The announcement of the match-ups for BracketBusters, our joyous national celebration Saturday of all things mid-major (and, therefore, American in our purest Horatio Alger-ian, bootstrapped sense … I think celebrating BracketBusters is hella more patriotic than, say, a Labor Day barbecue), is essentially the quarter-pole for mid-majors. The Big Boys on the bubble can still survive a slip-up or three and snag an NCAA berth, but mid-majors that haven’t won the pre-season NIT or are in relative command of the Gonzaga Conference* have no such margin-for-error—from this point, in terms of at-larges, it’s win out (or come damn close) or else.
Many times, of course, teams win out and get “or else” anyway. Sometimes, BracketBusters games change that formula—ask George Mason, which never would have even been on the dance card last season without their BB road win over Wichita St. Sometimes it doesn’t—ask Missouri St., which got the snub despite knocking off UW-Milwaukee in Milwaukee.
So which teams got dates that might propel them along the GMU route, and which got nothing to help—or worse? The JCCW would break it down by “winners, maybes, and losers” if that didn’t seem like so much less fun than by Busters—“Keaton” for the lucky ones (seriously, give “The General” a watch if your library has it), “Douglas” for the to-be-determined (he was horrible, but he did single-handedly free boxing from Tyson’s rule via iron fists) and “Bluth” for the shaftees (“The guy who thought the blue on the map was land?”).
Winthrop: There’s more at-large opportunity here than some seem to think. If Winthrop runs the table in the Big South—a distinct possibility with the trip to closest competitor High Point already out of the way—they will finish their regular season having beaten every single team on their schedule that wasn’t a top-3 seed or Maryland. (Admittedly, that also includes a whopping four D-II games.) That would count for a lot, but not enough without at least one win over another tournament-quality team. That’s where a road win over Missouri St. would come in. It won’t be easy and even in this scenario Lord Winthrop would have to hope for a very soft bubble come Selection Sunday, but the Eagles at least have a beatable opponent (unlike, say, Nevada) that would make it worth discussing (unlike, say, Toledo or Hofstra). Gregg Marshall really doesn’t have anything to complain about.
Butler, Southern Illinois: These two already have at-larges under wraps (especially after SIU’s win in Wichita yesterday), so the next step is a top-5 seed and the protection (well, alleged protection) from a homecourt disadvantage in the first two rounds of the NCAAs. There really couldn’t be any better opportunity than this one, in prime TV position against the season’s OTHER dominant mid-major, to grab the kind of win that would make that happen. Win here and avoid collapse (if you’re Butler) or take your conference by a couple of games (if you’re SIU) and it’s a 4-seed at the worst.
Appalachian St.: Losses to inferior SoCon teams mean that the Mountaineers (in my humble opinion) don’t have quite Winthrop’s chances of sneaking an at-large, but with their wins over Vandy and Virginia looking better all the time, a quality BracketBusters win would demand the Committee at least take a look. They’ll have their chance taking on Wichita St. on the road.
Toledo: The Rockets—a complete nonfactor in the nonconference schedule—aren’t getting an at-large. But if they could still maneuver themselves into the 12- or -13 seed line (a huge difference in terms of NCAA upset potential) if they could nab a quality BB win at home, and a team like Old Dominion is perfect for them—a fringe at-large candidate and possible Colonial tourney champion, but not either of the CAA’s two truly dangerous teams.
Samford: The Bulldogs obviously have to worry more about catching Ohio Valley leader Austin Peay at the OVC tourney than what seed they would get if they did. But nonetheless getting to host a solid MVC team at home (Evansville) is a great chance for a feather in their cap (and the OVC’s)—the sort of feather that might bump them from a 15 to a 14 if they need it.
North Carolina-based mid-major fans: UNC-Wilmington at UNC-Greensboro. Bragging rights aplenty. Why did it take BracketBusters to get it on the schedule?
