Since we're now one month from the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, it's time for one of my favorite weekends of the season, BracketBusters.
These games match several of the most promising and intriguing mid-major teams up against each other to give them one last game in the national spotlight, and occasionally, a chance at one last marquee win heading into Championship Weeks.
It hasn't been the greatest season for mid-majors, and the quality of this year's matchups reflect that. With the Olympics going on, I'll probably only pay real attention to three or four of the biggest games. That contrasts with most seasons, where I'll watch the whole weekend from start to finish.
The two most notable mid-majors who won't be participating this season happen to be two teams that could use a big win right about now. The West Coast Conference isn't participating this season, so St. Mary's won't get chance at a late non-conference triumph, even with an open Saturday on the schedule. The Ivy League has never participated, thanks to their compact conference schedule, so Cornell (and Harvard and Princeton, for that matter) won't be involved.
A Big Red-Gaels BracketBuster would have been something to see, though.
For the teams who are participating, BracketBusters serves as a valuable scheduling tool. Participants are required to repeat this weekend's matchups next season, with the home and road teams switching places. That's one less game for coaches and athletic directors to schedule.
Games will be televised on Friday night and throughout Saturday. There are also loads of non-televised matchups scheduled. If you're in the neighborhood of one, I recommend checking it out.
After the jump, I'll take a look at each of the TV games.
All games are Saturday unless noted.
Old Dominion (21-7, tied for 1st in CAA at 13-3) at Northern Iowa (23-3, MVC Regular Season Champion at 14-2), Friday at 7 p.m. ET (ESPN2/ESPN360): The Panthers have gone through a rough patch over the past week, falling at Bradley on Saturday and losing 7-footer Jordan Eglseder to suspension on Sunday. Their at-large chances look a bit dicey for several reasons -- best win was at home against Siena, their other top 100 wins came in conference, losing to DePaul in the Paradise Jam quarterfinals deprived them of at least one shot at a marquee opponent. The Monarchs, meanwhile, are looking to add a win in Cedar Falls to a resume that includes a solid 10-3 mark in a competitive CAA, a home win against Charlotte, and a huge win at Georgetown -- few bubble teams have a win that's equivalent to that one. With Eglseder out, Gerald Lee and the taller Monarchs should create havoc inside and grab another crucial victory.
Siena (22-5, MAAC Regular Season Champion at 15-1) at Butler (24-4, Horizon Regular Season Champion at 17-0), 11 a.m. ET (ESPN2/ESPN360): This one boils down to one simple fact. The Bulldogs are a lock at this point, but the Saints suffered a loss at Niagara last Friday that pretty much killed their at-large chances. A win in Indy would help resurrect them, but given the Saints' 0-4 record in their up games this season, I wouldn't be feeling too confident if I was a fan of theirs. Then again, the conference tournament is in Albany again, meaning a repeat of last season's 9 seed in the NCAA is possible, especially given the quality of this year's bubble.
Morgan State (19-8, 1st in MEAC at 11-1) at Murray State (25-3, OVC Regular Season Champion at 16-0), 12 p.m. ET (ESPNU): This one would have been a bit more attractive had the Bears not lost to South Carolina State on Monday night, depriving the nation of a matchup of conference unbeatens. While neither of these teams has an at-large chance, both could spring a surprise in March. The Racers have won 16 straight, something you'd expect from the team ranked 4th in the country in effective FG percentage offense and 16th in eFG % defense, while the Bears have won 12 of their last 13. Murray played a close game at Cal early in the season, and Morgan won at Arkansas, albeit when that team was struggling with suspensions.
Potential At-Large Impacts
Three BracketBusters feature at least one team that has a glimmer of hope for an at-large.
William & Mary (19-7, tied for 3rd in CAA at 11-5) at Iona (19-8, 2nd in MAAC at 11-5), Friday at 9 p.m. ET (ESPNU): If you wrote off the Tribe as an at-large candidate, you may want to reconsider, as they currently sit two games behind Old Dominion and Northeastern in the CAA and have a better overall profile than the Huskies. You could argue that they deserve a better matchup than the Gaels, who sit four games behind Siena in the Metro Atlantic, but given the options available when teams were paired up, Iona will have to do. Expect the Gaels defense, particularly away from the perimeter, to create headaches for David Schneider and company this evening.
Louisiana Tech (20-6, tied for 3rd in WAC at 8-4) at Northeastern (18-9, tied for 1st in CAA at 13-3), 1 p.m. ET (ESPN2/ESPN360): The Huskies biggest issue from an at-large perspective is the lack of a marquee win. Sure, home wins over Utah State and ODU are nice, and a sweep of VCU useful, but losses at Siena and Rhode Island and the Diamond Head Quarterfinal against St. Mary's were all lost opportunities for the Huskies to claim pole position among the mids. (Northeastern lost a four-point decision at home to Providence as well.) A home victory over a Bulldog team that's dropped four of their last seven won't do it. Expect the Huskies to score a lot against a Louisiana Tech defense that hasn't been a strong point this season.
Wichita State (22-6, 2nd in MVC at 11-5) at Utah State (21-6, 1st in WAC at 11-2), 11:59 p.m. ET (ESPN2/ESPN360): When the matchups were announced, this looked to be an at-large elimination game. But 18 days later, the Shockers are likely finished already, particularly after a bad RPI loss at Evansville on February 9 and Texas Tech's struggles, which threaten to deprive a quality win from them. Meanwhile, the Aggies are riding an 11-game win streak that's put them back in charge of the WAC race. Plus, they own a home win over BYU, a tourney lock. As this one will be played at the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum, look for Utah State's streak to grow to 12.
No At-Large Impact
The remaining games have no at-large impact at all, but they're worth watching if you want a good idea of some teams who could spring shocks in a month's time as conference champions. Here's a list of these matchups with a factoid or two about each.
Nevada (16-9, tied for 3rd in WAC at 8-4) at Missouri State (17-10, tied for 7th in MVC at 7-9), 3 p.m. ET (ESPN2/ESPN360): The Bears have gone 5-9 since their 12-1 start.
Akron (20-7, tied for 1st in MAC East at 10-3) at VCU (18-7, tied for 5th in CAA at 10-6), 4 p.m. ET (ESPNU): Since these two met in a 2008 BracketBuster, they'll meet for a fourth straight season in 2010-11.
College of Charleston (18-9, SoCon Regular Season Co-champ at 13-3) at George Mason (16-11, tied for 3rd in CAA at 11-5), 8 p.m. ET (ESPN2/ESPN360): The Cougars grabbed the nation's attention with their upset of North Carolina on January 4, but it turns out we may have learned more about the Tar Heels on that night.
Western Carolina (19-9, 2nd in SoCon North at 9-7) at Kent State (19-8, tied for 1st in MAC East at 10-3), 8 p.m. ET (ESPNU): The Catamounts have gone 2-4 since the pairings were announced.
New Mexico State (16-9, 2nd in WAC at 9-3) at Pacific (17-8, 2nd in Big West at 9-3), 10 p.m. ET (ESPNU): The Tigers are only a half-game behind UC Santa Barbara in the Big West race and have home wins over San Diego State and Nevada.
Which BracketBuster game are you anticipating the most?
This poll is closed
Old Dominion at Northern Iowa
William & Mary at Iona
Siena at Butler
Morgan State at Murray State
Louisiana Tech at Northeastern
Wichita State at Utah State