2006 BracketBuster Preview - Bracketography.com

2006 BracketBuster Preview


Bracketography.com Staff Writers
February 11-17, 2006


George Mason vs. Wichita State
by David Mihm, editor

When the Bracketbuster matchups were announced last month, it was immediately clear that Bucknell-Northern Iowa was the marquee showdown of the event. Both teams led (and still lead) their respective conferences, both made last year's NCAA Tournament, and both have strong profiles for at-large bids into this year's NCAA field.

Little did we know that one month later, when the games were actually contested, an equally important battle with respect to at-large seeding would occur between the George Mason Patriots and the Wichita State Shockers. Neither the Patriots nor the Shockers have a marquee nonconference victim to present as tribute to the Selection Committee, and herein lies the intrigue.

Sporting a gaudy 13-2 record in the Colonial Athletic Association (19-5 overall), the Patriots have crept their way into the at-large discussion, and their RPI now sits at an unprecedented 25. Their lone conference losses are a one-pointer at Old Dominion and a six-pointer at UNC-Wilmington, both of which were avenged with home victories later in the season. How many Patriots fans (or analysts, for that matter) would have guessed before the season began that a five-point defeat at Wake Forest would be considered their worst loss of the year!

The Patriots lead the CAA in shooting percentage (.492), and their defense has been equally solid, holding their opponents to an average of just 58 ppg. The only team to score even 70 points on GMU was the aforementioned Wake Forest, which put up 83 at the Lawrence Joel Coliseum.

Mason relies heavily on their home-grown starting five of Jai Lewis, Tony Skinn, Lamar Butler, Folarin Campbell, and Will Thomas. All Maryland products average 30 minutes per game and double figures in scoring. With a win against Wichita on Saturday, the three seniors in the bunch (Lewis, Skinn, and Butler) would go a long way towards ensuring their season would not end even with a loss in the CAA Tournament.

While Wichita State lacks the sure-fire star that many of their MVC brethren are blessed with (UNI’s Ben Jacobson, SIU’s Jamaal Tatum, and Bradley's Patrick O'Bryant, to name a few), coach Mark Turgeon's team features a balanced attack, just like Mason. A quartet of players averages double figures for the Shockers. The most recognizable name on WSU's roster may be that of G/F Kyle Wilson, a transfer from Illinois.

The Shockers' best non-conference win is a two-point home W over fellow Bracketbuster Northwestern State. In all honesty, the Shockers' claim to fame might be coming within a point of knocking off Kyle Wilson's former team at the South Padre Island tournament early in the year. In conference play, Wichita's most noteworthy accomplishment prior to last week was a sweep of Missouri State. But then came a thrilling double-overtime home victory over the Salukis, and a resurgence of talk about an at-large bid to the NCAA's.

The Shockers will not be looking ahead to George Mason, as they face Creighton at home on Valentine's Day, in a game which will feature no love lost between the MVC rivals. With a win over the Blue Jays, the Bracketbuster game against George Mason will mean about the same to both teams, but with a V-Day loss, it becomes a must-have for the Shockers.

Only one team has come into the sparkling new Koch Arena and emerged with a victory this year: Northern Iowa. The 10,500 seat building will be rocking for this nationally televised game, and it will take tremendous composure by George Mason's three senior leaders for the Patriots to escape with a W.

Prediction: Wichita State 67, George Mason 65


Northwestern State vs. Utah State
by Chris Mackinder, Associate Writer

For the Utah State Aggies, it was a haven, a sanctuary, a safe harbor. The walls of the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum were a protective shield. That's right--were, until Saturday night.

For the first time this season, Utah State suffered a loss in its home arena, making the rest of its games in Logan, Utah, anything but automatic victories.

It wasn't exactly the kind of effort the Aggies had hoped for leading into their BracketBusters game against the Northwestern State Demons. The game will be nationally televised at 10:05 p.m. ET Saturday on ESPNU.

