This season marks the seventh year of BracketBusters, and maybe it's a mark of how far the event has come that this year's marquee game, Butler vs. Davidson, involves two teams that appear to be locks for at-large berths in the NCAA tournament.
Or at least they appeared that way a week ago. With Stephen Curry nursing an injured ankle and Butler having lost their last two games, the importance of this game has shifted from bragging rights to measuring stick. Can Curry return? Can the Bulldogs snap out of it? Tune in and see for yourself.
Curry and Butler aren't the only game in town, of course. In fact this is a tasty menu of games with particularly strong representation from the Colonial Athletic Association and the Missouri Valley. Not to mention BracketBusters is the gift that keeps on giving the following season. Each road team listed below will host their opponent this coming November or December. It all lines up as a great weekend of hoops, one that happily will echo next year.
Illinois State (22-5) vs. Niagara (21-7)
ESPN2, 7:00 PM ET, Friday
Illinois State was so eager to tip off BracketBusters, they actually lobbied for this Friday night slot. Alright, they were eager plus they wanted some breathing room before what promises to be a tough road game against Northern Iowa Tuesday night. Anyway, ISU limits Missouri Valley opponents to fewer points per possession than any other team in the conference. On offense the Redbirds will look to junior Osiris Eldridge and senior Champ Oguchi to continue their prolific ways from the perimeter. Junior Lloyd Phillips is reportedly available for ISU as well, after a two-game absence from the team for "undisclosed personal reasons." Phillips doesn't see the ball as often as Eldridge and Oguchi, but he's hitting 42 percent of his threes. Niagara will try to force the Redbirds into turnovers-the Purple Eagles have benefited greatly this season from taking care of the ball (committing TOs on just 18 percent of their trips) while preventing opponents from doing the same (taking the ball away on almost 25 percent of their defensive possessions.) Junior guard Tyrone Lewis has struggled at times to find the range on his shot, but he sets the low-TO standard for a team that holds on to the rock. On defense senior Benson Egemonye blocks a fair number of shots, helping limit opponents to 44 percent two-point shooting on the year. Note however that Niagara's coming off a tough three-point loss at Rider Wednesday night.
Virginia Commonwealth (19-8) vs. Nevada (15-10)
ESPNU, 9:00 PM ET, Friday
Eric Maynor and VCU take a break from their dogfight with George Mason in the Colonial Athletic Association to pay a visit to Reno, where Luke Babbitt, Armon Johnson, and the rest of the Wolf Pack await. Known nationally for his game-winning shot against Duke in the first round of the 2007 NCAA tournament, Maynor is still making waves in 2009: this season he's scored 30 or more points six times, including the 30 he dropped on Delaware Wednesday night. Maynor may be "the man" on offense, but on D that title properly belongs to Larry Sanders, one of the nation's top shot-blockers. After opening CAA play 8-1, however, VCU has dropped three of their last seven, including a jarring nine-point loss two weeks ago at 6-22 North Carolina-Wilmington. The Rams will try to get back on track against a young Nevada team that runs its offense through freshman Babbitt and sophomore Johnson. A McDonald's All-American, Babbitt chose to remain in his hometown of Reno and has already shown his abilities on both sides of the ball: he's his team's best perimeter threat and its top defensive rebounder.
Northeastern (16-10) vs. Wright State (16-11)
ESPN2, 11:00 AM ET, Saturday
Speaking of the dogfight in the CAA, Northeastern comes into this game 11-5 in-conference even though they've lost three in a row. Over that time leading scorer Matt Janning has gone 13-of-36 from the field and the Huskies have allowed each opponent to score at least a point per trip. They face a tough opponent in Wright State, whose 16-11 record is fairly remarkable considering the Raiders started the season 0-6. It's all about defense for Brad Brownell's team, as WSU harasses opponents into frequent turnovers while limiting them to 41 percent two-point shooting. Juniors Todd Brown and Cory Copperwood carry the load on offense for the Raiders, with Brown hitting 42 percent of his threes, and Cooperwood getting it done inside the arc and especially on the offensive glass. Expect a deliberate pace in this one: both teams average less than 63 possessions per 40 minutes.
Liberty (20-8) vs. Old Dominion (17-9)
ESPNU, 11:00 AM ET, Saturday
As long as Liberty stays away from double-overtime, they're tough to beat. Over their last 13 games in Big South play, the Flames have gone 10-3, and, incredibly, each of the three losses has come in double-OT. You may have heard of Seth Curry's fairly well-known older brother, but what you might not know is that Seth is averaging 21 points a game as a freshman and, more importantly, doing so efficiently. Curry's teammate Anthony Smith doesn't have a famous brother, otherwise you might have heard about the senior's outstanding shooting from the field, both outside and especially inside the arc. Liberty likes a perimeter-oriented attack, devoting almost half of their attempts to threes. ODU will counter with junior Gerald Lee, who leads his team in minutes and scores effectively from the paint. Opponents in the CAA have learned the hard way that they foul the 6'10" Lee at their own peril; the big man shoots 80 percent from the line.
