Time To Bust Some Brackets

As Vanderbilt plays itself off the bubble for the big dance and onto the good side of the apple for the NIT (if there is a good side), several teams will be making their case for an NCAA at-large berth this weekend. It's Bracket Buster time! A baker's dozen of televised games between key mid-major teams will give each school a chance to display their abilities to all the members of the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee.

The Missouri Valley Conference has the most to gain or lose. All five of their RPI highly-ranked teams will be participating. Four Mid-American Conference teams will be playing, but the MAC is not in the class of the MVC this year.

Let's take a look at the schedule.

Times given are Central Standard

Friday, February 17

6 PM ESPN-U: Albany vs. Virginia Commonwealth

8 PM ESPN-U: Akron vs. Nevada

Saturday, February 18

12 Noon ESPN 360: Buffalo vs. Iona

12 Noon ESPN 2: Bucknell Vs. Northern Iowa

12:30 PM ESPN-U: Butler vs. Kent State

2 PM ESPN 2: Missouri State vs. Wisconsin-Milwaukee

2:30 PM ESPN-U: Northern Arizona vs. Western Kentucky

4 PM ESPN 2: Marist vs. Old Dominion

6 PM ESPN 2: Louisiana Tech vs. Southern Illinois

8 PM ESPN 360: Samford vs. Ohio U.

8 PM ESPN 2: George Mason vs. Wichita State

10 PM ESPN-U: Northwestern State (La.) vs. Utah State

12 Midnight ESPN: Fresno State vs. Creighton

The Match Ups

Albany (16-8) at Virginia Commonwealth (16-8)

Jamar Wilson is worth watching. The Albany guard has NBA potential if he continues to refine his skills. The Great Danes have won 14 of 16 games after starting slowly. Slim seven-foot center Kirsten Zoellner must be able to rebound in this game, or it won't be so great for the Danes.

Virginia Commonwealth is a Gemini team. Away from home, the Rams are a below average bunch; however, at the Alltel Pavilion, the Rams have the best home-court advantage in the Colonial Athletic Association and can beat anybody. VCU has trouble with opponents that have high-quality inside games, but they have been able to counter many bigger teams by forcing a lot of turnovers.

Computer Pick: VCU 69 Albany 62

Akron (19-5) at Nevada (19-5)

Akron has a well-balanced team led by forward Romeo Travis, who can bang it inside against bigger men. When they are on their games, Nick Dials and Dru Joyce can force defenses to stay honest and keep the inside open for Travis. At 19-5, the Zips have no big wins. They are not guaranteed an at-large bid at this point. They could use a big road win.

Nick Fazekas gets overshadowed playing in the West. He isn't in the Pac-10, and he isn't Adam Morrison. He is a quality big man who will play for pay either next year or the year after. Currently, the 6-11 post player is averaging a double-double for Nevada. Akron has no defender who can stop him one-on-one, so they will have to assign at least two players to him. Forward Mo Charlo and guard Marcelus Kemp have made teams pay when they tried to double up on Fazekas, and I expect the Wolf Pack to zip up Akron.

Computer Pick: Nevada 72 Akron 66

Buffalo (16-9) at Iona (19-5)

This should be an interesting game worth watching. Steve Burtt and Ricky Soliver give Iona the best backcourt in the MAAC. Throw in starting third guard Marvin McCullough, and you have one of the 20 best perimeters in the nation. Beefy post player Kiril Wachsman cannot be forgotten inside, so the Gaels have an offense that can light up scoreboards, hitting inside and outside.

Buffalo has slumped since starting the season 11-1. The Bulls have no shot at an at-large bid and must win the MAC Tournament. Buffalo has an excellent inside-outside tandem. Guard Calvin Cage is in range the minute he enters the gym. Yassin Idbihi is comfortable shooting the trey or taking it inside with a power move. The problem of late with the Bulls is an inability to stop or even slow down the opposition. 

Computer Pick: Iona 89 Buffalo 77

Bucknell (21-3) at Northern Iowa (21-6)

This is the marquee match of the Bracket Busters. Barring total collapses, both of these squads should make the Big Dance, and both could play past the first weekend.

How good is Northern Iowa? Well, ask Tennessee how hard it is to play at LSU. The Vols couldn't handle Glen Davis inside, but the Panthers could. UNI beat LSU at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, and they did so by holding Davis to 13 points and just four rebounds. UNI won the points in the paint battle by playing tough defense for 40 minutes. A quick 8-0 burst in two minutes put the game away. UNI plays solid team defense, and the Panthers are quite balanced with six players able to lead the offense. Their one weakness is a questionable perimeter shooting game. 

Bucknell plays stifling defense (holding opponents to 37% shooting and 55 points) and adds just enough offense to maul opponents. With all five starters returning from last year's NCAA Tournament team, one that beat Kansas, the Bison have stampeded the Patriot League in 2006, including a win at second place Lehigh and a sweep over third place Holy Cross. Bucknell cracked the Top 25 for the first time ever, and even if they lose a close one Saturday, the Bison are deserving of staying there.

