With respect to Wright State and Illinois State, who will close BracketBusters with a game tonight in Normal, Ill., one delayed by high-school championships yesterday, we learned enough over the last two days to reach conclusions. In what was a so-so year for matchups, a couple of teams made significant statements, and positioned themselves for at-large bids should they need them. Conferences as a whole made noise as well. Here are the BracketBusters winners and losers for 2008:
- Kent State. Only one team in BracketBusters moved from on the bubble to off of it. That’s the Golden Flashes, who became the first team to win in Moraga this year by coming back from a nine-point second-half deficit to beat St. Mary’s, 65-57. Kent State overcame Diamon Simpson’s great work inside by shutting down the Gaels’ three-point attack, holding Patrick Mills to five points on 1-of-6 from the arc, and the team to just 3-of-16. This is a caliber of win Kent State, which leads the MAC and had an RPI of 41 headed into the game, desperately needed to round out their resume. It is, quite frankly, the kind of win the entire MAC has struggled to flesh out its cases with over the past few seasons. Miami of Ohio had some good wins this year, but its 7-6 conference performance killed them. A 26-7 Akron team was left out last year for lack of quality wins. Now, should Kent State hold on in the regular season but lose in the MAC tournament, they should still have a spot in March Madness.
- Drake. Losing two of three games in the Valley hadn’t put Drake’s bid in danger, but a loss to Butler would have brought the possibility of a late-season collapse into focus. Like Kent State, Drake lacked a quality non-conference win to go with its dominance of a good mid-level league. Now, after a stellar performance by Josh Young—25 points, 8-for-8 from the line, helped foul out Mike Green—the Bulldogs are in the NCAA tournament.
- Ohio. Ohio doesn’t have much chance to make the NCAAs without winning the MAC tournament. However, with so few deserving mid-majors, and the middle of the BCS conferences muddled, they kept their hopes alive with a comeback win over George Mason. Ohio survived a first-half 16-0 run, putting up a 50-point second half to turn the game around. This win hangs next to the road win at Maryland, but the Bobcats need to run the table to the MAC championship game—perhaps beating Kent State along the way—to make it meaningful.
- VCU. Similar to Ohio, VCU’s argument for an at-large bid isn’t very strong. Their BracketBuster win over Akron isn’t terribly helpful, although it did come on the road, boosting their road mark to 8-3. In their favor is the likely regular-season title in the CAA and being another one of the teams that beat Maryland. They could have used a better opponent, but they did their best with what they were given.
- Missouri Valley Conference. The Valley went 7-2 yesterday, as only Northern Iowa (to Illinois-Chicago) and Wichita State (at Northern Arizona) suffered losses. Drake’s big one at Butler was the signature, but Southern Illinois obliterated Nevada and Creighton took out Oral Roberts to add to the catch. (Creighton could have used a better opponent.) Arch Madness may not feature four NCAA teams, but it will be highly competitive once again, with the likelihood that Bradley or Southern Illinois will edge out Drake for the title. Honestly, as well as both are playing, I’d take both for my fictional bracket.
Sidebar: Does Southern Illinois have an at-large case? They were a 7-9 afterthought back on January 12, and have gone 9-3 since. If they win their last two, including a season-ender at home against Illinois State, they’ll do no worse than tie for second in the Valley at 11-7. They beat Drake, St. Mary’s and Mississippi State, giving them more top-50 wins (three) than some major-conference candidates. Their RPI is 50, and a 4-1 close (two wins, 2-1 in St. Louis) would leave them 20-13, 13-8 with an RPI around 40. Killing them is a 2-9 road record.
It comes down to the Bradley game on Tuesday. If they go there and win, they can make a case. Without that game, it all falls apart.
