BracketBusters Weekend is upon us once again. One of the most benevolent, interesting, progressive instances of sports scheduling gives us 71 matchups this weekend, 13 of which are on television, and between four and eight of which are actually, truly interesting. Here are some questions to keep in mind while keeping up with the weekend action.
Does VCU Still Have It?
A year ago on BracketBusters weekend, Shaka Smart's VCU Rams beat Wichita St. on the road by one point. It was their only win in the final five games of the regular season, but combined with a decent showing in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament, it gave them just enough juice to sneak into the field of 68 despite a Pomeroy ranking of just 84th. Five wins later, they were in the Final Four.
This year, the Rams are in slightly better shape; they are 22-6 despite suffering a one-point road loss to George Mason on Tuesday. They are 49th in Ken Pomeroy's rankings, and they kick off the BracketBusters festivities by hosting Northern Iowa tonight (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2). Their offense is not particularly impressive -- a high-usage freshman, Treveon Graham, takes up a good number of their possessions, and they rank 249th in Effective Field Goal Percentage -- but their defense, powered by both low field-goal percentages and insane turnover rates, will once again make them a tough out in the NCAA Tourney … if they get there. Lose on Friday night, though, and the committee might struggle to include them in the field.
How High Can Wichita St. Go?
Gregg Marshall's Wichita St. Shockers are 23-4; they have won 21 of their last 23 games; and they rank ninth in Pomeroy's rankings and 16th in RPI. Theirs is a wonderfully efficient offense -- they have a legitimately strong big man in 7-footer Garrett Stutz, and they have a brutally efficient backcourt with players like Joe Ragland, Toure' Murry and low-usage guys like Ben Smith and David Kyles. In bracket projections, though, the Shockers seem to be topping out at a five- or six-seed instead of the three or four their computer rankings would suggest they receive. If they make a statement on the road against Kansas-conqueror Davidson today (12 p.m. ET, ESPN2) and keep it up in the Missouri Valley, would they still be able to sneak into the bracket's Top 16 overall? Lord knows they won't WITHOUT a win over Davidson.
Can Long Beach St. Steal An Upset In Omaha?
Dan Monson's Long Beach St. 49ers have one of the more impressive batches of losses around. They lost to Kansas, North Carolina, Kansas State, Louisville, San Diego St. and (the only bad loss) Montana in non-conference play, but they are coasting through the Big West at 12-0. In jumping across two time zones to face Creighton tonight (10 p.m. ET, ESPN2). Nobody really expects them to win, but a win could bump them into the neighborhood of an eight or nine seed, and they are catching Creighton at precisely the right time. Greg McDermott's Bluejays have lost three of four, falling on the road to Northern Iowa and Evansville, then getting whipped by Wichita St. at home. They are still 22-5 and a virtual lock for an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament, but they've took a turn in the wrong direction and have their work cut out for them against Casper Ware and his experienced LBSU teammates.
Who Rebounds: St. Mary's Or Murray St.?
St. Mary's moved to 22-2, 11-0 in the West Coast Conference with their Feb. 2 win over San Diego, but followed up a 14-point loss at Gonzaga with a shocking, 15-point home loss to Loyola Marymount on Wednesday. Now they, too, make a two time-zone leap to face a Murray St. team today (6 p.m. ET) that also isn't playing as well now as they were not too long ago.
Steve Prohm's Racers rank just 67th in Ken Pomeroy's rankings, primarily because they really haven't blown out too many bad Ohio Valley teams recently. They won their first 23 games of the season, but were showing cracks by mid-January, beating Eastern Kentucky by nine, Tennessee Tech by eight, Morehead St. by six, etc. They lost at home to Tennessee St. a week ago and they struggled to pull away from SE Missouri St. on Wednesday night. Still, they are at home, and while they have struggled, they still win. They hit their 3-pointers, they get to the free-throw line (and hit their free throws) and they turn you over. If St. Mary's has some luck on the offensive glass, they can stick around, but regardless, this is not quite as much of a marquee matchup as it seemed it would be a month ago.
Who Is More Of A Bracket Buster: Drexel Or Cleveland St.?
Bruiser Flint's Drexel squad is currently 14-2 in the Colonial Athletic Association (you know, the conference that has produced two Final Four teams in six seasons). They have lost just once since Dec. 3, though their margins of victory have begun to shrink (they beat William & Mary by just two at home on Tuesday). They are probably not a threat for an at-large bid, but still, they play great defense and could be a tough out in the Round of 64 if they make it there.
Cleveland St., meanwhile, began the season by knocking off Vanderbilt and won at Butler in mid-January on their way to a 20-4 start overall. One problem: They're falling apart, having lost three in a row. First, they lost by 18 points at home to Valparaiso, then they dropped tight games to Butler and Wisconsin-Milwaukee. They force turnovers at a crazy rate, and they're streaky from the three-point line; both are components of a serious upset threat. Both of these teams are worth watching today (11 a.m. ET, ESPNU), especially if you happen to be a fan of a potential four-seed in the NCAA Tournament. Both of these teams' resumes scream "13-seed" if they win their respective conference tournaments.
What Tricks Does Oral Roberts Still Have Up Its Sleeve?
Forgive me, but Scott Sutton's ORU Golden Eagles seem a little blessed at the moment. They are 16-1 in the Summit League and have lost just once since dropping a tight game at Gonzaga in mid-December. But the way they are winning is perhaps most notable. They beat IUPUI with a last-second runner in overtime a couple of weeks ago. They beat Western Illinois by one in double overtime in January. They are 17-1 since Gonzaga, and 11 of those wins have been by 10 points or fewer. Naturally, Ken Pomeroy has them projected to beat Akron today (2 p.m. ET, ESPN2) by two points. You might not need to tune in for the first half, but it would probably behoove you to click over for the ending; it will probably be exciting.
Exactly How Good Is Iona?
Nevada has to hop across three time zones to face Scott Machado, Lamont Jones, and an excellent Iona backcourt this afternoon (4 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN2). The Wolf Pack have begun to pop up on people's at-large lists because they are 22-4 overall and 22-2 since Nov. 17. Nevada doesn't really have any marquee wins, and unfortunately they probably won't earn much respect by taking out the Gaels in New Rochelle, which is extra unfortunate because … well, if you believe in Ken Pomeroy's numbers, Iona is actually pretty damn good.
The Gaels are 21-6 overall, and they carry a No. 51 Pomeroy ranking, ahead of mid-major darlings Southern Miss. (No. 53) and San Diego St. (No. 57). Some bad losses (at No. 208 Hofstra, at No. 209 Siena, at No. 137 Loyola-Maryland) will prevent them from being taken seriously for an at-large bid, but they are easily good enough to ruin No. 106 Nevada's chances at an at-large bid. There is almost no question that Nevada got the worst draw of any of the primary BracketBusters teams; not only do they have to travel across the country, but they have to do so to play a no-win game.
What The Hell Is Up With Loyola Marymount?
They've beaten UCLA, St. Louis, BYU and St. Mary's. They've lost to Morgan St., North Texas, and Columbia. They defeated Valparaiso, 61-53, Friday, and … good luck figuring out what might happen.