Computer Pick: Northern Iowa 57 Bucknell 51

Butler (17-9) at Kent State (18-7)

Neither of these two teams has much chance of playing their way onto the bubble, so this game will act as a tune-up for their conference tournaments.

Butler is a patient, deliberate team that doesn't beat themselves. The Bulldogs have three competent three-point shooters. A. J. Graves, Bruce Horan, and Avery Sheets have combined for 171 made three-pointers at a 41% clip. Brandon Polk can take over a game inside once the three long-range gunners get going. Butler has a thin bench, rarely using more than seven or eight players, and their contribution is minimal. They cannot afford to get caught in a transition game. The Bulldogs also have the misfortune of having a conference game less than 48 hours prior to this one.

Kent State plays exceptionally well when the tempo increases. Having an eight-man rotation with several different feasible lineups, the Golden Flashes can keep five fresh players in the game at all times. This is a team that does nothing spectacularly but does everything better than average. Add a bunch of hustle and team spirit, and you get a winner.

Computer Pick: Kent State 69 Butler 64

Missouri State (17-7) at Wisconsin-Milwaukee (18-7)

Bruce Pearl's former team returns almost all of its roster from 2005, and UW-M resides in first place in the Horizon League. That said, this group of Panthers is a little weaker than last year. Coach Rob Jeter is a Bo Ryan disciple, so the transition from Pearl's full-court up-tempo game to a swing motion offense has caused some a few problems in adjustment. Joah Tucker, Boo Davis, and Adrian Tigert give UW-M three go-to guys who can all put the bite on an opponent for 25 to 30 points in any given night. The big problem with this year's squad is an inability to knock down the outside jumper.

Missouri State is starting to gather momentum. The Bears picked up a big win at Northern Iowa last Saturday, and they are on a roll with five wins in their last six games. Barry Hinson is a Bill Self protégé, and his teams play tough, aggressive defense and crash the boards. Guard Blake Ahearn is one of the better outside shooters, but he is more dangerous when he is moving toward the hoop. That's because fouling him is putting two points on the board. Ahearn is the best free throw shooter in all of organized basketball and best anywhere since Rick Barry played in the NBA; he is hitting 95% at this point of the season. The Bears' Achilles' heel is in the middle where center Sky Frazier doesn't produce much offensively and has to resort to using his hands quite frequently on defense.

Computer Pick: Missouri State 76 UW-Milwaukee 73

Northern Arizona (19-7) at Western Kentucky (19-5)

This one should be interesting enough to drive 85 miles north from Nashville and see in person. Expect a fast-paced game with lots of action. The visiting Lumberjacks have been the surprise of the Big Sky Conference; they own a two-game lead over consensus preseason favorite Montana. NAU can shoot the rock. They are among the national leaders in free throw percentage at .765, and they hit over 48% from the field. The Lumberjacks have four double figure scorers.

Western Kentucky is a couple of quality wins away from moving up onto the at-large bubble. If this game were in Flagstaff instead of Bowling Green, it might count as one of them. Both teams enter this game having played conference games less than 48 hours earlier; with a 2,000 mile trek, expect NAU to be a bit fatigued. 

Western Kentucky has an excellent backcourt combo in Anthony Winchester and Courtney Lee. The two can beat opponents off the dribble, blaze the nets from 20 feet away, and run the fast break to a positive conclusion. Western tends to get a bit sloppy with the ball and picks up a lot of fouls, something that could kill them if it happens against NAU. I think this one will be much closer than the computers say. I'd call it a tossup.

Computer Pick: Western Kentucky 86 Northern Arizona 75

Marist (16-8) at Old Dominion (18-8)

Old Dominion was on pace for an at-large berth a month ago at 13-4 with a win over Georgia and a narrow loss to Wisconsin, but since then the Monarchs have played themselves off the bubble. They must win the Colonial Conference Tournament to get a dance invitation. ODU has been victimized by long shooting slumps this season, and their 43% field goal accuracy has cost them several close games. 

Like ODU, Marist is not getting an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. However, the Red Foxes have won 11 out of 13 games including an impressive upset at Iona. They could be on the verge of becoming the team to beat in the MAAC Tournament. A win at Old Dominion would solidify that status. In this 13-game streak, Marist is averaging more than 81 points per game, and they are doing it by distributing the ball equally among the starting five. Big man Ryan Stilphen is the key to Marist's chances. If he can get open on offense and get his share of rebounds, the Red Foxes have a shot at the upset.

Computer Pick: Old Dominion 77 Marist 74

Louisiana Tech (16-10) at Southern Illinois (18-8)

It's because of Glen Davis at LSU that Paul Millsap gets so little attention in Ruston. The 6-08/245 power forward has led the nation in rebounding the last two years and has a great shot to make it three-in-a-row (currently leading the nation at15 per game). Millsap can also score, as he leads the Bulldogs with an 18.5 average. Now, the bad news: the rest of this team shoots only a combined 37.6% from the field and 28.4% from behind the arc. 

