2007 BracketBuster Preview
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by Matthew Stevens and David Mihm
FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 16
Holy Cross vs. Hofstra
Southern Illinois vs. Butler
Northern Iowa vs. Nevada
Old Dominion vs. Toledo
Utah State vs. Oral Roberts
CSU-Fullerton vs. Wright State
Bradley vs. VCU
Drexel vs. Creighton
Old Dominion vs. Toledo
And from the Archive:
The opening matchup of the 2007 BracketBuster is exactly what the founders of the event had in mind when they came up with the idea for the event back in 2003: two highly-rated, highly-respected mid-majors battling on national television for a major, major win in the eyes of the NCAA Selection Committee. Given where these two teams stand right now, this February non-conference game represents the most important 40 minutes of each team’s season.
Missouri State (19-7, 10-5) is one of five Missouri Valley teams fighting for what are likely three or four NCAA Tournament bids. A win in this contest would make it awfully difficult for the Selection Committee to snub the Bears for a second consecutive year.
"This has got all the makings of a heck of a game," Missouri State head coach Barry Hinson said in the Feb. 6 media teleconference. "We think Winthrop is a great test and great game."
Winthrop's NCAA at-large case is even more intriguing. Let's assume for argument's sake that Greg Marshall's squad (currently undefeated in the Big South Conference) doesn't win the Big South Tournament (sorry, Eagles fans, but remember this is a hypothetical). Winthrop (20-4, 10-0) is not a slam dunk as an at large team because the Eagles’ Strength of Schedule is at best mediocre (254), and they whiffed on all four of their previous chances against RPI Top 50 competition.
OK, they actually fouled off two of them, losing by seven at North Carolina and by three at Wisconsin. But a road win in the fifth and final Top 50 opportunity just might be enough to push them over to the “good” side of the bubble. A loss virtually eliminates them from at-large contention.
Key Matchup: MoState's Blake Ahearn vs. Winthrop’s Torrell Martin
On the other side of the ball, watch for Michael Jenkins from behind the arc (44% on the season) and for Martin to penetrate the lane. Neither team is particularly strong inside, but Winthrop’s 6’10” F/C Craig Bradshaw probably holds the edge over any of MoState’s post players.
Prediction: Winthrop 72, Missouri State 69
Though there aren’t any major NCAA Tournament implications at stake in this game, a road win would certainly give Albany (18-7, 11-2) an injection of confidence as they try to the win the America East regular season title for the second consecutive season. It might also be enough to keep the Great Danes out of the dreaded 1-16 game. Let's hope the Albany athletic department can get this squad on a plane for this 2,500 mile road trip, the longest facing any team in the event.
A win for Boise State (13-11, 7-5) would increase the Broncos’ chances for an NIT bid, but they’re an awfully long shot to win the WAC Tournament with the likes of Nevada, New Mexico State, Utah State, and Hawaii to get through. The Broncos are trying to restore pride to the BSU program and the dominance they used to have at Taco Bell Arena.
Key Matchup: BSU’s Coby Karl vs. Albany's Jamar Wilson
Prediction: Boise State 75, Albany 65
With its limited market saturation, “The U” may as well be “The Ocho.” And that’s unfortunate, because this could be one of the BracketBuster’s best games, and it certainly has bubble and seeding implications.
With neutral-court wins over Virginia and Vanderbilt, and road wins at Davidson and VCU, the Mountaineers (19-6, 11-3) could make a strong case for an at-large bid with a win in Wichita.
The Shockers (17-9, 8-7) are one of the country’s most difficult teams to figure out, peaking as a Top 10 team after wins at Syracuse and LSU before sliding to six losses in seven games after the start of Christmas vacation. A sweep of the final three games of the season is now critical to earning an at large bid. After App State, the Shockers face Missouri State at home and Creighton in Omaha.
"I don't look at standings and RPI numbers. If we [had] won three or four more games maybe we'd be paying attention to [them], but we didn't," Wichita State head coach Mark Turgeon said in the Feb. 6 MVC teleconference. It’s a good thing Turgeon doesn’t pay attention to those numbers, because they’re not in Wichita’s favor (72 in both the conference and non-conference formulas).