Utah State was rolling this season before Saturday's loss to a 10-12 New Mexico State team – its second of the year to the middle-of-the-road Western Athletic Conference squad. Utah State is not only looking to win the WAC, but the Aggies are trying to lock up an at-large bid should they not win the conference tournament. Currently, Utah State (16-6, 7-4 WAC) sits a game back of conference leaders Nevada and Louisiana Tech.

After the devastating home loss to NMSU, the at-large bid is in doubt, but Utah State knows registering a meaningful win against the Demons (17-6, 10-1 Southland) can only help. And the Aggies, who sit at No. 41 in the RPI, know they have the tools to be a dangerous team in the NCAA Tournament. The challenge is getting there.

As of Feb. 10, Utah State ranked second in the nation in both field goal shooting and 3-point shooting. The Aggies shoot at a 50.8 percent clip, second to only the Florida Gators. They also make 42.9 percent
of their triples, trailing just the Indiana Hoosiers. Utah State also ranks fifth in the nation in assists per game (18.4), is 14th in committing personal fouls per game (15.4) and 30th in scoring margin,
outscoring the opposition by 10.2 points per game.

Some figured changing leagues (from the Big West to the WAC) would hamper Utah State's success this season. But, after finishing 24-8 last year, the Aggies look to be on the same pace. Point guard David
Pak is poised handling the offense (5 apg) and will rise up and hit a crunch-time jumper if necessary. Shooting guard and 2005 Big West Freshman of the Year Jaycee Carroll is averaging a team-high 17.4 points per game while forward Nate Harris chips in 17.3 points and seven boards per game. Add in center Matheus Cass (9.3 ppg, 6.5 rpg), forward Durrall Peterson (7.9 ppg) and forward Chaz Spicer (7 ppg) and the Aggies have six players that score more than seven points per contest.

Then there's head coach Stew Morrill, who recorded his 400th career coaching victory on Jan. 30. With his experience on the sidelines, the Aggies clearly have the tools to defeat anyone.

Don't tell that to Northwestern State. The Demons have been rolling through the Southland Conference this season, after a nonconference slate which saw them upset Mississippi State, Oregon State, and Oklahoma State, all away from home, which is Natchitoches, Louisiana.

Sadly for the Demons, a No. 68 RPI ranking while playing in one of the lesser-respected mid-major conferences will not garner an at-large bid. They face the same difficult task felt by so many smaller league champs: win the conference tournament, or head to the NIT.

Senior forward Clifton Lee is the only player averaging double figures for the balanced Demons, dropping in 13.3 points and 6.4 rebounds per game. Senior guard Jermaine Wallace adds 9.8 points per game while junior guard Luke Rogers chips in 9.1 points per game. Senior point guard Tyronn Mitchell doesn't make scoring an emphasis, dropping in only 7.5 points per contest, but he does dish out a team-leading five assists per game.

The Demons will have to play a near-perfect game to knock off Utah State, especially in Logan. They've certainly proven they have the chops to win in hostile environments already this year. But with so much riding on this game for Utah State, look for the Aggies to protect their haven.

Prediction: Utah State 84, Northwestern State 65

Louisiana Tech vs. Southern Illinois
by Andy Force, Senior Writer

How is a Tall Tale started? A man completes a tremendous feat of an implausible nature and then witnesses exaggerate the telling to elevate the ordinary everyman to superhero status. Axe-wielding Paul Bunyan, Green Party-inspiring Johnny Appleseed, and wolf-raised Pecos Bill all fit the bill. It's time to add to the list Louisiana Tech forward Paul Millsap.

Not an extravagant leader, Millsap is an everyman with hardhat work ethic. While the Louisiana media's outlandish acclaim for this Bulldog may be slightly irrational, the numbers you see him putting up are all too real. The Saluki coaches may be watching game tape wondering how one man gets to so many rebounds. Sure Paul is big and strong. How else did he earn his Tall Tale status? But does size collect him 12 rebounds a night?

Southern Illinois had a tall task of its own prior to this season in replacing two three-year starters. Programs in the Missouri Valley Conference don't reload--well, they're not supposed to. You lose two-time Valley Player of the Year Darren Brooks, the expectation level dips. The same situation arose a few years ago when SIU graduated all-time scoring leader Kent Williams and Jermaine Dearman in the same class. Despite the wholesale changes, the Egyptian dogs of Carbondale bounded along. This year, SIU again refuses to take anticipated steps backward.