Oral Roberts: The win over Kansas has probably already pushed ORU out of the 16-seed line, but a very attainable home win over a decent-but-hardly-intimidating Utah St. team would seal it.
Northern Iowa: The rapidly-fading Panthers need to claim a big ol’ honkin’ scalp if they’re going to make up for a joke of a nonconference schedule (No. 282) and a weakening MVC profile. Beating Nevada in Reno would qualify, and would set up a bid if they could finish even 9-7 in conference with a MoVal tourney win or two. But only SIU has a tougher assignment—the Panthers might have been better served with a more winnable game, say, at VCU.
CAA hopefuls: Drexel can’t complain too terribly much, since a win at Creighton would put them back squarely in the at-large hunt, if still leave them with a lot of work to do. But the way the Dragons are playing, will they really be able to take down the resurgent Bluejays in their building? If the CAA had their druthers, they’d have preferred league leader VCU—who’s both playing better and now looking like the stronger at-large—to go to Omaha. Instead the Rams will host Bradley, which will help if the Braves can finish strong in the MVC. If they continue on their current mediocre track, though, a home win over them won’t make the at-large difference for VCU. And oh yeah, as mentioned above, Old Dominion gets a road date at a h-o-double-t HOTT Toledo squad.
TV viewers: Sure, Butler-SIU, Drexel-Creighton, and to a lesser extent Winthop-Missouri St are all must-see TV. But couldn’t the WWL have tried to show some of mid-majordom’s most exciting players as well as their best teams? I’m not sure Albany at Boise St. or Ohio at New Mexico St. couldn’t have been sacrificed to make room for Jared Jordan (at Marist), Rodney Stuckey (at Eastern Washington), or even LeBron’s old high school teammates (at Akron)?
Albany: In theory, the Great Danes would be quite happy snagging a TV game in spite their lackluster performance thus far. Whether it’s worth traveling from upstate New York to Boise is the sort of thing that might make up that difference between theory and practice.
Wichita St.: After blowing an opportunity to get back into the at-large race yesterday so golden it may well have come with and engraved invitation, the Shox desperately needed a big-time opponent (Drexel?) to make a difference on the résumé or, failing that, a patsy they could put away for some confidence and momentum on their trench run into Arch Madness. They got neither: Appy St. is a scrappy, hard-nosed opponent that will do next-to-nothing for their at-large case.
The MAAC: Marist has drastically disappointed in MAAC play, but … Colgate? And Siena’s season-to-date is really so unimpressive they have to host CAA uber-dreg James Madison? Loyola-Md. has a reasonable opponent in Tennessee St. … but with all the eastern seaboard teams in the BB, did they really have to make the trek to Tennessee?
Ohio, New Mexico St.: Ohio probably didn’t want to travel all the way to Las Cruces, New Mexico. NMSU might be able to put together an at-large résumé if they could sneak past Nevada a second time and probably didn’t want a run-of-the-mill MAC team that won’t help that résumé a lick. Ohio got NMSU and NMSU got Ohio anyway.
Cal-State Fullerton: Speaking of travel issues, even for TV, did the Titans really want to travel all the way to Ohio to play an underrated but nonetheless utterly nondescript Wright St. team?
Fresno St.: somehow, I don’t see the Bulldogs packing out the House that Tark Built for the Sam Houston St. Lumberjacks.
Delaware St., Jackson St.: Because of the weakness of their conferences, BracketBusters is the only thing standing in the way of these classes of the MEAC and SWAC, respectively, and a 16-seed. Or at least, it would be, if the MEAC and SWAC let their teams play in it. You would think that since both conferences (like all mid-majors) are desperate for some NCAA success, they would do everything they could to avoid the brutality of a 16. You’d think wrong.
*When your conference is looking at three bids as a disappointment and you've got your own separate box on things like ESPN's Bubble Watch, you're officially straddling the line between mid-major and, uh, not. Not unlike a certain WCC team.