Home » Columns » Currently Reading:

Bracket Buster Pairings

January 30, 2003 Columns No Comments

Touring Around New England

by Phil Kasiecki

In recent seasons, college basketball fans have witnessed the rise of mid-major schools and conferences. March Madness will always include Cinderella teams, but great upsets are also coming during the regular season and fans are learning about mid-majors earlier in the season.

Last season saw mid-majors reach a new high with success stories, though it ended on low notes with Butler being left out of the NCAA Tournament despite winning 25 games and Gonzaga getting a number 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament despite going 29-3 with impressive wins throughout the regular season. This points to one thing that has not changed during the rise of mid-majors: teams in the top conferences benefit from their standing. Every season, teams in major conferences make the NCAA Tournament with a less-than-stellar record because of their schedule; Georgia made it three years ago with a 16-14 record on the basis of having the nation’s toughest schedule. The Bulldogs did not even get the last at-large bid, as they were a number 8 seed. Meanwhile, mid-majors that win games all season long, even against quality competition, get left out or get a bad seed like Gonzaga last season.

In the offseason, ESPN made deals with 18 schools to play in Bracket Buster Saturday, to be held on February 22. The hope is that it will give these schools much-needed exposure, since many typically have only hard data on these teams to go by when it comes time to select the teams for the NCAA Tournament and numbers do not tell the whole story. It has its pros and cons like anything else; the exposure will be there, but many are also of the feeling that mid-majors playing each other does not help, that they would be better off playing lower teams from the top conferences.

The last point is well-taken, but let’s be honest: who in a conference like the ACC will admit to being one of the lower teams, then take the perceived risk of playing a mid-major school in something like this, even at home? Major conference teams ducking mid-majors is well-documented, as playing them is seen by some as a no-win situation. One can look no further than Boston College for an example of this perception. The 9-8 Eagles are the only major conference team in metropolitan Boston, and have played every Division I school in the Boston area this season. They won easily against Boston University and held off a late run by Harvard, but lost to upstart Northeastern and a fine Holy Cross team. Many felt that BC head coach Al Skinner took a chance in scheduling them because the wins are not quality wins and the losses are seen as bad losses. The reality is that a major conference team that is good enough will win the games, period. They should not have to duck mid-major teams out of the fear of the impact of a loss; if the team is really a good team, why be afraid of playing anyone?

Against that backdrop, the Bracket Buster is probably the best that can be done until major conference teams drop their fear of mid-major teams altogether and those on the selection committee watch more games of mid-major schools. Around Monday, February 3, all of the matchups will be set; right now, the only matchup that is set is Tulsa visiting Gonzaga, a game the two schools had previously agreed to. The teams ESPN chose were based on preseason projections, some of which looked questionable at the time. How are the selections holding up as the date approaches? Let’s take a look at each team.

Gonzaga (14-5, 5-0 West Coast) lost All-American Dan Dickau, but returned one of the nation’s biggest and deepest frontlines. That, along with the return of two-year starter Blake Stepp on the wing, was enough to land Gonzaga in most preseason Top 25 projections. But the Bulldogs did not have their usual success in non-conference play, losing to Indiana and Kentucky, and later losing to Georgia in a game where they played poorly in the first half. Their other two losses both came together, first to Stanford and then to St. Joseph’s. They have since won six straight games. Their tough schedule has given them a high RPI (40 at press time) and they have defeated two Pac Ten teams (albeit bottom-feeders Washington and Washington State) and North Carolina State before showing that they are still the team to beat in the West Coast Conference. The Bulldogs may not be living up to the preseason hype, but they have certainly validated their selection for this.

Like its Bracket Buster opponent, Tulsa (11-5, 4-3 WAC) lost a star point guard, but Greg Harrington was not an All-American – instead, one of the best players you never knew about because of his tremendous floor leadership. With seniors Antonio Reed, Dante Swanson and Kevin Johnson leading four returning starters, the Golden Hurricane didn’t miss a beat early, as they cracked the Top 25 by winning their first four games en route to a 7-1 start. They proceeded to lose two straight after that. They have wins over Arkansas and Texas Christian to their credit, but lost to Kansas and Iowa. The Golden Hurricane is in third place in the WAC with recent losses to Boise State and SMU, but their RPI (57) shows that they belong.

