Thursday, February 02, 2006

BracketBusters logical analysis RANT

So the pairings for the new-and-improved “BracketBusters presented by eBay” event were presented this week, though by ESPN and the individual conferences, not by eBay. The Big South slate features Winthrop hosting Northern Illinois, High Point going on the road to take on the Loyola (Md.) Greyhounds, and UNC-Asheville playing Eastern Kentucky in the first annual 20/20 Hindsight Classic.

We’ll get deeper in those match-ups and why the first two are so Mmm-Mmm Good in a moment, but first I’d like to make the JCCW’s inaugural addressing of a national issue. (Pinky swear not to make it a habit.)

See, while there’s always whining about the Buster’s selection of teams and sparing of opponents and slicing of the TV slot pie, it seems to be louder and whinier this season than ever. And frankly, I am baffled, especially since so much of the carping is coming from the mid-major coaches and scribes that should be throwing balloons-streamers-and-kazoos parties that such an event even exists. Somehow, it’s not enough for the Worldwide Leader in Jay Bilas-Approved Sports to suddenly declare a yearly Mid-Major national holiday and plaster their web site with headlines and columns about it, not enough that there’s once again the very real chance that a Buster win could be the difference between devastation and salvation on Selection Sunday, not enough that for teams like Albany and Samford BracketBusters Saturday is going to be an entirely literal dream-come-true. Not only do the Buster’s mid-major critics want to have their cake, they want approval over the saucer’s china pattern, to measure each cake slice to ensure it meets exact specifications, to have in writing that only organic farm-fresh eggs were used in the cake’s recipe. Maybe they’ll remember to eat it, too.

Anyways, here’s the specific whines, with my rebuttals:

There’s too many teams involved now. The most frequent from the pundits, and the most unforgivably stupid. I’m well aware that UNC-Asheville at Eastern Kentucky will mean as much to the average college hoops fan’s parakeet than it will to the average college hoops fan. So? Is anyone less excited about the killer Bucknell at Northern Iowa match-up because eBay wants to sponsor both it and the Asheville game? Is there a single fan who thinks “You know, I was going to see how this year’s Southern Illinois team compares to the Sweet 16 version with Ludacris on it and get a look at that Paul Millsap guy while I’m at it. But you know, if the same event is responsible for Evansville hosting Tennesee-Martin, screw it, I’m cleaning out the attic instead.” Nowhere it was written that because a game is part of BracketBusters, everyone suddenly has to start pretending like it matters.

Some of the games on TV suck. A closely related whine. “But Mommy, they’re putting on Albany against VCU! I don’t WANNA watch Albany play VCU! I hate Jeff Capel! I hate him I hate him I hate him!” Well, children, if you don’t want to watch Albany and VCU there’s a simple solution: Don’t watch Albany play VCU. I’m sure there’s a rerun of Failed Talk Show Hosts Poker Showdown on somewhere … Pat Sajak’s probably cleaning up, and I know you like Pat Sajak. Now, if you keep at it, and start implying that ESPN should just be airing Failed Talk Show Hosts Poker Showdown themselves instead of Albany-VCU, ignoring how much it means to the kids and fans at these schools (U-ALB especially, I’m sure) to have their name in the national TV listings and be recognized for having the kind of program that can be listed in national TV listings … let's just say someone who'll be lucky to find coal in their stocking.

They picked the wrong games for TV. A better argument, but it still holds about as much water as a hairnet. Tennessee Tech at Bradley--neither of which looks as likely to appear in your NCAA bracket as Albany or Samford or Northern Arizona at this point--isn’t exactly the second coming of Mullin’s St. John’s vs. Ewing’s Georgetown. Manhattan has bit of a gripe, but the Jaspers have also played like five Jasper Johns the last week and a half. Bottom line: you play good enough, you take it out of TV’s hands. You don’t play good enough, deal.

It doesn’t help teams bust the bracket. This one’s been around since the thing started, and occasionally pairings could maybe could be finagled a little better. But creating a win-win situation between two mid-major bubble teams is tough, and tossing in the whole home team / road team dynamic makes it nearly impossible. This season, the complete list of mid-major at-large bubblers reads as such: Bucknell, Southern Illinois, Wichita St., George Mason, Utah St., Nevada, Louisana Tech, UW-Milwaukee. That’s it. (Sorry, Old Dominion, Western Kentucky, and Iona. And Creighton and Northern Iowa are already on the bubble’s far side.) Of the teams on that list, only three are in the “road” category, and I would rank only Bucknell in the top five or six teams from that list. With so much of the Buster’s quality teams at home, there’s just not enough potential quality wins to go around.

But even given those limitations, a Bucknell win would be absolutely massive for them while doing little to damage to UNI. Victories, even at home, over George Mason or Missouri State would immediately become the biggest non-conference win of the season for Wichita and UWM, respectively. If La. Tech goes on to take the WAC’s regular season title, SIU’s victory over the Fighting Millsaps could be just enough to squeeze them into the bracket after tonight’s shocker to Indiana St.

In other words, even if Bucknell is the only team that has the chance to go from Mr. Bubble to sure thing, there’s still plenty of meaningful résumé help out there for those who claim it.

Now, as for the Big South’s games…

1. Northern Illinois at Winthrop: I was desperately hoping the Eagles would host Northwestern St. in a rematch of the teams’ NCAA play-in game from a few years ago, but the Coastal loss ruined that. Still, NIU is a solid team—you don’t have a winning record in the MAC if you’re not--and a Winthrop win would be the Big South’s second-best of the season after the Eagles’ takedown of Marquette. Could be the sort of prove-it game that snaps Winthrop out of their soft-focus funk.

2. High Point at Loyala (Md.): Only one team is nicknamed the Greyhounds, but both run like ‘em: they’re the country’s 35th and 31st–fastest teams, respectively. It’s like an exchange program--a chance to find out exactly how much Big South pace-pushers and MAAC pace-pushers have in common. And, of course, who’s better at it. The conference’s biggest “measuring stick” game of the three: if the Big South’s freshly-minted third-best team can beat the MAAC’s fifth-best team on the road, maybe things are getting better.

3. UNC-Asheville at Eastern Kentucky. At least Eastern can use the “Our coach flew the coop” line. UNC’s still looking for their excuse.

Yes, BSC kicked ass again last night, but it’ll have to wait.


Jeremy said...

Alot of people make the BracketBuster event into something it isn't...To me, if all it is doing is matching up two teams that aren't normally playing each other (and that are evenly matched) in a home-and-home, then it works for me. And at the same time, it is spotlighting some of the teams that are most likely to make some noise in the 'bottom half' of the bracket, I don't see anything wrong with that.

Jerry Hinnen said...

Nor do I, obviously. And as much as coaches whine endlessly about scheduling, you would think a home-and-home with an evenly-matched team would be something they'd love. Loyala-MD is coming to High Point next season--when was the last time those guys had a game like that in its own gym?