- Metro-Atlantic Athletic Conference: They’re a part of BracketBusters because Manhattan had a couple of good teams over the last decade. They haven’t gotten an at-large bid since 1995, when the Jaspers went 25-4 and lost the conference championship game in overtime. The MAAC usually picks up some good non-conference wins—Siena picked off Stanford this year—but rarely enough to make a case for a bid, and the conference is usually so competitive that no team emerges as a Davidson-like candidate. This year, the top half of the conference picked up some very good wins: Rider, Siena, Niagara and Fairfield all won road games, and Loyola won at home. The names weren’t big, but outright road wins after significant travel this late in the year are impressive. The MAAC tournament will be a great weekend of basketball, and either Niagara or Rider could win an NCAA game.
America East Conference. Hey, they went 3-1, all on the road. It’s worth a mention.
- Butler. These Bulldogs won’t lose their spot in the tournament for their loss to Drake. They needed a win yesterday, however, to build a case for a protected seed. Despite trying to schedule well, they have just two top-50 wins, and those come and go as Ohio State and Southern Illinois bounce around the RPI. They also could have used a long winning streak, through the Horizon tournament as part of their case. Now, even running the table seems unlikely to get them above a five or six seed.
- George Mason. Any argument George Mason had for an at-large likely went down the tubes in the second half at Ohio. A road win at a comparable team, added to their wins over with-Chris Wright Dayton and Kansas State, might have kept them in the discussion through the CAA tournament. Now, it’s hard to see them as a candidate even with a loss to VCU in the tournament finals.
- Davidson. Davidson owned Winthrop in Rock Hill, dominating the game at the defensive end in a 60-47 victory. The problem is that it was Winthrop. Granted, you could argue that Davidson had plenty of opportunities to pick up a quality win late last year and failed, but given that the reports from the mock bracketing exercises a few weeks back indicated that Davidson was, and would be, one of the toughest decisions, it seems like another test was in order. If going to Butler or St. Mary’s was out of the question because of the need to get Drake and Kent State good opponents, could Davidson have gotten the trip to Southern Illinois that Nevada—a complete non-factor—did? Illinois State, Ohio and Cleveland State all would have been better options as well. Davidson may well put the conference away on its own, but if they don’t, being part of BracketBusters did them no good.
- Western Athletic Conference. The WAC went 3-6, had two of its top three teams obliterated by Siena and Southern Illinois, and got its only three wins against the Big West. Louisiana Tech lost at home to Samford. I predict that whoever gets the auto bid out of the Big West allows at least 85 points in its NCAA first-round loss.
- BracketBusters. It was, unfortunately, a bad year for BracketBusters. There weren’t very many teams in position to leverage a win into a bid. Of the 14 featured games and their 28 teams, 19 of the participants have no chance whatsoever of an at-large bid. One of the games featured two teams that were in regardless. The struggles of the WAC, the Valley and the Colonial simply left too shallow a pool of teams from which to make good matchups.
Watching the games between the teams with no chance of a bid revealed one of the hidden problems of the event. If you’re not playing to improve your chance of making the tournament, the game is simply a hassle. What matters is your league and your conference tournament, and being sent to Cleveland or Carbondale or Logan in February isn’t cool; it’s a pain in the ass. The game is meaningless and you’re carving out two days to get it played. There was a distinct lack of intensity in some of the matchups, and understandably so.
Because teams play in conferences, this is somewhat unavoidable. I’m not even talking about the “silent” Bracketbusters games, which amount to little more than a Horizon/Valley or WAC/Big West challenge, occurring in obscurity between teams whose seasons are a mere week or two from ending. Still, there has to be some way to massage the concept in a way that doesn’t send these teams willy-nilly around the map to play meaningless games at a point in the season when additional travel is the last thing a college student wants.
BracketBusters is a good concept, and in every year, we’ve seen one or two teams leverage the exposure and the opportunity. I’m not convinced that forcing random nonconference games, and the concomitant travel, on 90 other teams to get that benefit is the way to go.
Now that BracketBusters is behind us, and conference schedules are winding down, we’ll start taking a look at the possible tournament field later this week.
Joe Sheehan is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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