The 2010 edition of BracketBusters provided some entertaining basketball and clarified the at-large status of many teams that participated. It didnít rise to the level of drama weíve seen in past editions, but as in every year, there are winners and there are losers from the event.
Missouri Valley Conference: Once again, the Valley positioned itself as the cream of the crop of the conferences outside of the traditional top ten. If it isnít going to crack that group--as looked possible four seasons ago, on the heels of placing four teams in the NCAA tournament and two in the Sweet Sixteen--it certainly will continue to be a threat to put multiple teams in the event each year and be a source of high-quality basketball. The Valley went 7-3, including winning one of the high-profile games as Northern Iowa soundly beat Old Dominion 71-62 to lock up an at-large bid should one be needed. Missouri State provided one of the great finishes of the day, coming back from 10 points down late in the second half to beat Nevada 62-60 on a pair of free throws with two seconds remaining.
Utah State: The Aggies do not typically schedule strongly, so even in seasons when they dominate the WAC, theyíre often a marginal choice for an at-large bid. They have been snubbed in the past despite superficially impressive records, such as their 24-3 mark in 2004 that ended with them headed for the NIT. This yearís team had a slightly tougher road than that one did, including a home win over BYU, but the teamís second-best win before last night was over Louisiana Tech and the non-conference slate isnít strong, so Utah State needed to beat Wichita State. They did, impressively, and now have a firm grasp on at-large status. They can now afford to lose in the WAC championship game, maybe even the semis, and still have a claim on an NCAA bid. This, by the way, is a team more than capable of playing to and through the tournamentís first weekend: first in the nation in shooting threes, fifth in free-throw shooting, excellent at protecting the basketball and crashing the defensive glass.
Louisiana Tech: Their at-large hopes faded over the last month, as a 17-2 start featuring seven road wins led into a 3-4 stretch lowlighted by a loss at San Jose State. Coming off a late-night loss Thursday at Utah State, the Bulldogs figured to struggle hitting the court in Boston just 36 hours after walking off one in Logan, Utah. They did for most of the game, trailing 65-57 with five minutes left, but then locked down at the defensive end and got a huge late, banked three from DeAndre Brown to come back and win 70-67. Their speed in the backcourt created problems for the Huskies, just as it did Thursday for the Aggies, and is their main weapon should they manage to reach the NCAAs. Techís profile is still soft; they need to run the table to the WAC final, including winning at Nevada March 6 and hopefully garnering an outright second-place finish along the way. Still, this win, a road win over a good team in February, keeps them in the discussion.
Butler: The Bulldogsí wins over Xavier and Ohio State and their dominance of the Horizon League meant that they werenít playing for a bid so much as seeding. Still, by shutting down Siena in the second half, they removed any doubt about their belonging. The question now is how high they can go in the bracket--they were given unexpectedly low seeds in 2008 and 2009, and would like to avoid the 8-9 game that sets up a second-round matchup with a top seed. With no bad losses and just three games left--any of which would be a bad loss--the Bulldogs are likely headed for a five or six seed if they can run the table.
America East: Itís a small thing, but Boston University, Vermont and New Hampshire all won their BracketBuster games, making the conference 3-0 in the event. None of those schools can get an at-large bid, and given that the conference has just two wins against the RPI top 100 (over Northeastern and Buffalo), it will be all they can do to keep their tournament champion out of the play-in game. Ken Pomeroy ranks Vermont, which beat Fairfield 77-67, as the best team in the league, and the Catamounts did beat Rutgers back in November.
The Selection Committee: Very little happened yesterday to make the committee membersí lives more difficult. Even in a season where the BCS conferences are trying to take as few bids as possible, and the Pac-10 is set to break the record for fewest teams in the tournament by a BCS conference, few mid-majors are stepping up to claim the slots. With the exception of the two WAC schools, no team posted a win or a loss that clouded the picture. Many teams established themselves as unworthy of at-large consideration, and teams such as Northern Iowa and Butler ended any longshot speculation that they might not make it. They may be the only at-large-worthy teams that played yesterday, though.
Colonial Athletic Association: That was just awful. Given two prime-time slots and then a featured game on Saturday, the top three teams in the Colonial justÖwell, I hate using metaphors that reference bodily functions, but itís all Iíve got. Old Dominion, with the best profile and a chance to all but lock up an at-large bid against a UNI team missing one of its best players, no-showed and lost by nine, a margin that didnít really reflect their performance. William and Mary, a fringe at-large contender thanks to three excellent non-conference wins, didnít get a great opponent in Iona, then made matters worse by getting blown out of the gym in a 31-5 run bridging halftime in the only college basketball game being played in their time slot Friday night. Saturday afternoon, Northeastern lost an eight-point lead with five minutes left to take a non-quality loss at home against the third-best team in the WAC. George Mason would later lose at home to the College of Charleston, capping the Colonialís disastrous weekend.
