ESPN will announce the 2012 BracketBusters games on Monday, January 30. With Creighton being one of the event’s top teams this year, a lot of Bluejay fans are speculating about CU’s opponent for the weekend of February 17-19. Will it be St. Mary’s? What about Long Beach State? Who will travel to Murray State, the other top home team in the event? Wichita State? SMC or LBSU? Who will head to Iona? That’s a lot of questions, so I took some time to project the field.
But first, a little history about BracketBusters, and Creighton’s participation in the event.
A Little History Lesson
In 2003, ESPN embarked on a new idea called BracketBuster Saturday. The plan was to take 18 mid-level teams that had made the NCAA Tournament recently or teams that were on the verge of making the NCAA Tournament, set aside one of their non-conference games, and pit the schools against each other in late February for a chance to get another resume-building win — one that might be the difference between getting an invite to the Big Dance or being left out.
For Creighton, it was a great idea at the time. The Bluejays were in the midst of one of the greatest seasons in school history, and were fresh off a first-round NCAA Tournament win the year before. That win — coming off of “the shot” from Terrell Taylor in the double-overtime win against Florida — came only after Creighton advanced to the NCAA Tournament via the automatic bid by winning Arch Madness. They might not have made the tournament if they had not won the MVC tournament that season. The 2002-2003 squad was a prominent team in the inaugural BracketBusters event, and along with Southern Illinois, Illinois State and Northern Iowa, the Bluejays took part on behalf of the Valley. Jay Bilas and Andy Katz were part of the ESPN TV crew covering the Creighton game against Fresno State in front of a sold out Civic Auditorium, and the Jays won a 67-66 thriller.
Fast forward 10 years, and the event now includes 142 teams. ESPN has continued to expand the event in the hopes that they will find the next Butler, George Mason, or VCU — a surprise squad that can serve as the non-power league media darling du jour during the NCAA Tournament. Jay Bilas or Andy Katz won’t be coming to the games, nor will the ESPN Gameday crew.
The event isn’t for busting brackets anymore; rather, it is strictly for scheduling purposes. By being a part of BracketBusters, each host school agrees to a return game against the selected opponent within an 18-month period. But that isn’t set in stone; Creighton hosted Loyola-Chicago in the 2010 BracketBusters, and instead of playing the return game in 2010-2011, the game has been pushed back to (at least) next season.
Of the 142 teams in this year’s field, there’s only significant “buzz” about six of them: Creighton, Murray State, Iona, St. Mary’s, Wichita State, and Long Beach State.
Through Wednesday’s games, Creighton’s RPI is highest among all of those six schools (#12). The Bluejays are designated as a home team, and the top teams on the away side are St. Mary’s, Long Beach State, and Valley foe Wichita State. Since Creighton won’t be matched up with the Shockers (#24), the next best team based on RPI is St. Mary’s at #34. Long Beach State sits at #41.
The obvious best matchup would be for undefeated Murray State to square off with Creighton, but since they are both home teams, that won’t happen. The thing about the Racers is that although they are undefeated, their schedule is not as tough as the other five “buzz” teams in BracketBusters, and they are in the 21st rated conference in the country. So with Creighton out of the mix, it makes sense that the best matchup for them would be against a Wichita State team that has had an impressive season of their own, yet has had trouble garnering respect and getting votes in the polls. By pitting St. Mary’s against Creighton, and sending Wichita State to face Murray State, ESPN gets two great games, with all four teams being ranked or on the verge of being ranked. That should be a no brainer.
Long Beach State and Iona are quality teams, but are two that could be on the outside looking in on Selection Sunday. This is where some of the views and opinions on BracketBusters differ. The idea of BracketBusters back in 2003 was to provide an opportunity for some help to get a mid-level team into the NCAA Tournament as an at-large. For teams like Long Beach State and Iona, this is truly a “Bracket Buster” where both teams need to face each other to bust a bracket, and luckily, they can: LBSU is a designated road team, and Iona is a home team.
Earlier this week, national writer Jeff Goodman (amongst others) suggested that they didn’t want to see Creighton vs. St. Mary’s or Wichita State vs. Murray State at BracketBusters. Instead, their preference was to see St. Mary’s and Murray State play each other, with Creighton hosting Long Beach State and Wichita State travelling to Iona. If those matchups were to happen, it would be another example of how the BracketBuster concept is bad for the Missouri Valley Conference, arguably the highest-profile league remaining in the event. An awful lot of fans of MVC teams despise BracketBusters, and if Creighton and Wichita State get less-than-optimal matchups, you can bet they’ll let their feelings be known, again, on social media.
When I think of BracketBusters, I expect to see an elimination game of sorts; one team moves on, one team goes home. With Creighton/St. Mary’s and Wichita St./Murray State, those four teams, barring a complete collapse, are likely to be in the field of 68 win or lose. It is very possible that all four teams will be in the top 25 by the time these games are played. For these four, BracketBusters is about something else this year: the opportunity to get a better seed in the NCAA Tournament. At the risk of turning a common BCS argument around, pitting Creighton/Long Beach State and Wichita State/Iona helps Long Beach and Iona a lot more than it would help Creighton and Wichita State. A win doesn’t necessarily do as much for those two MVC teams as would a win against St. Mary’s or Murray State, while a loss would definitely hurt the Bluejays and Shockers more than a los to the Gaels or the Racers.
This Season’s Projected TV Games
This year, 13 games will be selected to be on the ESPN family of networks during BracketBuster weekend. If I had my choice to put these games together, here is how I would do it.