The most trendy mid-major team is Creighton (18-2, 8-1 Missouri Valley), a team that has received a lot of ink for its success coming out of the Missouri Valley Conference. They have been ranked for most of the season, reaching number 9 in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches poll and number 10 in the Associated Press poll last week before losing to Evansville. The Bluejays started off with 10 straight wins, including taking the Guardians Classic with a win over Notre Dame and later beating Brigham Young and Nebraska before Xavier broke their winning streak. The Bluejays have left no doubt that they belong in this event and barring a collapse, will be in the NCAA Tournament regardless of how they fare in the Missouri Valley Tournament.

Southern Illinois (13-4, 8-1 Missouri Valley) made a surprise run to the Sweet 16 last season. The Salukis started the season with four straight wins before dropping two straight. They played just eight non-conference games before starting Missouri Valley play, and they lost two games to major conference teams (Charlotte and St. Louis from Conference USA) while knocking off Colorado State. Their other two losses have come against other participants in the Bracket Buster, Illinois-Chicago and Creighton. The Salukis belong in this, and look to need a win for their NCAA Tournament resume since their RPI is 77 at press time.

Illinois State (2-15, 1-8 Missouri Valley) has had some recent success with stars like Rico Hill and Tarise Bryson. The Redbirds could have been a serious contender if Bryson got the sixth year he had applied for, but he was denied. That left the Redbirds without a proven scorer, though they returned an all-conference player in Baboucarr Bojang and a double-digit scorer in Gregg Alexander while adding North Carolina State transfer Trey Guidry. This season has been a disaster, as the Redbirds’ have only defeated Jacksonville and Northern Iowa. Clearly, the Redbirds do not belong, though they looked like a borderline pick in the preseason.

The fourth and final Missouri Valley team is Northern Iowa (5-12, 2-7 Missouri Valley), a head-scratching selection in the preseason. The went 14-15 last season (8-10 in conference play) and lost two starting guards, including leading scorer Robbie Sieverding, and returned a relatively inexperienced team. Most preseason projections had Northern Iowa in the second division of the Missouri Valley Conference, and those projections have been accurate as the Panthers have struggled to a 5-12 record. They are not one of the good picks for this.

One of the surprises of this season has been Fresno State (15-3, 8-1). The Bulldogs aren’t as newsworthy with Jerry Tarkanian having retired, but the lack of star power also contributes as they did not have a preseason first team All-WAC player. But without a star, they have quietly run up a good record with a schedule loaded with mid-majors and lower-level schools. The Bulldogs’ only losses are against Oklahoma State, Washington State and Hawaii (all road games as well), though they have a win against Tulsa as well. The Bulldogs are a good selection for this.

Another WAC team in this is Hawai’i (11-5, 4-4 WAC). Some preseason publications tabbed the Rainbows as the top team in the WAC, but so far they have not looked the part due to a familiar problem: struggles on the mainland. The Rainbows lost their only non-conference game on the mainland, at San Diego State, and their only road win was against Texas-El Paso in early January. Given their road struggles, this game will be a good test since they are on the road and could use a good road win for their NCAA Tournament resume.

The last of four WAC teams is Louisiana Tech (5-9, 2-6 WAC), a team in its second season in the WAC after playing in the Sun Belt Conference. The Bulldogs returned a good veteran team led by three-year starter Antonio Meeking on the post and solid point guard Lavelle Felton, but questions were present with the loss of Gerrod Henderson, who led the team in scoring and made a lot of clutch shots. The Bulldogs can be aptly described as a disappointment; two of their five wins are against non-Division I teams, and they were blown out by almost every major conference team they played in non-conference play. While they looked like a good projection in the preseason, the Bulldogs clearly do not belong.

Last season’s surprise Elite Eight team, Kent State (14-2, 7-1 MAC), is one of four teams from the Mid-American Conference. Originally, the Golden Flashes seemed like a questionable selection; they lost four starters from last season’s team and Stan Heath took the head coaching position at Arkansas. But they won their first six games before losing at St. Bonaventure, and their only other loss has come at the hands of fellow Bracket Buster participant Bowling Green. The Golden Flashes certainly belong here, and this will be a good test for them.

With Theron Smith pulling out of the NBA Draft to return for his senior season, Ball State (7-10, 2-5 MAC) looked like the favorite in the depleted MAC in the preseason. But Smith tore an ACL in the pre-draft camp that had not improved by the start of the season, and will have to sit out the year. The Cardinals have struggled mightily without him, losing seven straight games at one point, though his loss has not been the only problem. The Cardinals force fewer turnovers than any other MAC team and only two MAC teams shoot the ball worse. The Cardinals look like a bad selection now, though in the preseason they looked like a good one.

