BracketBusters Preview

I have always been intrigued by the mid-major college basketball.  But, up until recently, it has been very difficult (and, pre-internet, basically impossible) to even keep up with these smaller conferences, let alone “follow” them.  But, then digital cable and its 8 million channels came to me a couple of years ago, and all of a sudden, the world opened up, and my intrigue began to morph into a mild love affair.  This year, for the first full college hoops season, DVR has officially entered my life and we have ourselves a full-fledged mid-major romance on our hands.  And, if the first week of the conference tournaments is an annual week-long romantic getaway to a beautiful deserted island, then BracketBusters weekend is our Valentine’s Day.  It is not the full-fledged, hot and heavy week-long affair that the conference tournaments are, but it is just a time to sit back, amidst our daily lives, and acknowledge our mutual affections.  (Wow, is it me or did this blog just get weird…?)

Anyway, having followed a lot of mid-major basketball this year, I am pretty excited for the BracketBusters games this year.  Here is a quick rundown of what we have in store for us, starting tonight, when the best mid-major teams go out of conference and head-to-head against each other to try and establish their possible tournament-worthiness (though, in this regard, it has kind of backfired…more on this possibly in a future post), represent their leagues among the ranks of the mid-major conferences, and, at the very least, get some national exposure on the WorldWide Leader.

So, here are the 11 televised games this weekend, in order of their broadcast (W-L record, RPI in parentheses):

VCU (20-8, 64) at Wichita State (22-5, 48) – 7:00 pm, ESPN2
Right off the bat, we get a fantastic one.  The main question here is where is VCU’s psyche after the week they have had?  They were cruising along in the CAA at 12-2 and first place, when they got rocked in back-to-back games AT HOME by Old Dominion on Saturday and then George Mason on Tuesday.  Granted, those two teams are probably the two best teams in the CAA and both heading for the tournament, but two home losses in which the Rams were not even that competitive.  Those two losses probably played the Rams off the bubble and into auto-bid only territory.  On the other hand, Wichita State has really hit their stride, highlighted by a big win at Northern Iowa on Saturday, and is at least in the conversation for an at-large.  That Saturday game was the first time I actually got to see the Shockers this year, and I was so impressed that I had to text Doogan just to tell him how impressed I was. 

Players to Watch:  6’9″, 240-pound Jamie Skeen (VCU) is one of the most dominating bigs in the CAA, but has all the skills of a perimeter player.  Strange?  Somewhat, until you realize that he actually started his collegiate career at Wake Forest, where he played on the wing.  With that physique transferring into the CAA, he moved to the pivot and it is almost unfair.  I will make a bold statement:  Wichita State is the deepest team of all mid-majors.  But, that doesn’t mean they don’t have any stars.  They actually have several.  Toure Murray is a flat-out scorer on the perimeter; Graham Hatch is a hard-nosed, do-it-all kind of wing; Ben Smith is a dead-eye shooter; Gabe Blair has post moves that look too agile for his size; David Kyles is a solid all-around player; and, Garrett Stutz is a gigantic man.  But, the best of all is J.T. Durley (WSU), who is an incredibly skilled big guy who can score inside and out and rebounds with tenacity.

The BSB Pick:  Wichita State in a close one at home.

Kent State (17-8, 94) at Drexel (17-9, 81) – 9:00 pm, ESPNU
While lacking the overall cache of the first game, the nightcap on Friday should also be rather interesting.  Drexel, the fifth CAA team to get a televised BracketBusters game had a great non-conference run, including a big win at Louisville, but has seen relative struggles in a very tough CAA this year.  But, they are still 9-7 in the best conference participating in the BracketBusters and have suffered a couple heartbreakingly close losses or it could be a very different story.  The Kent State story is similar.  They had a good non-conference run (though, no win anywhere near the equivalent of the Louisville win), but have not run away with a MAC that is not all that good this year.  Either way, both teams could really use this game to put a stamp on an otherwise good, but not great season.  As much as I like the Dragons and think that Bruiser has done a really good job this year, I think the Golden Flashes are the better team, even on the road. 