Butler (22-4) vs. Davidson (22-5)
ESPN, 12:00 PM ET, Saturday
This is the main event, the only question being whether Stephen Curry will be able to play after he injured his left ankle against Furman last Saturday. With all the attention given to Curry, Davidson's excellent defense has been overlooked this year. Nevertheless, Curry's true value to this team was underscored Wednesday night when the Wildcats played without him and scored just 46 points in a 65-possession game, losing by 18 at home to The Citadel. If Curry's able to pull a Willis Reed and limp onto the court, it will be great theater; if he can actually be effective, it should be a great game. Butler comes into this game with both a gaudy record and, rather improbably, a two-game losing streak, having come up short by a combined seven points at home against Loyola (IL) and at Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The Bulldogs' big three of Matt Howard, Shelvin Mack, and Gordon Hayward will try to right the ship with their trademark tough defense and perimeter-oriented offense. Sophomore Howard in particular has been impressive this year, displaying an ability to get to the line that can only be termed Hansbrough-esque.
Buffalo (17-7) vs. Vermont (21-7)
ESPN2, 1:00 PM ET, Saturday
You might remember Buffalo as the team that scared the daylights out of Connecticut on December 4 before losing by four at home to the Huskies. Of late, however, the Bulls have struggled on offense, losing two straight (to Ball State and Bowling Green) while failing to score a point per trip in either contest. To turn things around coach Reggie Witherspoon will look to juniors Rodney Pierce and Calvin Betts. For their part the Catamounts like a fast pace, averaging 70 possessions per 40 minutes and showing excellent results on their shooting from both sides of the arc. Winners of five straight, Vermont is led by 6'8" senior Colin McIntosh, who appears to have solved some early-season foul issues and is now taking most of the shots in coach Mike Lonergan's offense. On defense, 6'5" Marqus Blakely achieves results on the defensive glass more commonly seen from players three or four inches taller.
Northern Iowa (18-9) vs. Siena (21-6)
ESPN2, 3:00 PM ET, Saturday
For five weeks Northern Iowa was a huge surprise in the Missouri Valley-maybe even "the Drake of 2009." Since then, however, the Panthers have lost three of their last four, as coach Ben Jacobson's formerly efficient offense has begun to sputter. On Wednesday night UNI scored just 46 points in 59 possessions and lost by one at home to instate rival Drake. The Panthers might be struggling, but 7'1" big man Jordan Eglseder still poses a formidable challenge to opponents at both ends of the court. Eglseder makes 60 percent of his twos and is one of the top defensive rebounders in the nation. Meanwhile Fran McCaffery's Saints have clinched the MAAC regular season title with a speed that matches the accelerated tempo they show on the court, averaging 72 trips per 40 minutes. With 6'3" senior Kenny Hansbrouck and 6'6" junior Edwin Ubiles leading the charge, Siena scores the old-fashioned way, taking care of the ball and making their twos. Also keep an eye on 6-3 sophomore Clarence Jackson, averaging just 15 minutes a game but not at all shy about shooting.
Miami (OH) (15-9) vs. Evansville (15-11)
ESPNU, 3:30 PM ET, Saturday
Miami has posted mixed results on offense since losing senior point guard Kenny Hayes to an injury in December. In Hayes' absence, 6'6" senior Eric Pollitz has functioned as a pass-first point guard, while 6'5" senior shooting guard Michael Bramos has served as the focal point of the offense. The good news for the RedHawks is that they have an outstanding defense, one that's been especially tough on MAC opponents foolish enough to shoot a three. The only thing is that no team in the country shoots fewer threes than Evansville. The Purple Aces are playing far better than their three-game losing streak would suggest; facing three of the best teams in the Missouri Valley (Illinois State, Bradley, and Creighton), Marty Simmons' team lost by two, seven, and five points, respectively. In fact the Aces have improved dramatically on offense as the season has progressed, with 6'4" senior Shy Ely in particular emerging as a force to be reckoned with.
