ESPN sells its annual BracketBusters weekend as an opportunity to get a look at the teams that might bust your bracket when the NCAA tournament tips off in three weeks.
With that in mind, here’s what we learned from the 51 BracketBuster games this weekend.
• Southern Illinois is pretty darn good.
Back before anyone was paying attention to college basketball, the 13th-ranked Salukis beat Virginia Tech and 15th-ranked Butler won the preseason NIT with wins over Notre Dame, Indiana, Tennessee and Gonzaga. Butler and SIU put on quite a show Saturday, won 68-64 by visiting SIU.
Both teams are outstanding defensively and both use methodical offenses to milk the clock (SIU outscored Butler 4-2 in transition). That doesn’t bode well for talented teams from the big-money conferences who typically try to beat mid-majors with speed and athleticism.
• The rest of the Missouri Valley Conference may not be as good.
The darlings of last year’s tournament (four MVC teams earned berths, two advanced to the Sweet 16) failed to impress over the weekend. SIU and Bradley won on the road, but the conference’s other heavyweights — Creighton, Missouri State, Wichita State and Northern Iowa — all lost their games, three of which were at home.
Four berths for the MVC this year would be a shocker.
• The Colonial Athletic Association could do it again.
The CAA snuck two teams into the tournament last year (remember George Mason?) and could do it again. The conference went 3-1 in BracketBusters with big road wins by Old Dominion and Drexel over Toledo and Creighton, respectively. Either of those teams could join league-leading Virginia Commonwealth in the tournament.
The Horizon League or Southern Conference could join the CAA with multiple bids if Wright State upsets Butler and/or Davidson upsets Appalachian State (which has beaten Virginia, Vanderbilt, Wichita State and VCU) in the conference championship games.
Of course, the only way for mid-major programs to ensure their inclusion in the big dance (regardless of their success in BracketBusters) is to win their conference tournaments.
“If we’re in it, we like our chances, but we’ve got to get in,” Butler coach Todd Lickliter told ESPN.com. “We’re focused on winning a conference championship. At the end of that, if we’re successful, there’s the greatest sporting event in the world. We’d love to be a part of that, but we can’t cross that bridge right now.”
THE BIG BOYS
On the other hand, mid-major conferences may be squeezed out of multiple bids by the big boys.
Due to the relative lack of truly dominant teams this year, squads in the middle of the pack have more “big wins” than usual. That was abundantly apparent this week as 11 Top 25 teams lost and the teams ranked 18th through 25th combined to post a 3-13 record.
Last year’s No. 1 seeds combined to lose 13 games prior to Selection Sunday. Our current top seeds have already combined to lose 13 games with two weeks of conference play and conference tournaments to go. North Carolina State, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt, Virginia Tech, West Virginia and Michigan State have each upset one of the nation’s consensus top six teams since the start of February.
ESPN.com’s latest bracket projection has 28 at-large bids going to the six power conferences, while SI.com has 29 at-large teams from the BCS six. That leaves as many as three fewer at-large bids this year than last year when mid-major teams grabbed eight selections.
That could put the squeeze on the mid-majors and ratchet up the pressure on bubble teams as one loss could doom a season. For example, Southern California’s loss to ASU cost the Trojans 13 spots (No. 48 to No. 60) in the RPI rankings.
KNIGHT WEIGHS IN
Having to face Kevin Durant twice in one season is enough to drive any coach a little bit nuts.
Texas Tech coach Bob Knight, whose Red Raiders surrendered 37 points to Durant in a loss earlier this season and faced Texas again Tuesday, called the NBA’s new minimum age rule, “the worst thing that’s happened to college basketball since I’ve been coaching.”
From a spectator’s standpoint, we couldn’t disagree more. We’ve loved watching Greg Oden, Spencer Hawes, Brandan Wright and (most especially) Durant this season.
But we can see Knight’s point from a coach’s standpoint.
“Now you can have a kid come to school for a year and play basketball and he doesn’t even have to go to class,” he said. “He certainly doesn’t have to go to class the second semester. I’m not exactly positive about the first semester. But he would not have to attend a single class the second semester to play through the whole second semester of basketball. That, I think, has a tremendous effect on the integrity of college sports.”
Despite maddening inconsistency, No. 6 Kansas is still in contention to earn a No. 1 seed. No player has personified the Jayhawks’ up-and-down nature like 6-foot-8 sophomore Julian Wright. The team’s leading rebounder is averaging just 11.6 points per game, but he exploded for 33 points in a road win over Missouri during Kansas’ current five-game winning streak. Wright is projected as a lottery pick when he chooses to leave for the pro game, but added consistency could help him make a big mark on the college game this March.
No. 1 Wisconsin at No. 2 Ohio State, 2 p.m. Sunday on Ch. 5. The Badgers, ranked No. 1 for the first time ever, will have to fight to keep the top spot after losing Tuesday and visiting the Buckeyes and freshman center Greg Oden. Wisconsin eked out a 72-69 home win over Ohio State back on Jan. 9. Senior forward Alando Tucker leads the Badgers with 20.4 points per game and could earn Big Ten player of the year honors. The last time the top two teams in the country squared off, No. 1 Duke drilled No. 2 Texas 97-66 in December 2005.
The last word
“(Arizona) had a lot of great guards, and I wanted to be a part of that. Unfortunately, things don’t always go your way, which is fine. I’m glad that I chose UCLA as of right now.”
- Darren Collison
UCLA point guard, talking about wanting to be a Wildcat (He scored 17 points and dished out 15 assists to lead the Bruins to a 15-point win over Arizona on Saturday)
Our top seeds: Wisconsin (26-3), Florida (24-3), UCLA (23-3) and North Carolina (23-4)
With one big week, Louisville likely climbed off the bubble and into the tournament. The Cardinals went on the road twice last week to upset No. 7 Pittsburgh and No. 12 Marquette. The victories lifted them from 62nd to 52nd in the RPI rankings and to within one win of magic No. 20. With a trio of lightweights (yes, that’s you, UConn) left on the schedule, Louisville should easily reach its 20th win and breeze into March.