Players to Watch:  While the Golden Flashes are pretty deep and don’t really have one star, Justin Greene (KSU) has developed his game so much that he would have to be considered the best of the bunch.  Not gifted with a ton of “skills,” Greene just plays – and plays hard.  As gifted of a shooter as Chris Fouch is for the Dragons, Samme Givens (Drex) is probably their best all-around player.  A monster on the boards and a handful in the post, Givens is a pretty tough matchup for mid-majors, who generally do not have a ton of size.

BSB’s Pick:  Kent State on the road.

Hofstra (18-9, 87) at Wright State (16-12, 115) – 11:00 am, ESPNU
The Flying Dutchmen (I know that that is no longer Hofstra’s nickname, but it always will be to me) are “that team” in the CAA.  They are the team that no one is really talking about, but just keep on winning.  Overshadowed for most of the season by George Mason, VCU, and ODU, they have put together a conference season that can rival any of them, even beating George Mason head-to-head.  Wright State, one of the teams that contributed to the 5-loss conference campaign of Butler, might be “that team” as well in their own conference.  At 9-6 in conference play, they are still 2 games back of earning that double-bye, but have played teams tough all year and are really tough at home, having only lost one conference game (to league-leading Valpo) in their own gym.  While Hofstra is the better team from the better conference, this game could really go either way because of Wright State’s homecourt advantage and the early start time. 

Players to Watch:  I might not have to tell you who to watch for on Hofstra because you may already know him.  Charles Jenkins (Hof) is one of the best players in the country – at any level.  Jenkins is 4th in the nation in scoring at just under 24 ppg, and is known as a “power guard” because of his style of play and its aversion to the “finesse” that typically comes with being a mid-major guard.  While you can simply watch Jenkins and know he is a star, the best player on the other side of this game probably would not stand out until you checked the box score and saw a line like 17-6-3.  Vaughn Duggins (WSU) doesn’t look like a star; he doesn’t move like a star; he doesn’t act like a star.  But, trust me, despite his seemingly awkward dribbles and interesting floor game, this guy is really, really good.

BSB’s Pick:  Wright State in an upset at home.

Austin Peay (17-11, 132) at Fairfield (21-5, 101) – 1:00 pm, ESPNU
It is interesting that the powers that be chose Austin Peay to be in the spotlight game for the OVC, when both Murray State and Morehead State are considerably better teams (they both drew middling Valley teams, Evansville and Indiana State).  But, that being said the Colonels have had a really good year and have beaten both Murray and Morehead this year, so they know who to win big games.  The problem is that they have also lost some games that they should not have lost.  Fairfield, on the other hand, has pretty much dominated the MAAC from day one and have already clinched the regular season MAAC title and the tournament’s #1-seed (which happens to be played on their home floor, so it would be a shock if we do not hear their name called on Selection Sunday).  The Stags, though, despite running through the MAAC so far, were rather unimpressive in the non-conference, as their only decent win was home against Vermont.  But, the MAAC is probably a slightly better conference than the OVC, and FU is leading their conference, while AP is 3rd in theirs. 

Players to Watch:  The Governors thought they were going to get a breakout year this year from junior Anthony Campbell, but Campbell has been mired in a season-long shooting slump that could have killed Austin Peay’s season.  Instead, they turned to a southern kid who left town for the big lights of New York City.  After one year at St. John’s, Ty’Shawn Edmondson (AP) transferred back to the south and is now Austin Peay’s leading scorer at almost 18 ppg.  Derek Needham (FU) is a flat-out star for the Stags.  This do-everything guard is only a sophomore, so he will be dominating the MAAC for two more years to come.

BSB’s Pick:  Fairfield.