And so begins the hype for one the BracketBuster's most anticipated matchups. Two teams as recently as January 31st dominated their respective conferences. Both teams dropped back-to-back games as wall calendars were unceremoniously flipped to February. Each school found itself no longer looking down on its peers but rather middling amongst the masses. Similarities, though, are sparse and an age-old dichotomy emerges: big versus small. Southern Illinois features solid, ball-hawking guards while Louisiana Tech brings the nation's best rebounder to the fight.

Many times a game is lost rather than won. Should that situation arise in this Bracket Buster matchup, look for these key points. SIU-C held serve on its homecourt for several years. Members of the Valley dreaded making the trek down to Carbondale, as 43 straight games saw the visitors leave with an L. Indiana State ended both the home conference streak and the overall home run earlier this month. Despite this setback the aura of SIU Arena still exists. As of February 10th, SIU at home (9-1) is markedly better then La Tech is away from home (5-6).

Both teams are solid and for the benefit of the TV audience, it would be nice for the game to come down to the last few minutes. In late-game situations you always look at free throw percentages and go-to players. For the Salukis, Jamaal Tatum and Tony Young handle the lion's share of the possessions. Especially in critical, close battles, expect these backcourt mates to control tempo.

Tatum knocks down the free tosses at an 80% clip, and Young is virtually automatic with a percentage above 90. Not unique to SIU, the Saluki bigs struggle at the line and are a serious liability if Louisiana Tech is able to foul them in an emergency. The Bulldogs have nowhere near the same success at the foul line. Only one player on the LA Tech squad even hits at better then 2/3.

The storyline is obvious. How well does Louisiana Tech feed the post? With more shots made on the season than the next three Bulldogs combined, Tall Paul certainly stands to get post opportunities. Expect the constrictive guards of SIU to make the entry feeds as difficult as possible. SIU has an overall balanced attack but relies heavily on triples. Strength and effort on the defensive boards will enable the Salukis to pull through in this battle of upper division teams.

After defeating Creighton in Omaha over the weekend, Southern Illinois was headed for lock status. But that lock was picked when the Salukis couldn't follow it up with a win in Peoria on Tuesday. Louisiana Tech, playing in a weaker conference, must win to have any chance at an at-large bid.

Tall tales generally gather steam and perpetuate themselves over time. The eagerness of storytellers to expound, to enhance the legend is ever-present. For this reason, Paul Millsap, the rebound monster, will grow in stature following this game. The concern for Saluki fans is whether SIU will be remembered as the tiny Valley school Paul stomped, or as a fresh, young team with the heart of a dog. This dog already let one intruder into Saluki Arena this year...but no more.

Prediction: Southern Illinois 70, Louisiana Tech 63. Millsap goes for 22 & 14.

Akron vs. Nevada
by Jason Susee, Freelance Writer

Nevada (19-5) welcomes Akron (17-5) to the Lawlor Events Center in Reno Friday night, where the Wolfpack has compiled an 11-1 record this year. Included in that run was Monday night’s thrilling comeback win over Western Athletic Conference co-leader Louisiana Tech.

Nick Fazekas had a cold shooting night but came up with all the plays down the stretch; plays that he'd better make for 40 minutes against the Akron Zips, if the Wolfpack expect to extend their six-game winning streak.

Akron currently co-leads the Mid American Conference with Kent State, but a win over Nevada and run of the regular-season table is necessary to have an outside shot at an at-large NCAA bid. Of course, the Zips' best shot at the NCAA’s is to win the MAC Tournament in Cleveland.

The Zips have had big play off the bench in the past couple of games to give them that much-needed depth for upcoming post-season play. Senior center Rob Preston is the primary contributor outside the starting five, and was named the MAC player of the week in recognition of his efforts. Preston averaged 15 points and 4.5 rebounds in 26 minutes off the bench, leading the Zips to a 2-0 mark this past week. He combined to average 69 percent (11-of-16) from the field, including a 50 percent (3-of-6) performance from behind the arc, and went 5-of-6 (83 percent) from the line in those two games.

