First Take: Bracket Busters Wrap Up
The winners and losers…
Good morning hoops nation! It’s incredible how something as insignificant as a small cold can quickly grow and knock you out of commission so quickly, with that, I apologize for the lack of content the last several days. I’m on the mend though and there’s plenty worth talking about.
Today we talk about the little guys, the mid-majors, the bracket busters. ESPN’s salute to “the other 24” as Kyle Whelliston would put it, came and went this weekend and once again many seasons were made of broken for many teams trying to keep their at-large bid dreams alive. These games are always fun to watch given the five or six teams that enter with legitimate hopes of cracking the field of 65 even if they don’t win their conference tournaments. Inevitably, at least half of them, sometimes more, show up to class on Monday having been eliminated from the at-large discussion.
This past Saturday was no different than any other year, so without anymore introduction, here’s a rundown of some winners and losers from Bracket Buster Weekend.
Missouri Valley Conference
The Valley set the pace on Friday night with Northern Iowa’s win over CAA leader Old Dominion and never looked back, posting a 7-3 record in Bracket Buster games this year, a better overall mark than the CAA, WAC, MAAC and Horizon League. It was the Panthers second win over top-50 RPI team and pushed their record against the top 100 to a very strong 8-1, almost guaranteeing them an at-large bid if they should stumble in the MVC tournament in a couple of weeks. All the more impressive if you’re a UNI fan, the team managed their convincing win over the Monarch without the services of center and leading rebounder Jordan Eglseder who is in the midst of a three-game suspension due to OWI charges.
Like Northern Iowa, the Bulldogs picked up another top-100 RPI win by taking down a CAA co-leader, in this case, it was Northeastern. Tech improved to 4-5 against the top 100, not a record that is going to scream at-large bid, but certainly it puts them in position to make a convincing run in the home stretch of the regular season. If the Bulldogs run the table in their final four conference games, that would give them a 12-4 mark in the WAC, 25-6 overall and push their record against the RPI top-100 to 5-5 assuming they beat Nevada in the final game on their schedule. Even then, nothing is a guarantee, but a strong resume coupled with a win on national television late in the season will go a long way to helping the ‘Dogs earn an at-large bid.
The favorite to take home the WAC’s automatic conference bid, the Aggies greatly strengthened their case for an at-large bid as well by defeating Wichita State in the Bracket Buster nightcap. It was the highest rated win Utah State has managed this season and not only helped push them into the top 35 of the RPI, but improved their record against the RPI top 100 to a very solid 7-4. In all likelihood, given the success of the Atlantic-10 and Mountain West conferences which are almost assuredly getting multiple teams in, perhaps as many as three or more for each, Utah State is probably still on the outside looking in as far as an at-large is concerned, but in one of their few chances to make a national statement, they took advantage of the opportunity and helped their case.
Colonial Athletic Association
Forget about the fact that the CAA went 3-9 during Bracket Buster Weekend. What absolutely killed this conference was the crashing and burning of seemingly any hope for an at-large bid this season. The top four teams in the conference standings, and five of the top six, lost their game over the weekend. George Mason was all but finished to begin with, entering their matchup with College of Charleston at 16-11, but the loss at home was the final nail in the coffin for the Patriots. The same can be said for William & Mary, who despite a 19-7 record coming in, was still in the picture thanks to early season wins over Wake Forest, Richmond and Maryland. That was before the Tribe got trounced by Iona, granted an underrated team, but one W&M should have beaten. Northeastern’s previously mentioned loss to Louisiana Tech eliminates them for good, and if not for their tremendous run in the CAA to this point, we wouldn’t have even been talking about the Huskies as an at-large team given how poorly they fared in their non-conference schedule.
That of course leaves Old Dominion, who took a major but not necessarily fatal blow on Friday night. Losing to Northern Iowa can at least be classified as a “good” loss, given the Panthers national ranking and generally accepted label as a tournament team at this point. Also working in ODU’s favor are wins over Georgetown, Charlotte and Duquesne from earlier in the season and of course a 21-8 overall record. That doesn’t mean the Monarchs can relax, they are teetering dangerously on the edge and probably will need to win their final two regular season games and advance to the CAA championship game to keep themselves in the at-large picture.
A few weeks from now this may all be a distant memory to Saints fans after they win the MAAC championship, but for now, Saturday’s loss to Butler finds Siena on the wrong side of the bubble. Certainly losing to a team ranked in the top 15 nationally isn’t a bad loss by any means, but on a resume that doesn’t feature a win against an RPI top-50 team, this was a huge opportunity for Siena to prove it was deserving of an at-large bid. Instead, they will now need to run the table in their conference and take home a third straight title if they want a shot at winning an NCAA Tournament game for the third consecutive season. Had it been a close game the Saints may have still been able to use it as an arguing point with the selection committee, but a 17-point defeat looks bad no matter how you slice it.
The Shockers were another team hanging on the edge entering the weekend and they come out having fallen off. Things started to look a little shaky a couple of weeks ago with a loss to Evansville, but with a nationally televised game at Utah State there was a chance to save face and keep the ship afloat. Well, no one ever seems to beat the Aggies at home and that was the case for Wichita State who fell 68-58. Now, despite a 23-7 overall record and ranking 51 in the RPI, if the Shockers want to be dancing in March they will have to earn the Missouri Valley’s automatic bid by marching towards the conference championship. It should be noted that the Shockers did beat Northern Iowa back in January.