Iona (17-10, 112) at Liberty (19-9, 131) – 3:00 pm, ESPNU
Liberty is one of the two big stories in the Big South this year, as they have already clinched second place in the conference, behind the other big story – the 25-win Chanitcleers of Coastal Carolina.  Iona, who is tied for second in the MAAC, behind aforementioned Fairfield, have had a decent year, as well, albeit not as unexpected as Liberty’s.  This would be a more interesting game if the Big South gave us their top team, but for some strange reason, the Chanticleers are not participating in BracketBusters this year, and Liberty, while good, is a bit of a step down.  I would absolutely have taken Coastal here, but not sure I can pick Liberty to beat a solid Iona team – though they have been doubted all year long and come through. 

Players to Watch:  The two best players in this game are younger brothers of some pretty good ballplayers.  Michael Glover (Iona), little brother of former St. John’s standout Lucas Glover, will be the best player on the floor this Saturday.  Glover, a JUCO transfer, who would be at Seton Hall right now if not for an eligibility issue with the NCAA, is a big fish in the pretty small pond of the MAAC, averaging almost 19 ppg and is shooting 61% from the field.  The Flames leading scorer is Evan Gordon (Lib), the little brother of former Indiana star and NBA lottery pick of the L.A. Clippers, Eric Gordon.  This younger Gordon is leading Liberty in scoring at 15 per game in this only his sophomore season. 

BSB’s Pick:  Iona.

Missouri State (21-6, 49) at Valparaiso (19-8, 54) – 5:00 pm, ESPN2
One of the classics of this event that really speaks to the significance of this setup.  Both of these teams are probably on the outside of the bubble right now and what they really could use to bolster their resume is one more really solid win.  Well, they now have a chance to get one – against each other.  Valpo, who were sort of dismissed at the beginning of the year because everyone just handed the Horizon to Butler, have recovered from a shaky start to put together a pretty nice season.  While, they still have a lot of work to do to get into the at-large discussion, they are currently leading a pretty good Horizon League, including wins over the two teams everyone is talking about – Butler and Cleveland State.  Missouri State has been one of the mid-major teams to watch all year long.  They had a solid non-conference slate, including a 16-point win at St. Louis and a near upset win at Tennessee.  At 13-3 in a tough Missouri Valley, they are tied for first with Wichita State.  This game will go a long way towards establishing one of these teams as a potential at-large, particularly if Missouri State – the better team with the better resume – can get a road win here. 

Players to Watch:  Though the Bears start a host of seniors, their best player – by a wide margin – is junior forward Kyle Weems (MSU), who is averaging 17 points and 7 rebounds per game.  Most of the Crusaders’ offense comes from a pair of seniors in only their second year at Valpo after transferring in as juniors.  Cory Johnson is a strong post scorer, but the best Crusader is 6’2″ do-everything guard Brandon Wood (Valpo).

BSB’s Pick:  Missouri State in a thriller on the road.

Vermont (22-5, 74) at Charleston (19-7, 77) – 5:00 pm, ESPNU
Picked for fifth in the America East, Vermont has run away with this conference from the very beginning and have already clinched the regular season title and the tournament’s top-seed.  The Catamounts have just five losses all year:  @UConn, BYU, @Fairfield, and the next two teams in the conference standings, BU and Maine.  They also have some very decent road wins in the non-conference (@Siena, @Quinnipiac, @Iona).  This team is very good and could be a savvy upset pick in the first-round, depending upon their draw.  But, the same can be said for their opponent this weekend.  The College of Charleston is one of those teams that no one wants to see opposite them in the Dance.  Bobby Cremins has prepared his guys for the big boys by playing the big boys (and playing them tough).  Their schedule this year was riddled with power teams, and his kids responded.  They lost on a buzzer-beater at Maryland and only by 5 in the Dean Dome against the Tar Heels.  Then, they finally broke through, winning by 13 at Tennessee in December.  And, they also took care of some of the better mid-majors in the country, beating Coastal Carolina by 16, East Tennessee State by 20 and Charleston-Southern by 8 on the road.  This game will say a lot about two teams that could both give us memories on some Thursday afternoon in the middle of March. 