Akron’s leading scorer and rebounder this season is Junior Romeo Travis. The matchup between Travis and Fazekas will be the key to this game. Travis will need a great defensive effort, and must keep Fazekas off the offensive glass for the Zips to win in Reno. The Zips have cake-walked at home this year, where they are unbeaten, but the road has not been quite as friendly, where they've put together just a 7-5 mark.

Akron will have to attack Nevada’s front line, but the Zips' guards will have push the tempo as well. Head coach Keith Dambrot says, “Our style is a tough, grind-it-out style, but that's how we win. We can't grind it out every night and we need to get more off of the break. Most games are won by spurts. Whoever has the most spurts wins games.”

Keying these spurts will be Junior guard Dru Joyce (6’0” 10.3ppg) and Sophomore guard Nick Dials (6’1” 10.8ppg). They may be shorter than the Wolfpack’s starting guards (who are all 6’3 -6’5”), but their quickness, and frequent three-guard sets can force turnovers and produce three-point baskets. Who is this third guard? Cedric Middleton, a 6'0" Sophomore averaging 7.4 ppg. Middleton has scored in double figures in four of his last five games and is shooting the long ball at a 50% clip (8-16) over that stretch.

For the Wolfpack, everything goes through Junior forward Nick Fazekas. Last year’s WAC player of the year has produced even better scoring (21.4 ppg) and rebounding (9.7 rpg) averages this year, and is developing his game for the NBA. He joins a short list of go-to NCAA forwards with Duke’s Shelden Williams, Gonzaga’s Adam Morrison and J.P. Batista, Texas’ P.J. Tucker and LaMarcus Aldridge, and Louisiana Tech’s Paul Millsap.

Nevada will pound the ball inside early and often in an effort to get Fazekas going. Senior center Chad Bell (2.7 ppg, 3 rpg) has to provide some garbage rebounds and putbacks to give Fazekas some support inside. The battle of the boards should determine the outcome of this game. And there should be plenty of chances for rebounds as the Wolfpack 3-guard rotation is shooting a chilly 36.8% in conference play.

Nevada starts two sophomores in its backcourt, Ramon Sessions (4 ppg, 4 apg, 4 rpg) and Marcellus Kemp (13.3 ppg, 3.3 rpg) and have recently found a sparkplug off the bench in Lyndale Burleson. Burelson was big in the win over LaTech Monday, playing 21 minutes scoring 12 points, half of those on two very timely three-point bombs.

Nevada will use a three forward, two guard lineup for most of the game. Junior Kyle Shiloh and last week’s WAC player of the week Demarshay Johnson will offset Fazekas inside and on the wing. Shiloh is shooting lights out beyond the arc (51% on 25-49 in WAC play), and has really stepped up his game during the conference schedule. If he can stretch the Zips' defense, it will help Nevada cruise to a win.

Prediction : Nevada 69, Akron 60

Northern Arizona vs. Western Kentucky
by Kyle Winchester , Staff Writer

The Lumberjacks come into this match-up leading the Big Sky Conference with an 18-7 (10-1 Big Sky) record. Northern Arizona started off league play with eight straight victories, propelling them to the top of the conference. A loss at Eastern Washington ended what was then the longest winning streak in the nation at ten games. But the Lumberjacks are looking to expand on a surprisingly successful season and land a birth in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in five years.

The Lumberjacks are an experienced team, originally returning four starters off their 2004-2005 squad. However, a poor start to the season seemed to turn after a close loss at Arizona in early December that dropped the Lumberjacks’ record to 4-5. Coach Mike Adras said that his team gained confidence after the defeat, discovering that they had the ability to play with talented teams. “I was proud of our guys,” said Coach Adras. “They came to play a determined game.”

