Bracket Buster Pairing Makes for an Odd Couple
Saturday's meeting between Butler and Drake was a mid-major delight: two ranked teams from outside the moneyed BCS leagues, playing for a bit of late-February glory in front of a national television audience and a sold-out Hinkle Fieldhouse. It was, some said, the Bracket Buster Super Bowl.
The weekend featured 49 other games from that same Bracket Buster field, and if the event's Super Bowl took place in Indiana, its Continental Indoor Football League championship tipped off several hours earlier at Loyola's half-empty Reitz Arena.
This game featured a UC Davis team that had lost nine straight, the worst such skid of any Bracket Buster team. The Aggies -- in their first year of Division I postseason eligibility -- traveled about 2,400 miles for this game, one of the longest such trips of any Bracket Buster team. They did so as 15-point underdogs, the second-biggest spread of any Bracket Buster game. And they arrived to face a Loyola team that had won nine of 11 and a crowd that featured a fan ratio of 1,381 to 5. (Aggies forward C.J. Portz's older brother, Nick, lives in the Washington area. He brought four friends.)
"My first response was, 'Are you serious?' " Aggies Coach Gary Stewart said of his reaction upon learning his Bracket Buster opponent earlier this month. "I don't know; I don't want to cry sour grapes. I just don't understand any logic in this."
Let's pause for some brief back story about the Bracket Buster event, which is in its sixth year and has successfully boosted several teams into prominent NCAA tournament berths or higher tournament seeds.
As the event mushroomed in size -- from 18 teams to 46 to 64 to 100 -- it became impossible to televise every game. The broadcast partners help choose 14 nationally televised games, and a group of league commissioners then begins matching up the remaining 72 teams, asking many for their preferences and attempting to pair off programs from the same geographic area and with similar records.
The denouement, conducted over Super Bowl weekend, required four teleconferences and hours of negotiations. One initial draft -- which had Loyola hosting a Midwestern team with a more similar statistical profile -- had to be revised, and the domino effect wound up sending UC Davis across the country.
"It's hard to explain how difficult it is to match up 72 teams in pairings that are all going to be desirable; it's not going to happen," said Missouri Valley Commissioner Doug Elgin, who helped create the Bracket Buster concept and is involved in setting the matchups. "It's a cooperative effort; everybody's got to give a little bit."
Elgin called the UC Davis-Loyola game "obviously not ideal," and the Aggies quietly agreed. They met on campus at 7 a.m. on Friday, flew out of Sacramento at 9, transferred in Phoenix, got to their Baltimore hotel at 8:30 p.m. local time, had dinner and a meeting, went to bed around 2 a.m. and woke up five hours later for breakfast and a walk-through.
They already were missing three players who had redshirted, two more who had season-ending medical problems and a sixth who was academically ineligible. Second-leading scorer Shane Hanson recently hurt his shoulder and did not make the trip. That left eight players, a number that dipped to seven when Kyle Brucculeri re-injured his left ankle in the first half and missed much of the game.
Stewart pulled four-fifths of his team into the back court during every Aggies free throw to conserve their energy. "Do you guys have rebounds in California?" the confused Loyola crowd heckled.
And yet, improbably, the Aggies went up by nine in the first half, hinting at the pathos and triumph of the biggest March upsets, or at least a quaint mid-January Patriot League game. UC Davis clung to that lead for much of the game, and still was tied with Loyola in the final three minutes before finally breaking down and losing, 67-64.
Less than an hour later, the Aggies were back on the bus, bound for the airport.
While UC Davis wasn't on Loyola's list of preferences, Greyhounds officials weren't upset by the choice. Next year's "return game" in Davis will allow them to schedule an early-season West Coast swing, and Coach Jimmy Patsos already is planning a field trip to Alcatraz. The Aggies tried to find a similar spin; guard Mark Payne, for example, noted that he had never been to Baltimore. So what'd he think?
"It was dark last night, we woke up this morning, had breakfast in the hotel, came to the game and now we're flying out," he said with a grin. "It was great."