Players to Watch:  You might remember the story of a player on last year’s Vermont team losing his mother to cancer just days before his teammates rallied around him and won the America East title and an NCAA tournament bid.  Well, that player was Evan Fjeld (UVM), a minor part of a senior-laden team last year who has now broken out in a big way to lead the Catamounts back to the top of the America East, despite massive losses to graduation.  Mid-major schools are known for their guard play, but Bobby Cremins might have the best of them all this year in 6’2″ senior Andrew Goudelock (CoC).  A potential NBA draft choice, Goudelock is an absolutely sensational scorer, who has four 30-point games this year, including dropping 31 in Knoxville in the Cougars upset win over Tennessee.

BSB’s Pick:  Charleston – the better team and the home court.

George Mason (22-5, 20) at Northern Iowa (18-9, 79) – 7:00 pm, ESPN2
I wonder how many people would agree with the following statement:  the 2010-11 George Mason Patriots are the best team in school history.  Bold, I know, considering they have a Final Four banner hanging from the RAC in Fairfax, but this team just might be better.  Cam Long is one of the best players no one has ever heard of and the frontcourt of Pearson and Morrison can play with anyone.  Northern Iowa, trying to build upon a thrilling Sweet 16 run just last year, has felt the losses of graduation a bit this year.  Gone is Adam Koch, the MVC Player of the Year.  Gone is cult hero, Ali Farokmanesh, who showed balls of steel in last year’s tourney run.  However, there are some guys that are still here.  With all the attention given to Koch and Farokmanesh last year, people may not have realized that Kwadzo Ahelegbe may have been their best all-around player, and was certainly their best defender.  He is back this year and is the leader of this team.  The Panthers also have had a bit of a breakout year from a familiar name – Koch.  Adam’s little brother, Jake, is a slick-shooting big man.  They took a big blow when they lost a gigantic man – a decent player – in Lucas O’Rear to injury, so they are a bit thin, but still very good, especially at home.  But, are they up for the task of a George Mason team that is a lot better than anyone realizes? 

Players to Watch:  The aforementioned Cam Long (GM) is an absolute star for the Patriots, as his athleticism, size and scoring touch are rarely seen in guards outside the power conferences.  As good as Adam Koch’s little brother, Jake, has been this year, this Panther team starts and ends with Kwadzo Alehelgbe (UNI), the do-everything senior swingman, who might be the best mid-major defender in the country.

BSB’s Pick:  George Mason, maybe easily.

Utah State (23-3, 25) at St. Mary’s (22-5, 39) – 9:00 pm, ESPN2
Not only does this game probably have the most bubble implications, but it might just be the best game to watch as well (personally, I am partial to VCU-Wichita and Mason-UNI, because those games match up my two favorite conferences).  The only two BracketBuster teams that have had a ranking this year meet up on the west coast.  And, think about this – what if the NCAA tournament actually followed its “regions” when laying out the tournament?  There would have to be a Final Four participant from the West Region.  If that were the case, I could make the argument that this could be the Elite Eight game to decide that spot.  Obviously, Arizona or Washington fans might have something to say to the contrary, but it is enough of a compliment to these two unheralded programs just for their names to be in the discussion of the best team in the entire western region of the country.  Specifically, this matchup is a fantastic constrast of styles.  On one side, you have St. Mary’s, whose up and down style makes for an incredibly entertaining game, particularly with the shooter that they have all over the court.  Two Gaels (both Australian), in particular, are must-sees – Mickey McConnell and Matthew Delavadova.  If you are a fan of The Jimmer, then you will love these two.  Obviously not as dynamic as the Player of the Year frontrunner, these two both combine in-the-gym range with a tenacious slashing style that keeps defenses constantly guessing.  On the other side of this matchup is a team that specializes in half-court defense.  The Aggies are 7th in the nation in scoring defense, allowing just over 58 points per game, and just flat-out winning games.  Aside from head-scratcher at Idaho last week, the Aggies only two losses this year were @BYU and @Georgetown.  Not exactly “bad” losses.  This game will give them a chance to show the country that, despite playing in the long-lost WAC, they are one of the nation’s elite and, with their fans’ crazy chants of “We believe that we will win…We believe that we will win,” boast one of the best homecourt advantages in the nation.  Either way, this game could go a very long way to one of these teams claim for an at-large bid, and after both suffered puzzling losses this week (St. Mary’s lost to woeful San Diego Wednesday night), they both might need it. 

