast (2/28) — These two teams have separated themselves from the pack in the Atlantic Sun and Thursday’s contest could decide the regular season champion. Mercer is currently one game up, after FGCU stumbled at Lipscomb last weekend. If the first contest between the two — a Mercer win in overtime — was any indication, this should be a barnburner.