It was that determination that fueled the hot streak, with their only loss prior to the Eastern Washington defeat coming to Arizona State in a holiday tournament. Balanced scoring has been a hallmark of the Lumberjacks, as four players average double figures. Each night, a different individual has stepped up. Junior forward Ruben Boykin Jr. averages nearly a double-double in conference play, with almost 14 points and 10 rebounds per game. Senior Kelly Golob has been the go-to-guy in late game situations, hitting game-winning shots against San Francisco and Idaho St. He technically leads the team in points per game, but the timing of his buckets have been the key. Junior Tyrone Bazy and senior sixth man Steve Sir have each taken turns guiding this team with big performances. Finally, freshman point guard Josh Wilson has stepped up big-time in the season-long absence of senior DeJuan Stevens, pacing the team with what is clearly an even distribution of the ball.

The Lumberjacks' depth is the secret to their success. “It is somebody different every night,” said coach Adras. “We have such great balance and we share the basketball.”

Adras will be looking for a major contribution from someone to lead Northern Arizona to a resume-building victory in the Bracket Buster match-up. Thus far, the 'Jacks biggest non-conference win was the triumph over the San Francisco Dons. Northern Arizona certainly would love to grab an eye-catching victory in a tough environment on national television. While an at-large bid is out of the question, should NAU win the Big Sky Tournament, this game will surely help with seeding.

The Hilltoppers are likely more familiar to the average college basketball fan than their opponents in this fourth Bracket Buster event. An NCAA Sweet 16 appearance in the 1993 tournament, including a major upset of the hottest team entering that tournament, the Seton Hall Pirates, helped put WKU on the college basketball map. Five additional tournament appearances since then have helped make the Hilltoppers instantly recognizable, and former coach Dennis Felton is considered one of the country's hottest young coaches, thanks to his work in Bowling Green, Ky., and revitalization of Georgia. WKU's mascot “Big Red” is also quite familiar, thanks in part to Capital One’s yearly mascot challenge and a controversy over the resemblance of the fuzzy red blob to the creation for the 2004 Olympics in Greece.

Western Kentucky prepared for the season by traveling to Spain for a slate of five exhibition games. The experience and time playing together helped shape the team for a challenging schedule of non-conference games, as well as tough Sun Belt conference battles. Close losses at home to Felton's Georgia Bulldogs and at Arizona were countered with huge wins at Alabama-Birmingham and at home versus the Virginia Cavaliers. Add those marquee non-conference wins to a 10-1 conference record, and you have the makings of a potential at-large team.

This season, returning All-Conference selection Anthony Winchester (no relation to yours truly) has led the Hilltoppers. The 6-4 guard has won the hearts of the WKU faithful over his career, but has really stepped up this year, averaging 18 points per game and pacing the outside attack. Sophomore Courtney Lee, the Freshman of the Year in the Sun Belt Conference last season, is also averaging nearly 18 points per game. Winchester is more of a shooter while Lee can break an opponent down off the dribble. Two transfers, Benson Callier (Florida State) and Elgrace Wilborn (Tennessee) provide the capable supporting cast for the Hilltoppers. The team averages nearly 79 points per game, basing its offense on easy looks in transition and the outside shooting of Winchester.

The profile for Western Kentucky is strong, especially for a Sun Belt power with a reputation for knocking off teams in March. Credit the Hilltoppers for their aggressive scheduling; also, credit the big schools for taking a chance in playing WKU.

For Northern Arizona, a win would be icing on the cake this season. The team was not expected even to be close to an NCAA team this year, as they were picked fourth in the Big Sky in the preseason polls. An RPI of 149 will not get it done for an at-large bid, but a victory on national television over Western Kentucky would easily classify as their biggest of the season. Logic tells us that winning the Big Sky tournament is of much higher value in the long run.

For Western Kentucky, a win in the Bracket Buster may not enhance the resume greatly, but a loss would be devastating. Sporting a current RPI ranking of 47, a win over NAU would certainly get them on the bubble. Wins from the out-of-conference opponents are much-needed, as is a continuation of dominance within the Sun Belt. Losing to Northern Arizona at home would dash the hopes of the Big Red nation (non-Cornhusker division) of an at-large bid. A win could propel them to the Big Dance.