Players to Watch:  Tai Wesley (USU) is the Aggies best all-around offensive player, who is unselfish enough to keep the offense moving, but talented enough to get his when the team needs them.  Patty Mills success at St. Mary’s opened coach Randy Bennett’s pipeline to the Land Down Under and he has brought back some stars.  The latest in this increasingly long line of Aussie stars are Matthew Delavadova and Mickey McConnell (StM).  McConnell, the real leader of this team, has an amazing handle and in-the-gym range to go along with a grit and tenacity that seems inborne in the Aussies.

BSB’s Pick:  Utah State just does not lose at home.

Montana (20-7, 109) at Long Beach State (16-10, 100) – 11:00 pm, ESPN2
In the nightcap (and West Coast undercard), the Big Sky’s best team takes on the Big West’s best team.  The Grizzlies, who won the Big Sky tournament last year in one of the most exciting games I have ever seen, look like they might ride that momentum to an unexpected regular season Big Sky title this year.  Another unexpected regular season title is probably in the works for Dan Monson’s Long Beach State 49ers.  Neither team really has much hope of at-large consideration, but they can play this game as a representative of their individual conferences – two conferences at similar levels that recruit in the same areas. 

Players to Watch:  Montana has some issues in the backcourt, but their frontcourt is probably the best in the Big Sky, led by Brian Qvale (Mon), a 6’11”, 260-pound senior, averaging 15 and 9 this year.  The 49ers have a fantastic junior class, including Casper Ware (15 pts, 5 assists), Larry Anderson, and Eugene Phelps, but the best of the bunch is 6’7″ PF T.J. Robinson, who is an absolute nightmare for low-post defenders because of the combination of his quickness and size.

BSB’s Pick:  Long Beach State.

Cleveland State (21-5, 34) at Old Dominion (21-6, 31) – 1:00 pm, ESPN
When you have the stage all to yourself, you better deliver.  And, there is little doubt that this game – the only Sunday game – will do just that.  Both teams have serious at-large arguments (I think both should get in, but that’s just me) and are currently bunkered in for some big-time conference races.  But, they get a break here to go out of conference and play one of the best teams in the country.  And, even if you are not a big fan of mid-major basketball, you need to tune into this one if, for nothing else, just to get a glimpse at Norris Cole.  The Cleveland State senior guard is averaging 21 points, 6 rebounds, and 6 assists per game this year.  And, last Saturday, against Youngstown State, Cole had one for the ages:  41 points, 20 rebounds, 9 assists.  A guard with TWENTY rebounds to go with 40 points and, oh by the way, was 1 assist shy of a triple-double.  Uh…wow!  The rest of the team is pretty good, too, as the Vikings sit at 21-5 and bubblicious RPI of 34.  But, if you are expecting another 40-20 from Cole, you might want to tune in next week when CSU returns to the Horizon because, on Saturday, Cole and company will travel to Norfolk and they will be met by one of the best defensive teams you will see.  The Monarchs of ODU pride themselves on solid, halfcourt defense and have ridden that to their own bubblicious RPI of 31.  And, the Monarchs are not afraid of the big games.  They have owned the Atlantic 10 this year, with wins over Xavier, Richmond, and Dayton.  They have also knocked off an upper-division ACC team, Clemson, and only lost by 3 to an upper-division Big East team, Georgetown.  They also stayed with Missouri for a half on the road before succumbing to the Tigers pressure in the second half.  Their style is not pretty, but it is awfully effective.

Players to Watch:  Norris Cole (CSU) probably won’t replicate his 41-20-9 performance last Saturday, but the guy is a flat-out star and a must-see for any college hoops fan.  While Frank Hassell is ODU’s leading scorer, Darius James (ODU) is the guy that makes it all happen offensively and defensively.

BSB’s Pick:  Old Dominion

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