Marshall (9-6, 5-2 MAC) looked like a questionable selection in the preseason, as the Thundering Herd lost two all-MAC players from last season. During non-conference play, Marshall looked at times like it might be among the favorites, and also started out conference play with three straight wins. But they recently lost three straight games, and with no quality wins in non-conference play (one win came against a non-Division I team), the Thundering Herd has a low RPI (147 at press time) and will not be gunning for an at-large NCAA bid. They are a questionable selection.

Like Marshall, Bowling Green (9-7, 5-3 MAC) suffered heavy personnel losses as departed seniors Keith McLeod and Len Matela took nearly 39 points per game with them. The Falcons have been unable to recoup the losses and struggled in non-conference play, losing three straight at one point and getting two wins over non-Division I teams. Their RPI at press time is only slightly higher than Marshall, making them at best a questionable selection as well.

The Horizon League is well-represented, with Wisconsin-Milwaukee (14-5, 6-2 Horizon) leading the way. The Panthers looked to be the class of the league with Clay Tucker leading a solid backcourt that added Colorado transfer Jose Winston. Overall, they have held up their end of the bargain, winning eight straight games at one point. They haven’t lost at home all season, but don’t have a quality non-conference win as they lost at Wisconsin and at Georgia in addition to losing against Southeast Missouri State in the New Orleans Knockout. Still, the Panthers are among the better mid-major teams and have validated their selection for this.

Illinois-Chicago (13-5, 7-2 Horizon) took home the Horizon League Tournament title last season and was among the preseason favorites. They return a solid backcourt of juniors Martell Bailey and Cedric Banks to lead the way. The Flames have not lost consecutive games all season, but they have just one non-conference win against a major conference opponent (Northwestern) while losing to Evansville and Indiana State. They have knocked off fellow Bracket Buster participant Wisconsin-Milwaukee, while splitting with Detroit. They have shown that they belong in this.

Perry Watson has made Detroit (9-8, 5-4 Horizon) into a consistent winner, with four postseason appearances in the last five seasons. This season’s team had just two returning starters, making it a challenge for Watson to keep the team near the top of the Horizon League. The Titans had a light non-conference schedule, with Wyoming being the only major conference opponent; the Titans lost, 74-60. They have struggled to get a winning streak going until recently, as they had only won consecutive games once (the first two games of the season) prior to their recent three-game winning streak. The Titans looked like a questionable selection in the preseason, and still do now.

One of the disappointments of this season has been Western Kentucky (11-7, 4-2 Sun Belt), though the Hilltoppers have shown some life in Sun Belt play. They were ranked in most preseason polls, but All-American center Chris Marcus has been slow to return from injury and the Hilltoppers have looked overrated. Losing to Arizona is understandable, but most figured they would give the Wildcats a contest (they lost by 39). Non-conference losses also include Evansville and Pacific, though they have wins against Auburn and Southern Mississippi to their credit. The Hilltoppers recently won four straight before losing at New Mexico State, another good mid-major school. The Hilltoppers’ haven’t lived up to their preseason hype, but look to be a decent selection (RPI is 85 at press time) for this and could come out with an important win.

The Big West is represented by Cal-Santa Barbara (8-9, 5-2 Big West), which has been a disappointment. The Gauchos looked to be the class of the conference and a sleeper, as they returned two of the league’s top players in wings Mark Hull and Branduinn Fullove among four starters from last season’s 20-11 team. At one point, they lost five straight, including a loss to Bucknell in the azcentral.com Classic. The Gauchos have picked it up in conference play, but can only reach the NCAA Tournament by winning the Big West Tournament.

Overall, it looks like ESPN did a credible job with its selections. A few teams have sub-.500 records and clearly do not belong, while a few look to be questionable selections and likely won’t benefit from this in terms of their NCAA Tournament resume because they would need to win their conference tournament. In fact, about half of the selections look questionable or like bad selections. This is not entirely bad, as it further illustrates that the games need to be played and trying to select top teams for something like this in the preseason is a crapshoot.

What teams would have been good alternatives – teams that looked good in the preseason and have held up thus far? A few that come to mind are Butler (16-2, Horizon), Western Michigan (12-4, 4-3 MAC), Louisiana-Lafayette (12-6, 4-1 Sun Belt), Manhattan (15-3, 8-1 MAAC), Utah State (15-4, 6-2 Big West), UNC-Wilmington (12-5, 6-2 Colonial), Oral Roberts (13-5, 4-1 Mid-Continent) and Weber State (14-5, 4-0 Big Sky).

Last, but not least, here is one idea for the matchups, aside from the pre-determined Tulsa at Gonzaga matchup. The home and road teams have been pre-determined, and the idea of this is to match up the best teams for the most attractive matchups.