Utah State (25-2) vs. St. Mary's (20-5)
ESPN2, 5:00 PM ET, Saturday
Someday soon I'm going to ask my colleague Ken Pomeroy to do the definitive study on why teams in alpine settings shoot so well. Currently four of the top seven shooting teams in the nation are based in the otherwise sparsely-hooped Mountain Time Zone: Brigham Young, Denver, Utah, and, of course, Utah State. The Aggies make 40 percent of their threes and an equally impressive 54 percent of their twos, making this a true pick-your-poison offense for opponents. It's characteristic of this kind of offense that its leading scorer, 6'9" senior Gary Wilkinson, is highly efficient; he hits his twos, but also makes frequent trips to the line, shooting 84 percent there. The host Gaels would be well advised to score some points. Unfortunately they've been without the services of 6'0" sophomore Patty Mills since January 29, when he injured his right hand against Gonzaga. (Mills had the stitches removed from his hand earlier this week and is reportedly on-track to return in time for the WCC tournament.) Diamon Simpson and Omar Samhan have tried to pick up the slack on offense in the meantime, and it hasn't been easy-St. Mary's has gone 1-3 in Mills' absence.
Green Bay (20-8) vs. Long Beach State (13-11)
ESPNU, 5:30 PM ET, Saturday
Green Bay was the first Horizon team to show that Butler could in fact be beaten, but since the Phoenix accomplished that feat on February 2 they've lost two of four, dropping hard-fought road games at Youngstown State and Cleveland State. They may not have attracted as much notice in this department as Utah State, but Green Bay's offense is almost as good as the Aggies'. Give a lot of the credit here to 6'8" senior Ryan Tillema, who takes the lion's share of his team's shots and is a threat to score from both sides of the arc. For their part, Long Beach State is in the midst of an incredible run of close games. Currently atop the Big West along with Cal State Northridge, the 49ers haven't played a game that was decided by more than nine points since January 8. Leading scorer Donovan Morris has been sidelined for the better part of three weeks with a stress fracture in his right foot and is not expected to play. Also note that when 6'7" freshman T.J. Robinson stays out of foul trouble, he helps his team on both ends of the floor with very good defensive rebounding and 57 percent two-point shooting.
Hofstra (18-9) vs. Fairfield (15-12)
ESPN360.com, 7:00 PM ET
You might not think a team that won its last game 99-96 would have a good defense, but in the case of Hofstra you'd be mistaken. For one thing, the three-point win at home over CAA foe James Madison went to double-overtime. More importantly, opponents have had a tough time making shots all year against this D. Now the bad news: the Pride has been even less successful getting the ball in the basket, making just 42 percent of their twos. Then again, leading scorer Charles Jenkins is coming of an 11-of-16 outing against JMU. Maybe this corner has been turned, as evidenced by Hofstra's four-game win streak. Alas, win streaks are something Fairfield can remember only dimly, as the Stags have been decimated by personnel losses. Starters Warren Edney (ankle), Anthony Johnson (lungs), and Jonathan Han (personal reasons) are all done for the year. More recently leading scorer Greg Nero has played just nine minutes over the past two games due to a back injury. In the absence of all of the above, 5'11" senior Herbie Allen has seen more minutes and a lot more shots.
Boise State (17-8) vs. Portland State (17-9)
ESPNU, 7:30 PM ET
Coming off of a loss to Idaho and currently locked in the crowded mid-section of the WAC standings, Boise State might seem easy to overlook. Maybe that was Utah State's mistake: they overlooked the Broncos and ended up losing by ten in Boise last Saturday, the Aggies' only conference loss. BSU funnels their offense through 6'7" senior Mark Sanchez and 6'7" sophomore Paul Noonan; and when 6'9" junior Ike Okoye stays out of foul trouble, he provides outstanding defensive rebounding and shot-blocking. As for the home team, Portland State is happy to be wearing that label; the Vikings haven't won a contest on the road in over a month. Coach Ken Bone runs an offense that very strongly emphasizes perimeter shooting, and you would too if you had Jeremiah Dominguez (a 44 percent three-point shooter) and Dominic Waters (47 percent) on your roster.
George Mason (18-8) vs. Creighton (22-6)
ESPNU, 9:30 PM ET, Saturday
George Mason's legends of 2006-Will Thomas, Folarin Campbell, et. al.-are all gone now. All that remains is John Vaughan, who watched his teammates beat Connecticut in a legendary Elite Eight game as a redshirt in street clothes. The Patriots have little time for history, they're in the thick of a fight for the CAA regular season title. This season Jim Larranaga's team is getting it done with defense, particularly on the perimeter. That sets up what should be an interesting collision with Creighton, a team that likes to shoot from the outside. Winners of seven straight in the Missouri Valley, the Bluejays have two outstanding scorers in 6-1 senior Booker Woodfox and 6-3 sophomore P'Allen Stinnett. Given that Woodfox has made 49 percent of his threes this year, the strong perimeter defense of George Mason might be in for its toughest test.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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