Diddle Arena is sure to be hopping for yet another nationally-televised appearance by the home team. This distinct home-court advantage may be the difference.

Western Kentucky is also a team that is used to the attention, having played in the post-season on a regular basis, whether in the NCAA Tournament or NIT. A hot Anthony Winchester or Courtney Lee can carry this club on his back, while Northern Arizona has to rely on a team effort. The combination of two stars and a home-court advantage should allow the Hilltoppers to prevail. Either way, a balanced, well-played contest should prove entertaining and worthy of a spot on the Bracket Buster docket.

Prediction: Western Kentucky 83, Northern Arizona 70

Bucknell vs. Northern Iowa
by Matthew Stevens, Staff Writer

This game epitomizes the entire media-created BracketBuster event. The fans know it, the Selection Committee knows it, Bristol knows it.

"It's two of the premier mid-major teams going at it," UNI's Ben Jacobson told the Cedar Falls Courier. "A lot of eyes will be on this game."

It almost seems like these two programs were destined to play one another on a big stage. Northern Iowa athletic director Rick Hartzell served as A.D. at Bucknell for 11 years before coming to UNI, and hired both head coaches who will roam the sidelines Saturday.

"It's a good game for us, it's a good game for Bucknell," Hartzell said, "And it's a good game nationally for TV."

UNI's pep band, while wearing orange and black t-shirts, played for the 14th seeded Bucknell in last year's NCAA Tournament upset of third-seed Kansas, because the school of 3,500 in Lewisburg, Pa., couldn't muster enough financial support to send its own band to the Oklahoma City regional. The two schools used the same practice facility, and had UNI beaten Wisconsin in the opening round, they would have met for a berth into the Sweet 16.

Neither program is overwhelmed by the exposure. Northern Iowa and Bucknell have both worn the glass slipper and proved that it fits them both. Neither seems to be taking this made-for-TV non-conference game in the middle of February all that seriously.

"We haven't even mentioned that," Bucknell head coach Pat Flannery told the hometown Daily Item early this week. "It was fit into our season, but it's in the middle of our Patriot League schedule. Right now, the league is most important."

Bucknell hasn't lost in over a month in a half, reeling off 13 straight Patriot League victories since its Jan. 2 blowout loss to Duke in Cameron. In fact, two-thirds of the Bison's losses have come at the hands of potential number one seeds (84-50 at Duke, 79-60 vs. Villanova). To say the Cinderella darlings of last year's Dance are cruising is an understatement. But last weekend, Bucknell picked up two motivating factors that Flannery will no doubt put to good use.

The first is the film of BU's come-from-behind victory on ESPN at Holy Cross. The Bison rallied from 15 points down to win 57-52 against the Crusaders, due in large part to the 24 points scored by senior guard Charles Lee.

The next day it was announced that for the first time in the history of the Bucknell program, the Bison would be ranked in the ESPN/USA Today Top 25 poll.

"These guys hear and read a lot of stuff (so) I congratulated the team at practice (Tuesday). They've worked extremely hard," Flannery said. "Then, I reminded them that they had 10 turnovers in the first half Saturday (at Holy Cross)."

Flannery joked about the honor, saying it meant more to him as a Bucknell alumnus than a basketball coach. "I'm not a media guy," Flannery said. "I can check my e-mail and go on the internet to check the weather. That's about it."

His job now is to make sure his squad is not affected by the extra attention, and has he calls it
"the new number in front of our name."

I told the team they can either embrace the rankings or get cocky," Flannery added. "I told them they haven't been (cocky) all year. They have stayed focused on the task at hand."

Bucknell has a trio of veteran scorers that lead the team, starting with the big German in the pivot, Chris McNaughton. The 6'11" center and preseason Patriot League Player of the Year is the inside force that settles this team down early and allows for its pair of perimeter shooters to get open looks from beyond the arc.

Those shooters make up arguably he best backcourt in mid-major college basketball this season: seniors Kevin Bettencourt and the aforementioned Charles Lee. The two combo guards excel at either the point or the shooting guard spot, and combine for over 24 points per game and 57% of the Bison's made threes on the year.

