BracketBusters will do little to boost resumes of mid-major teams on NCAA tournament bubble

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 18, 2011; 11:53 PM

The mediocre state of college basketball has been well chronicled in recent weeks, with much of the focus on a landscape devoid of can't-miss NBA prospects and the sub-par seasons of the Atlantic Coast, Pacific-10 and Southeastern conferences. But while the absence of truly great teams has given so-called mid-majors a chance to become national contenders, most have squandered opportunities and few are locks for at-large NCAA tournament berths.

Some well-regarded teams - Utah State, Wichita State and Missouri State - have fallen short against top-level competition, thus creating solid profiles that lack signature victories. Others - Saint Mary's, Oakland and Cleveland State - are capable teams with conference losses they'd like to forget. Among mid-majors, only George Mason and Old Dominion stand as probable at-large teams to date.

As a result, this weekend's made-for-ESPN BracketBusters event, which matches mid-majors against one another to provide opportunities for resume-boosting victories and national exposure, is not expected to catapult any team into the at-large pool. For most teams this season, BracketBusters, in its ninth year, offers more risk than potential reward.

A USA Today headline this week read "Bracket Busters give George Mason, CAA teams a chance to stand out." The truth is the Colonial Athletic Association in general - it has six teams in the top 90 of the Ratings Percentage Index, a mathematical measure of teams' strength used by the NCAA tournament selection committee - and George Mason in particular already have distinguished themselves, and few developments this weekend will change that.

One of the hottest teams in the country, George Mason (22-5) has worked its way off the bubble and likely would receive a single-digit NCAA tournament seed if the season ended Saturday. Over their 12-game winning streak, the Patriots have beaten all but one of their opponents by double digits. George Mason ranks 20th in the RPI, and a win Saturday at Northern Iowa (RPI: 76) would stand as just its fifth-best victory of the season, RPI-wise.

That said, George Mason Coach Jim Larranaga this week emphasized the value of playing in front of a television audience - George Mason-Northern Iowa will air on ESPN2 - that could include members of the selection committee.

"And when it comes to at-large bids, that game may very well be at the forefront of that selection committee member's mind," Larranaga said. "It may have been the only game they saw on television that that particular team played. It gives us a chance to showcase our team, our league."

But Larranaga does not view it like a boom-or-bust situation, adding a team is under more pressure if it is not one of the ones chosen to play on national television during the BracketBusters event because "it means you are not having that great of a year. If you are on, it means you are good. Somebody is going to lose, a good team is going to lose. I don't think it knocks you out."

Gene Smith, the NCAA tournament selection committee chairman, said this week the committee places no added importance on BracketBuster games, saying "they are just like every other game."

Old Dominion, which has wins over Xavier and George Mason, also likely would be in the NCAA tournament field if the season ended Saturday, but its margin for error may be smaller than that of George Mason. An opportunity for a victory against Cleveland State (RPI: 34) - a team that leads a top-heavy Horizon League - could give ODU a mild boost, but its tournament hopes likely will still hinge on how it fares against CAA opponents.

"Where I think it gets a little touchy is when you get in that middle area, where your resume can take a chink in the armor," Old Dominion Coach Blaine Taylor said. "Obviously we want to win, I don't think for our situation it's the absolute end of the world if we play a good game, put on a good performance and lose to one of the best non-BCS schools, I don't think that would take us completely out of the picture."

The best BracketBuster matchup features two well-coached teams - Utah State and Saint Mary's - capable of winning NCAA tournament games. But despite a combined 46-8 record this season, both teams saw their at-large NCAA tournament hopes dim the last two weeks after losses that scar their overall resumes.

Because Saint Mary's lost to San Diego and Utah State lost to Idaho, both teams' profiles have been compromised, so one team's victory over the other Saturday will do little to provide the boost that both need. Regardless of Saturday's outcome, their best bet to reach the NCAA tournament is to win their respective conference tournament to claim an automatic berth.

ESPN's Dick Vitale, who will be part of the broadcast team for the Missouri State-Valparaiso game, told the Times of Northwest Indiana a victory over Missouri State (RPI: 50) would give Valparaiso "some quality RPI points." While true, Valparaiso has just four top-100 RPI victories to go along with three damaging losses to sub-150 RPI teams. Its at-large hopes will be slim regardless of the outcome Saturday.

In a season defined by parity nationwide, a mid-major team with promising tournament hopes is just one unsightly loss away from severely damaging its chances.

And in a statement that applies to most upper-echelon mid-major teams, Old Dominion's Taylor said, "I'm happy where we are at, but I don't know where it is leading."

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