Bracket Buster weekend no minor event for mid-major college basketball teams

Gabe Blair (32), Garrett Stutz (41) and their Wichita State teammates get a chance late Saturday night to impress the NCAA tournament selection committee with a Bracket Buster game at Utah State.
Gabe Blair (32), Garrett Stutz (41) and their Wichita State teammates get a chance late Saturday night to impress the NCAA tournament selection committee with a Bracket Buster game at Utah State. (Jamie Squire/getty Images)
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By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 20, 2010

Wichita State's basketball players will venture out of state and into the unfriendly confines of the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum late Saturday night. Once inside Utah State's 10,270-seat arena, a pocket of arm-flapping, heckling students will offer visiting players their usual three-word greeting: "Welcome to hell!"

While NCAA tournament hopefuls from major conferences are clashing with familiar opponents this weekend, the Shockers will join other teams from less-heralded leagues playing out-of-conference, made-for-television matchups to gain national exposure and bolster postseason credentials. Wichita State's challenge in ESPN's annual Bracket Buster event reflects reality for so-called mid-majors: They must be willing to go to great lengths to impress the NCAA tournament selection committee.

For the Shockers, a team badly in need of a résumé-bolstering victory, that means interrupting the Missouri Valley Conference stretch run to travel to northern Utah to tip off at midnight EST at an arena that has long been a house of horrors for opponents. Utah State has won 63 of its past 65 home games, a run of success dubbed "Spectrum Magic."

"They don't lose at home," Wichita State Coach Gregg Marshall said.

One season after only four teams from leagues outside the six power conferences -- Dayton, Butler, Brigham Young and Xavier -- earned at-large NCAA tournament berths, more mid-major teams are positioned to earn one of the 34 at-large bids. But several, including Wichita State (22-6, 11-5 MVC), remain on shaky ground and could stand to improve their chances.

With teams from the Atlantic 10, Mountain West and Conference USA not participating in the Bracket Buster, the team that has the best opportunity for a signature victory is Siena, which will play at No. 18 Butler on Saturday. Siena, which has won a game in each of the past two NCAA tournaments, lacks a noteworthy victory, and its at-large hopes took a significant hit with a loss at Niagara on Feb. 12.

A victory over Butler would garner attention and also help because the Bulldogs are ranked 20th in the Ratings Percentage Index, the mathematical measurement of a team's strength that the selection committee uses to help determine at-large berths and seeds. A win over Butler would be Siena's first top 50 victory of the season.

According to Jerry Palm, who simulates the RPI on his Web site, only eight teams in the past 16 seasons -- and none in the past three years -- have gotten at-large berths without a top 50 victory.

Two teams already in decent position to earn at-large berths -- Old Dominion from the Colonial Athletic Association and Northern Iowa from the Missouri Valley -- played Friday night, with Northern Iowa prevailing 71-62.

Neither could afford to give the selection committee a reason to exclude it if it fails to win the conference tournament. Northern Iowa entered the Old Dominion matchup with 23 victories but had played only one game against a team ranked in the RPI's top 50 (a victory over Siena on Dec. 12), and the Panthers had a nonconference schedule that ranked 278th nationally.

"I think it's ludicrous that they would not be in the tournament," said Marshall, whose team split its season series with Northern Iowa. "I think they definitely deserve to if they finish strong. There are a lot of guys out there that profess to be experts on what's going on and who is going to get in, but I am not sure they are getting paid by anyone to do it."

Old Dominion, meantime, entered the game with four RPI top 50 wins, including a Dec. 19 victory at Georgetown, but 11 of the Monarchs' 21 victories entering Friday night came against teams ranked 200 or worse in the RPI. The road game against Northern Iowa was a golden opportunity for the Monarchs to erase any doubt about their worthiness.

"You could argue that [Northern Iowa] is as good a team that is in the [Bracket Buster] field," Old Dominion Coach Blaine Taylor said earlier this week. "Not a make-or-break situation, but it is an opportunity for our league to get exposure and also improve our body of work."

One CAA team that could have used an opportunity for another signature victory was William & Mary, which secured road wins at Wake Forest and Maryland -- two potential NCAA tournament teams -- during nonconference play. The Tribe's at-large hopes have been significantly undercut by losses in league play to UNC Wilmington and James Madison, teams with RPI rankings worse than 200.

But William & Mary was matched against Iona, the second-place team in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, which entered Friday night's game with an RPI ranking of 97. The Tribe will take the publicity even without the chance of a big RPI boost.

"It's great exposure for your program and helps in recruiting," William & Mary assistant Ben Wilkins said. "In the ACC, those guys play on TV so much that they almost don't pay attention to it. For our guys, they don't play on ESPN every day, so when you get on one of those networks it is a neat thing."

Wichita State will get its chance to be on national television as well, albeit in the wee hours of the morning on the East Coast. For teams from smaller conferences, the need to try to impress the selection committee takes precedence.

"If anyone still on the East Coast is awake to watch it, it will help," Marshall said. "It's kind of a screwy time to be playing basketball."

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