McNaughton was strategically taken out of his normal flow by Holy Cross, as the Crusaders double-teamed him with a quicker player. His reaction time on spinning away or passing out of the trap was just a notch slow, as he scored just eight points in 31 minutes against Holy Cross. In November, Flannery expected this type of defense from Patriot League teams, but felt that non-conference teams would try to man up on him early.

"He knows the league focuses on him nonstop, but when we played in the NCAA's and non-conference, he excels because they play him man," Flannery said.

The X-factor for the Bison is a sharp-shooting freshman from Yardley, Penn., named Jason Vigotsky. The 6-2 guard is shooting 60 percent (26 of 43) from three and has been a tiny surprise--Flannery likes to let freshmen adjust socially, academically and basketball-ically to life in the Patroit League before giving them major minutes. If Flannery is honest with himself and his team, he knows how important this win would be in order to justify a single-digit seed come March.

The UNI Dome will be rocking and rolling, simply because folks throughout Cedar Falls know this is the point that the Panthers squad will either rebound with a late run in the loaded Missouri Valley Conference, or fall out of an at-large NCAA berth altogether.

"(Bucknell is) not going to be intimidated coming into the UNI-Dome to play," Northern Iowa head coach Greg McDermott said, "because they've played in places like that."

One thing is for sure, this game has the potential to be a harbinger for the remainder of UNI's season .

"It's a game that can definitely impact what happens on Selection Sunday," McDermott said. "If we both continue to play well, this is a big-time seeding game in my mind."

The Panthers have lost three of their last five MVC games, including two on their home floor and one road defeat to lowly Indiana State.

"It's a long season, and during the course of the season there's not many teams in the country that cruise along for 30 games and don't have any bumps in the road," McDermott said in the post game press conference. "We're in a little bit of a gully right now."

The inconsistency in the offense is due in large measure to the injury of senior guard Erik Crawford and his 10 points per game. The transfer from Bowling Green and last season's Honorable Mention All-MVC selection has been scratched for every game in February and only got 10 minutes at Indiana State due to a broken bone in his foot. His injury and the Panthers' subsequent poor play may be something the Selection Committee investigates before holding UNI's recent slump against them on Selection Sunday.

Expect a cleanly played game. Northern Iowa's veteran leadership includes Crawford, senior sharpshooter Ben Jacobsen and junior post player Grant Stout. Every member of this trio averages at least 10 points per game, shoots at least 42 percent from the field, and together account for 70 percent of the Panthers' offense.

"We as seniors have to tell the guys to keep their heads up," Jacobsen said after a 66-63 loss at home to Missouri State. "Our next few games are not going to be a cake walk."

Stout will get the demanding assignment of guarding McNaughton in the paint, where he will be giving up three inches and nearly 40 pounds to the Bison's inner beast. Given that UNI owns two non-conference wins over power conference leaders (at LSU and vs. Iowa), the Panthers would seem to be a lock for the NCAA Tournament, but no one (including McDermott) would argue a third non-conference victory against a top 50 RPI opponent would give this squad some breathing room heading into Arch Madness.

One key to Saturday morning's game will be tempo, as the Panthers are 12-0 when they score more than 70 points in a game. Bucknell will try to dump into McNaughton early to set up its three-point shot, as UNI will forced to double down. A Bison three-point barrage would certainly quiet the UNI-Dome crowd. Flannery's troops worked this strategy to perfection early and then hung on to upset Syracuse at the Carrier Dome earlier this year.

The scare at Holy Cross should serve as a great eye-opener for Bucknell, and Flannery's "we-don't-care" attitude is a fairly transparent attempt simply to play possum. The Bison want to disprove the doubters of their 13-game win streak against "inferior competition." Expect All-Conference performer Ben Jacobson to break out of his recent shooting funk, and for the Panthers to ride the emotion of the crowd. In the end, Bucknell will dominate the paint, win the turnover margin, and play the game at their pace. Free throws could be the difference in an at-large bid-sealing win for the Bison.

