By Kevin Sweeney
Personally, the weekend of the ESPN BracketBuster games was always one of my favorites of the college basketball season. For once, the sports world stopped caring about who the 8th-best team in the SEC was, and instead focused on some of the best mid-major teams who had the chance to become everyone’s Cinderella team come March.
While I understood the reasons for ending the challenge after the 2012-13 season, which included travel concerns, lack of meaningful games, and a few key mid-major conferences electing to not participate, I was still disappointed to see it go. After all, in a time before ESPN3 made it possible to see mid-major games from all across the country, the BracketBuster event gave me the opportunity to check out teams I had heard about, but not watched live.
Also, as a fan of a team who played in a BracketBuster game that could have helped get my team onto the at-large bubble, I had seen first hand (just as George Mason in 2006 and VCU in 2011 had) how important these games could be.
This year, as I watch mid-majors such as Middle Tennessee State, UNC-Wilmington, Illinois State, and New Mexico State run off win after win yet still likely face the reality that a loss in the conference tournament would end their NCAA Tournament aspirations, I decided to create my own hypothetical “BracketBuster” games, creating 10 matchups I would love to witness.
NOTE: I am not including Gonzaga, the A-10, or the Mountain West, as they did not participate in the event. However, I am including the CAA and other leagues that did not participate due to TV deals.
St. Mary’s at Illinois State
This would be, without a doubt, the headliner of the event: a Top-25 team in St. Mary’s looking for another quality win to boost their NCAA Tournament seeding vs an Illinois State squad in desperate need of a second headline win to give themselves a chance at an at-large bid should they stumble at “Arch Madness”. The game would definitely be a low-scoring affair, but that wouldn’t take away from the excitement.
Valparaiso at Middle Tennessee State
These two teams have 2 of the better resumes of the squads in this hypothetical event. Valparaiso has 3 top-100 RPI wins (Rhode Island, Alabama, BYU), while MTSU has 4 (Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, UNCW, Belmont). While those totals still aren’t likely to wow the committee, one more showcase win could go a long way in getting one of these two teams into the at-large discussion. On the other hand, this could wind up being one of the cases in which the BracketBuster game actually hurts a team, as MTSU’s at-large hopes might be better without playing the game than they would be if they lost.
UNC-Wilmington at New Mexico State
This game would pit two teams with incredible win-loss records who lack quality wins. Neither team currently has a win over a team with a top-75 RPI, however both teams have remained on the fringes of at-large consideration due to their lack of bad losses (or losses in general, for that matter). Perhaps a win would springboard one of these teams into more serious at-large consideration, but if nothing else could boost seeding chances come Selection Sunday.
Wichita State at UT-Arlington
This would be a must-win game for both teams if they want to remain on the at-large bubble. Wichita State has played a tough schedule, but doesn’t have a single top-100 RPI win and likely will only get one more chance (Illinois State). On the other hand, UT-Arlington, once a trendy at-large pick, has lost quite a bit of traction lately thanks to the demise of Texas and a pair of conference losses to 150+ RPI teams.
Monmouth at Akron
The bench mob is back and headed to northeast Ohio to take on an Akron team that hasn’t lost on its home floor since February of 2015. Neither team has much of a shot at an at-large bid due to a lack of quality wins, but winning this one might be the difference between a 13 seed and a 12 seed in the NCAA Tournament, should the winner win their conference tournament. The impact of moving up from 13 to 12 increases the winning percentage of the lower seed by over 15% since the tournament expanded to 64 teams, so this game would have huge implications.
5 More Great Matchups:
- Princeton at Vermont
- Winthrop at Florida Gulf Coast
- Belmont at East Tennessee State
- North Dakota State at Weber State
- Georgia Southern at Chattanooga