Fresno State at Creighton
Wisconsin-Milwaukee at Kent State
Hawai’i at Southern Illinois
Bowling Green at Illinois-Chicago
Detroit at Western Kentucky
Northern Iowa at Marshall
Ball State at Cal-Santa Barbara
Illinois State at Louisiana Tech

Stay tuned for the pairings next week, and enjoy the games on February 22nd.


Comment on this Article:

Subscribe to Hoopville

Enter your email address to subscribe to Hoopville


Hoopville Archives

College Basketball Tonight

We hope you enjoyed COLLEGE BASKETBALL TONIGHT during the 2016 NCAA Tournament. COLLEGE BASKETBALL TONIGHT is a comprehensive look at the NCAA Tournament hosted by veteran college basketball broadcaster Ted Sarandis, along with co-hosts Mike Jarvis and Terry O'Connor, both former Division I coaches. It also included many great guests, including Hoopville's own Phil Kasiecki.

The show aired on AM 710 WOR in New York City on Sunday evenings starting with Selection Sunday and running through the NCAA Tournament.

Here are links to the shows:

March 13, 2016 - First hour | Second hour

March 20, 2016 - First hour | Second hour

March 27, 2016 - First hour | Second hour

April 3, 2016 - First hour | Second hour

Coaching Changes

The coaching carousel is moving. Keep track of the latest coaching changes right here on Hoopville.

Everybody Needs a Head Coach

Former college basketball coach Mike Jarvis has a new book out, Everybody Needs a Head Coach.

"As you read this book, I hope that Coach Jarvis' experiences inspire you to find your purpose in life."
-Patrick Ewing, NBA Hall of Fame center

"Mike Jarvis' is one of my special friends. I am so pleased that he has taken the time to write this fabulous book."
-Mike Krzyzewski, Five-time NCAA championship head coach, Duke Blue Devils

"In reading this book, I can see that Mike hasn't lost his edge or his purpose. Readers should take a look at what he has to say."
-Jim Calhoun, Three-time NCAA champion, UConn Men's basketball

Review on Hoopville coming soon!

Hoopville Podcasts

Talking Hoops With Ted Sarandis – May 30, 2018

May 30, 2018 by

The NBA Draft and its deadline to withdraw to return to school leads the way in our latest podcast. We also look at one conference’s new scheduling plans, a number of quick hitters, and pay tribute to a fallen conference leader.

Talking Hoops With Ted Sarandis – April 26, 2018

April 27, 2018 by

In our latest podcast, we spend a lot of time looking at what the Commission on College Basketball came up with, as their report was just produced. We also look at the NBA Draft and transfers, which have many rosters potentially in flux for next season.

Talking Hoops With Ted Sarandis – April 6, 2018

April 6, 2018 by

In our first podcast in the postseason, we look back one more time on the NCAA Tournament, which was just what we needed at this time. We also look at the NIT, CBI and CIT, as well as important transactions with players leaving early for the NBA Draft and coaching changes.

Talking Hoops With Ted Sarandis – April 3, 2018

April 3, 2018 by

The 2018 national championship is in the books, and with it another season of college basketball. We break down the national championship game and some of its implications to wrap up the season.

College Basketball Tonight – April 1, 2018

April 2, 2018 by

Welcome to our Final Four edition of College Basketball Tonight. In this edition, we look ahead to Monday’s national championship game, and bring on two guests – long-time Villanova radio play-by-play broadcaster Ryan Fannon and Radford head coach Mike Jones – to get their thoughts and insights on the game.

Phil Kasiecki on Twitter

Recruiting Coverage

Lincoln captures Hamilton Park title

August 15, 2017 by

For the first time, a public school won the Hamilton Park Summer League, and they were led by a big effort from a junior point guard in the title game.

Notes from a day at the 2017 Boston Shootout

June 12, 2017 by

Some news and notes coming from the second and final day of action at the 2017 Boston Shootout, where the host program provided plenty of talent, but so did a program that produced a team that beat them.

Notes from a day at the 2017 Northeast Hoops Festival

April 11, 2017 by

The Northeast Hoops Festival helped bring in the new spring travel season in New England, and we have notes from some of Saturday’s action.

2016 Boston Back to School Showcase notes

September 12, 2016 by

We look back at the 2016 Boston Back to School Showcase, where a couple of Boston City League teams were among the most impressive on the day.

2016 Hoopville Spring Finale championship recap

June 28, 2016 by

We look back at the championship games of the 2016 Hoopville Spring Finale, which had a big local flavor as one might have expected.