RPI #’s are as of January 26th
#24 Wichita State @ #39 Murray State (ESPN)–Some of the media want this to be St. Mary’s at Murray State mostly because they are both ranked teams. But as far as the numbers go, the better matchup here is against Wichita State and it’s probably still the marquee game of the day. Things could change if Murray State loses a game or more between now and February 18th. Also, the Shockers could be in the top 25 by the time this game happens especially if they knock off Creighton in Omaha the week before.
#34 St. Mary’s @ #12 Creighton (ESPN)–If you talk to people in Omaha, this is the game the Bluejay fans want. It could likely be a battle between two ranked teams that are looking to improve their seeding for selection Sunday. Both teams are currently at the top of their conference races, and the matchup creates a new tie between the MVC and the WCC. The other minor storyline in this game would be the return of Kenton Walker to Omaha. Walker transferred to St. Mary’s after his sophomore season either to be closer to home or for more playing time, and is currently averaging about 5 points and 4 rebounds a game while averaging about 12 minutes a game –about half the playing time he had while at Creighton.
#41 Long Beach State @ #50 Iona (ESPNU)–This game gets back to the roots of the BracketBuster concept. Both teams have had decent seasons. Long Beach State was the media darling during the non-conference season due to the tough schedule they put together against the likes of San Diego State, Louisville, Kansas, Kansas State and North Carolina. It is great to get that kind of schedule, but you have to win those games. The 49ers have not. Iona has had a decent season and have wins against Maryland and St. Joseph’s. However, they have lost two of their last four.
#48 Northern Iowa @ #45 Oral Roberts (ESPN2)–Oral Roberts is enjoying a successful season of their own in the Summit League starting 10-0 so far. Since the loss to Gonzaga the Golden Eagles have won 11 in a row. Northern Iowa on the other hand has had some struggles, but yet has been maintaining some good computer numbers to keep their RPI high and have the best chance at getting a third MVC team into consideration for the NCAA Tournament. This would be another true BracketBuster game. The loser goes home hoping to win their conference tournament, especially for UNI who lost to Indiana State on Wednesday night.
#54 Akron @ #49 Davidson (ESPN)–This is where everything starts getting questionable when it comes to the division of the home teams and away teams for the Bracketbusters. The one big flaw is that it appears that for the most part, the better teams are all on the home side. ESPN and those involved know who is expected to be good before the season even starts, so they all get awarded home games. So starting with this game, the rest of the matchups are more with name recognition than anything else. Davidson has a nice win over Kansas, but needs this game because of the Southern Conference as a whole.
#79 Nevada @ #71 Ohio (ESPN2)–Both of these teams are pretty even as far as the RPI goes, but also on the basketball court. Nevada does not have an outstanding win on their resume. They lost against UNLV, Missouri State and BYU which would be considered their best games. Ohio on the other hand started really good in the non-conference season, but have lost three of their last six in conference play. Their best win so far is against Northern Iowa and have some wins against some other BracketBusters teams.
#105 Drake @ #66 Cleveland State (ESPNU)–Drake has had a surprising season in the rowdy MVC this season while Cleveland State is the one carrying the Horizon league this season with Butler’s struggles. This is a good regional matchup where, if anything, a series between these two schools could have probably been scheduled already and did not need BracketBusters to decide that for them.
#89 Drexel @ #81 Missouri State (ESPN2)–Drexel is probably getting used to playing against MVC teams in the Bracketbuster games. One year it was Creighton while another was against Bradley. Now they can add Missouri State for a series of games.
#108 Lamar @ #97 VCU (ESPNU)–Pat Knight has Lamar on the hoops radar but have lost all of their high profile games. VCU has fallen back behind the scenes again after their final four run.
#128 Oakland @ #104 Butler (ESPNU)–Butler has been to the NCAA Tournament finals the past two seasons and it appears to be a rebuilding year for the Bulldogs. Either way, this game will not necessarily help them. They will still have to win the Horizon League tournament to get the chance for a third straight appearance in the finals.
#100 College of Charleston@ #111 Kent State (ESPN3)–Kent State broke in a new head coach this season and College of Charleston is nothing to scream about other than Bobby Cremins as their head coach.
#123 Valparaiso @ #116 George Mason (ESPNU)–This is more about name recognition than anything. Some see the CAA as a multiple bid league. I do not. I don’t know how. The conference as a whole has very few if any big wins in the non-conference season to help them. The league may be balanced, but they nave nothing to show for it outside of conference play.
#90 Buffalo @ #67 South Dakota State (ESPN3)–There is always one odd matchup in BracketBusters and this one is it. Nothing really sticks out for these teams other than no matter what happens, they will have to win their conference tournaments to get into the dance. There is no at-large openings here, but they need one more game to fill the TV slate.
Rest of MVC games
Old Dominion @ Illinois State
Indiana State @ Loyola (MD)
Youngstown State @ Evansville
Tennessee Tech @ Bradley
Southern Illinois @ Detroit
The BracketBuster concept was great when it started, but it has evolved into something that pretty much means nothing in the whole NCAA Tournament scheme of things except for the top six to twelve teams in the list of 142. A majority of those twelve teams could have been put together before the season even started, without needing a pool of teams that “could” have a good season. Most of those at the top of the list were expected to have pretty good seasons.
Since the top three games for this year’s Bracketbusters are so compelling and simple, you know it won’t happen. Instead, the event will be watered down a little more by splitting up all the ranked teams against teams that will not help increase the potential seeding, but setup a matchup in the NCAA Tournament where a lower seeded Murray State, Wichita State, Creighton or St. Mary’s will take on a team in the first round against a school from this pool that makes the tournament instead of a better known team they earned an opportunity to play.