Southern Illinois has the talent to stop Millsap and prove to the Selection Committee that they, and the MVC, deserve their lofty RPI ranking. The Salukis have the team speed to keep Millsap away from the basket enough times to reduce his effectiveness. Like Tech, SIU has had great difficulty putting the ball through the hoop. SIU's two double figure scorers, Jamaal Tatum and Tony Young, are hitting on only 38.7% of their shots and 34.6% of their three-point attempts.

With all the shots that will probably be caroming off the glass, look for Millsap to have a game to remember. This could very well be the game that exposes the Missouri Valley Conference's weakness. The Salukis have been playing inconsistently, and they have not faced a Wes Unseld-type player. I think La. Tech picks up the upset here, but the computers say otherwise.

Computer Pick: Southern Illinois 74 La. Tech 65

Samford (17-8) at Ohio U. (14-8)

These two teams have tanked in recent weeks, so this is now an NIT bracket buster.

Ohio was 12-3 when the Bracket Buster pairings were announced. Since then, the Bobcats have lost five of seven. In those five losses, Ohio hit 37.4% of their shots and couldn't do much on the boards. The Bobcats have no go-to player on the roster. 

Samford is one of the "Princeton offense" teams. The Bulldogs shoot over 48% from the field and 41% from behind the arc. They just cannot rebound the ball, and they frequently disappear in road games. Too bad Murray State couldn't have represented the OVC; Samford could make the conference look really weak if they fare poorly in Athens.

Computer Pick: Ohio U. 61 Samford 52

George Mason (20-5) at Wichita State (21-6)

This will definitely be one to watch. The winner can plan on playing on a neutral site after March 15. 

George Mason has won seven games in a row by impressive fashion, outscoring opponents by an average of 68-54. The Patriots have an RPI in the mid-20's. All five GMU starters average double figures, and all five play tenacious defense. The team is short depth-wise, but the pace of their games usually allows the entire starting five to contribute 30 quality minutes per game. A GMU win will move them up to the top of the bubble and give the Patriots a good shot at an at-large berth if they don't claim the automatic bid.

Wichita State will get a huge boost from its fan base. Like most games this season, this game is a sellout. The Shockers are 13-1 at Koch Arena. Wichita has won 10 of their last 12, falling only at Northern Iowa and at Creighton. As a team, the Shockers give up only 40% shooting to their opposition, and they control both boards. Four starters hit for double figures, and all four have the ability to take over a game.

Computer Pick: Wichita State 69 George Mason 68

Northwestern State (La.) (18-6) at Utah State (17-6)

The Demons have an unenviable task having played at Nicholls State Thursday night before heading west to Logan for a late Saturday night tip-off. NSU's 18-6 record is their best in 40 years. Among the Demons' victims this year are Mississippi State, Oklahoma State, and Oregon State (all away from home). 

Helping NSU avoid falling victim to exhaustion is the fact that 10 players see double digit minutes every night. The Demons' style of play requires depth, and they don't lose much going to their bench. Inside players Clifton Lee and Byron Allen can hit with consistency when the perimeter keeps defenses honest. Jermaine Wallace is the primary long-range bomber.

Utah State has made the jump from the Big West to the WAC and showed they can compete. The Aggies are going to win 20 games for the seventh consecutive year. Having won 13 of 16, Utah State most recently went to Moscow, Idaho, and beat the Vandals 80-42. Forward Nate Harris and guard Jaycee Carroll both average 17 points per game. Carroll hits close to 50% of his three-pointers, while Harris and center Cass Matheus shoot over 60% from the field. Utah State is one of a handful of teams per decade that shoots in excess of10% better than their opponents. The Dee Glen Smith Spectrum is one of the hardest places for a road team to win, and with the quick turnaround for NSU, expect Utah State to win big.

Computer Pick: Utah State 73 Northwestern State 65

Fresno State (13-10) at Creighton (17-7)

This is where Murray State, Pacific, or Manhattan should have played. Fresno State isn't even in the top half of the WAC standings. The Bulldogs are 2-7 on the road. Quinton Hosley and Ja'Vance Coleman can both pop for 35 points in a game, but they combine for just 40% shooting.

Creighton won't really help their case with a win, but they can sure play themselves into the NIT with a loss at home. The Blue Jays play quality team defense, and they rarely beat themselves.

Computer Pick: Creighton 77 Fresno State 62


  Conference Overall   Rating
Tennessee 10 1 19 3   98
Florida 8 3 22 3   95
Kentucky 6 5 16 9   92
South Carolina 5 6 14 10   91
Georgia 4 7 14 10   88
Vanderbilt 4 7 13 9   86
  Conference Overall   Rating
L S U 9 2 17 7   96
Alabama 7 4 14 9   90
Arkansas 5 6 16 8   88
Ole Miss 4 7 14 10   84
Auburn 2 9 10 12   81
Miss. State 2 9 12 12   80

Predicted Scores

Tennessee 81
Alabama 78
Florida 78
Arkansas 76
South Carolina 70
Kentucky 67
L S U 78
Auburn 67
Mississippi St. 70
Ole Miss 69
Georgia 71
Vanderbilt 65

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