Individually, the losses are damaging, if not necessarily ruinous. Northeastern now has no path to an at-large bid, but the quality wins posted by ODU (at Georgetown) and William and Mary (Richmond, at Wake Forest, at Maryland) will keep them in the discussion. What the losses say collectively, though, is that the best teams in the Colonial arenít really that good; you can forgive ODU, which had a tough draw going to Cedar Falls, but getting blown out at Iona or scoring two points down the stretch at home against Louisiana Tech are strong signs that you donít belong in the conversation. If ODUís case is ďclear regular-season champion of a good conference, a solid RPI and beating Georgetown,Ē a big chunk of it was left on the floor by not just them, but also by their peers.
The national bubble is so weak that the Monarchs and the Tribe will stay in the discussion through the conference tournaments. But when it comes time to discuss their chances, those wins in December are going to sit beside the Colonialís complete failure to take advantage of its chances in February, and itís just not clear what the end result will be.
Siena: No team answered the question, ďDo they belong?Ē more resoundingly than did the Saints, who completed their schedule without a single decent nonconference win. By tanking in the second half against Butler--not just losing, but getting blown out and looking terrible at the offensive end in doing so--Siena made it clear that they are not an at-large caliber team. They played four teams in the RPI top 50, and they lost all four games, three by double-digits. Their best nonconference win is a home game over Northeastern; their second-best is over Mount St. Maryís. In overtime. At home. Note the word ďMount.Ē
Siena will likely stay on the board, but thereís no team in the discussion that so clearly has established that they are not one of the 34 best at-large teams in the country.
Wichita State: A strong second place finish in the Valley, a top-50 RPI and maybe a run to the Valley finals was looking like enough to get Wichita State into the tournament. A road win over Utah State would have been far and away their best nonconference scalp, and likely would have put their fate in their own hands. By falling behind by 13 early, they ended that dream, and like so many teams in BracketBusters, failed to even post the kind of impressive loss that would have subjective resonance. The Shockersí nonconference schedule is a joke--rated 311th by Jerry Palmís collegerpi.com--and while they have a decent win in Texas Tech, as a whole itís a negative. They needed to beat the Aggies. Like Siena and William and Mary, Wichita State will hang around on the board, needing to at least reach their conference final but more needing bubble teams in the BCS leagues to tank.
Mid-American Conference: Akron got hammered by the fourth-best team in the Colonial, and Kent State squeaked by at home over the fourth-best team in the Southern. Setting those results aside, is there some kind of investigation we can get going here? The MAC used to be a source of strong at-large contenders, teams that would win games in the tournament, even reach the second weekend. The MAC hasnít gotten an at-large bid now since 1999, more than a decade ago. Some of that is bad luckóthe MACís best teams in that time have won the conference tournament rather than taken an at-largeóbut itís more a reflection of a significantly lower level of play in the league. The MAC is 1-24 against the RPI top 50 this year; they were 3-32 against the top 50 last year. The MAC has one RPI top-25 win in the last seven seasons--Miami of Ohio beat Xavier back in the fall of 2007. Not only are they not winning good games, they donít seem to be scheduling them. Thatís how theyíve been lapped by the Horizon, Valley and Colonial over the past decade. The MAC is a marginal mid-major conference now, down with the Southern, the MAAC and the Big Sky, and that seems like a shame.
Fans of mid-majors. Even in a season where the BCS conferences are punting bids, the mid-majors donít seem set to pick them up. Itís the middle tier, a group that has never been ďmid-majorĒ in basketball but gets branded that way, that will benefit the most. The Atlantic 10, Mountain West, Conference USA and Western Athletic conferences donít fit in either grouping, clearly below the top six and ahead of the bottom 21. This year, theyíll hit the jackpot, a lock to pick up a half-dozen at-large bids among them with a good chance of double-digits depending on how the tournaments fall. As of today, Richmond, Temple, Xavier, New Mexico, BYU, and Texas-El Paso all seem set for March Madness, and thatís a conservative estimate from those four leagues.
The true mid-majors wonít come close to that. Northern Iowa, Gonzaga and Butler are the only teams outside of the top ten conferences assured of invites. Siena has an RPI, a conference title and mounds of evidence they donít belong. ODU has one big win and one egg laid in the spotlight. Cornell is a cute story, but theyíd have to lose twice more in league to need the bid, which would end their chances. St. Maryís hasnít beaten one team clearly in the field and skipped yesterdayís festivities.
Four years ago, it seemed that we might be headed for a new era in college basketball, where teams outside the top-ten conferences were a bigger part of the national picture. Those teams, those conferences, havenít held up their end of the bargain. The barriers to their success remain significant--scheduling remains at best a choice between good games and home games, and no team of college students should have to barnstorm (Iím looking at you, MEAC and SWAC)--but when given opportunities, these teams arenít converting them. Siena got five clean shots this year, something mid-majors dream about, and blew them all. Iím the biggest advocate of mid-majors youíll find, but this year, there just arenít that many with cases for inclusion.
Joe Sheehan is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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