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February 23, 2009
BracketBusters Wrap
Winners and Losers

by Joe Sheehan

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The impact of BracketBusters on the selection of teams for the NCAA tournament is certainly less than what the organizers had in mind when they came up with the concept seven years ago. The need to preselect teams and home sites, as well as set the matchups a few weeks in advance, often works against the intent of providing the best possible tests of mid-major at-large candidates.

This year, despite a dearth of those candidates, BracketBusters actually did manage to match them up in ways that clarified various team's chances of picking up an invitation to the dance. We had fewer interesting matchups than usual, but they told a very interesting story.

Winners

Butler. With three conference losses a 17-day stretch, including a bad loss at home to Loyola (Chicago), the Bulldogs were inviting questions about their worthiness for a bid. It's not that beating Davidson-see below-is a great win, but it avoids a loss that would have provided an additional reason to question their candidacy. A loss on Saturday and one in the conference final would have left them at 7-5 in their last 12 games, damaged their metrics and burned this phrase into our consciousness: "just two RPI top-100 wins in 2009." By beating Davidson, Butler took away the committee's chance to keep them out. As long as they avoid a bad loss-they have three home games left, including the Horizon semifinal-they should be fine.

Siena. Siena has excellent RPI numbers bolstered by a strong road record (8-3) and a schedule devoid of non-conference poison. I'd mentioned last week that they'd proven that they can't beat tournament teams-they're 0-4 against RPI top-50 teams-but it should be noted that they have proven they can beat good teams in good conferences. Siena's non-conference schedule does not include a single team outside the RPI top 200, which is very hard to do. Their win over Northern Iowa Saturday, in which they obliterated the Panthers in the first half, is consistent with the rest of their non-conference wins: over one of the better teams in a conference outside the BCS leagues. At some point, the sheer number of wins and the title in a decent conference will matter. Beating Northern Iowa stood out on a day when Cincinnati, Georgetown, Nebraska, Tennessee, Boston College, San Diego State, Baylor, Providence, Dayton, USC and Virginia Tech all lost. The committee has to put 34 at-large teams in the tournament, and those teams have to have win some games to get there. Siena isn't in yet-they have to play at Niagara this week, and may not be able to afford to lose there and in the conference tournament-but by beating Northern Iowa, they stayed ahead of the pack.

The MAAC came to play in BracketBusters, by the way. Their top four teams all won, although you could argue that all four had favorable matchups, and three of the four got home games. Niagara, with an RPI of 63 and which beat Illinois State Friday, could get to 26-8 by beating Siena Friday night then losing in the conference tournament final. As with Siena themselves, at some point you have to wonder if just winning games will be enough in a year when the middle of the major conferences is so unimpressive. A schedule apparently designed to minimize travel costs-just three top-100 non-conference games-is hurting them.

St. Mary's. The Gaels, 3-4 without Patrick Mills and with just one top-50 RPI win (San Diego State), were in a must-win situation Saturday. They used a run bridging the last four minutes of the first half and first six of the second to build a lead that Utah State could not overcome, despite a late push. St. Mary's is still a marginal call, having fallen to third in the West Coast Conference, and with two RPI-killing games left on the schedule, but beating Utah State keeps them in the discussion. We know that without Mills, this is not an at-large team, but with him, they were 18-1 and leading Gonzaga at the half. As long as he plays in a St. Mary's win-most likely the the conference second round or semifinal-and the team loses to Gonzaga in the final, the Gaels will have a case. Last year's Arizona bid, where the committee gave greater weight to the Wildcats' performance when whole, is potentially instructive.

Creighton. There's just one Valley team with any sort of chance at an at-large bid, and by beating George Mason, it kept its name in the discussion. Now Creighton needs to take care of business this week (at last-place Missouri State, at home against Illinois State) and hope that Northern Iowa gets picked off once (at Illinois State, hosting Evansille) to give the Bluejays the outright Valley title. Outright titles mean something to the committee, and combined with a good RPI and a run to the Valley title game, one here could put Creighton's profile over the top. Like Butler's win, the Creighton victory was as much about avoiding the loss than any credit for the victory.

Losers

Utah State. The numbers won't show it, but a loss to St. Mary's without Patrick Mills is a bad loss. The Gaels simply aren't a tournament team, maybe not even an NIT team, without their star. Utah State's typically soft nonconference schedule produced a lot of wins but just one over a good team, a two-point home win over Utah. Eleven of their 24 wins are outside the RPI top 100. They needed to beat St. Mary's to show that they belong, and a win may well have locked up a spot for them. The loss, while statistically not damaging, will hurt them subjectively. As with all these BracketBuster teams, the poor competition for tournament bids will help the Aggies, and they can probably afford a loss in the conference final. Losing an additional game before that-say, at Nevada Saturday-may be one defeat too many.

Davidson. The Wildcats' loss to Butler means that they'll have to win the conference tournament to play in the NCAA tournament. They needed a quality win to pair with the West Virginia win-they're now 1-4 against the RPI top 50-especially given how vulnerable they've been in conference this season, with a pair of losses. Their numbers are now poor for any at-large pick (RPI of 59), much less a team from a minor conference. Any loss through the conference quarterfinals would be a bad one, and even a run to the final with a loss there will probably not be enough.

Creighton. The Bluejays got no help from their brethren, as both Illinois State and Northern Iowa lost unimpressively to the top two teams in the MAAC. If an outright Valley title is to carry weight with the committee, it would help for that title to appear to have been win over stiff competition. The bottom seven teams in the Valley went 6-1 with some decent wins, but the losses by the Redbirds and Panthers hurt Creighton's case, which is largely going to built on winning the Valley outright if they can get there.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Joe by clicking here or click here to see Joe's other articles.

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