Prediction: Bucknell 67, Northern Iowa 63

Missouri State vs. Wisconsin-Milwaukee
by David Mihm, editor

Ten days ago, this game looked like it wasn't going to matter. The Missouri State Bears were sitting in a distant fifth position in the Missouri Valley Conference at 8-6, having just blown a very winnable game at SIU Arena against the Salukis. Wisconsin-Milwaukee had lost two straight games to Horizon League competition, and although one of those losses came at Butler, any glimmer of hope the Panthers had for an at-large bid was extinguished.

Today, any glimmer of hope for UW-M's at-large chances is still extinguished, but the game means a lot to Missouri State. Because immediately following that close loss in Carbondale, the Bears went in to Cedar Falls and knocked off MVC heavyweight Northern Iowa, giving MoState its second top 25 RPI win and pushing the Bears to within a game of second place in the conference. Consequently, the Bears' own RPI rocketed into the sub-30 "lock zone."

While it remains to be seen whether the traditional cut-off for "automatic" at-large bids holds at 30, the Bears are certainly back in the NCAA discussion. A season-closing win over Creighton in Springfield, Mo. would go a long way towards getting the former SMS back to the Big Dance for the first time since Steve Alford led 'em there in 1999.

But it would also be a mistake not to consider the Bracketbuster an important game for MoState. Wisconsin-Milwaukee has been ranked in the RPI's top 50 all year, and while the Panthers are currently hovering at #49, a road win over the regular-season leader of another mid-major conference would look pretty good on the Bears' resume.

If Missouri State is going to win, all-everything guard Blake Ahearn will once again need to put the team on his back. Ahearn averages nearly 18 ppg in only 32 minutes of action, shoots at 95% from the free-throw line (no, that's not a misprint), and has led the Bears in scoring in all but one non-conference game.

Tyler Chaney and Nathan Bilyeu anchor the inside for MoState, combining for 20 points and 10 rebounds per game. Senior swingman Kellen Easley, a high school teammate of Illinois' Roger Powell, will be a tough matchup for UW-M, as he stands an athletic 6'7", 190 lbs.

Missouri State is near the top of the Missouri Valley Conference in a ton of statistical categories--now all the Bears need to do is translate their statistical prowess into wins.

There has been little dropoff in 2005-2006 for Rob Jeter's Wisconsin-Milwaukee team. One year removed from their Cinderella performance under Bruce Pearl, the Panthers got off to a hot start, compiling an 8-3 nonconference record that included losses at Memphis and Wisconsin, and wins over Hawaii and St. Louis, at Wyoming, and at Montana in what has been called the biggest game ever played in Bozeman. No true marquee wins, but a resume that was good enough to propel UW-M into the top 20 of the RPI rankings just after New Year's.

The Panthers' at large hopes began to diminish after a defeat to lowly Wisconsin-Green Bay on January 14. After a win at Horizon darkhorse Loyola (Chi.) on January 30, the Panthers' fourth in a row, things were once again looking good. But a loss at Wright State, and the aforementioned loss at Butler, combined with an overtime loss to rival Illinois-Chicago have knocked UW-M out of at-large consideration.

So what does this game mean for the Panthers? In a word: seeding.

If the Panthers are fortunate enough to win the Horizon league's automatic bid, this game could be the difference between a 14 and a 12 seed. No one knows better than Panther fans just what a difference that #12 in front of your name can make when the NCAA Tournament rolls around.

Wizened veterans Adrian Tigert and Joah Tucker provide great leadership and experience coming off of last year's Sweet 16 appearance, and will make sure their team is ready for this big game.

U.S. Cellular Arena will be rocking for this nationally-televised affair, and the Panthers' frantic up-and-down style and Blake Ahearn's flair for dramatic shots will make this game a feast for the eyes. If the Panthers' score gets into the 80's, we'll know that Rob Jeter's team has controlled the tempo; they've lost only one game all year when they've broken the 80-point barrier. But in the end, the game does mean that much more to Missouri State, who would like to avoid any pressure in Arch Madness. Look for four Blake Ahearn free throws to seal the game with under a minute remaining.

Prediction: Missouri State 83, Wisconsin-Milwaukee 79