Key Matchup:App State’s Nathan Cranford vs. Wichita’s Sean Ogirri
Kyle Wilson steals the headlines for the Shockers but he needs fellow wing player Couisnard (12.0 ppg, 50% FG) to shoulder some of the load in a big game like this. Couisnard is an excellent free-throw shooter, so the more he gets to the basket (11 times in Wichita’s last game, against Illinois State), the better. His penetration will also be critical in order to leave Wilson and G Sean Ogirri open for some outside shots.
Prediction: Wichita State 64, Appalachian State 57
We could easily see both of these teams in the NCAA Tournament, despite the fact that neither has a powerful enough resume to make it as an at-large. Hofstra was the hot preseason pick in the Colonial Athletic Association, but fizzled early, starting the season 0-3. Holy Cross, meanwhile, was always expected to challenge Bucknell for the Patriot League title, but few thought they’d keep pace with the Bison so closely. A three-point loss in Lewisburg is the only thing between the Crusaders and a perfect conference season.
The outcome of this game might be defined by which team is able to establish its preferred tempo, but unfortunately for Holy Cross, Hofstra (19-7, 12-3) proved it can win a half-court game in the 60s at George Mason last Saturday. The Crusaders (19-7, 10-1) could be in for a long day against Hofstra’s three-headed perimeter monster of Loren Stokes, Antoine Agudio, and Carlos Rivera, no matter the tempo.
Key Matchup: Holy Cross’ Tim Clifford vs. Hofstra’s Chris Gadley
Prediction: Hofstra 72, Holy Cross 58
We’re already salivating, Pavlov-style, over this game of canine superiority (a Saluki is a kind of racing dog for the uninitiated), and the game doesn’t take place for another six days. In a Saturday laden with a ridiculous number of terrific matchups (Florida @ Vandy, UCLA @ Arizona, UNC @ BC, Washington @ Pittsburgh, Memphis @ Gonzaga, Oregon @ Stanford, Georgetown @ Villanova) the best game of the day may very well be this one.
Barring a shocking meltdown by Butler to end the season, both of these teams will be playing in the NCAA Tournament. So unlike every other BracketBuster matchup, it’s not an at-large bid, but a protected seed that these two teams are playing for. An all-time high #3 seed (for both programs) is there for the taking.
Butler's Todd Lickliter and SIU's Chris Lowery are the clear favorites for their respective conferences’ coach of the year award, and Lickliter has a chance to win it nationally.
SIU (21-5, 12-3) will likely end up with a Top 10 RPI ranking by the end of the year and a regular-season title in the #4 or #5 RPI conference. But without a late-season win against Butler, that still might not be good enough for a top-four seed.
On the other side of the floor, Butler (22-3 Div I, 11-2) would not host its conference tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse – Wright State is the new Horizon front runner by virtue of a 77-65 win over the Bulldogs on Saturday. Butler also doesn’t really need to worry about its next opponent (Div II Florida Gulf Coast), so Lickliter and his staff have a week to prepare for the Salukis. SIU may be catching Butler at the wrong time.
Key Matchup: Butler’s A.J. Graves vs. SIU’s Jamaal Tatum
SIU runs a very patient motion offense, rarely shooting with more than 10 seconds left on the shot clock, and invariably getting a good look as the clock winds down. So if the Bulldogs are going to win, it’s got to be A.J. Graves maximizing Butler’s limited number of offensive possessions. Jamaal Tatum might be the best perimeter defender in the Valley, and will no doubt be called upon to shut down one of the nation’s best perimeter shooters.
Prediction: Butler 64, Southern Illinois 62
When the BracketBuster matchups were announced last month, this looked like the second- or third-best behind Butler-SIU. But with UNI’s recent slide in Valley play (four of five L’s, including three at home), the This very last thing Northern Iowa (16-10, 7-8) needs is a cross-country road trip. But they now travel to Reno, Nevada, to face the best All-American candidate Nick Fazekas, and one of the best backcourts west of the Rockies. This game for Nevada (22-2, 10-1) does help its SOS but will hurt its seed should the Wolf Pack fail to win at home.
Key Matchup: Nevada's Nick Fazekas vs. UNI's Eric Coleman
Prediction: Nevada 85, Northern Iowa 65
Fans of Old Dominion could not have asked for a worse draw. ODU is playing its best basketball of the year, blowing out VCU at home over the weekend, and with its non-conference win at Georgetown, is squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble.
But Toledo is not an at-large threat, despite a gaudy 9-2 MAC record, thanks to a 4-8 non-conference season. Surprisingly, the Rockets did pull off a 60-59 upset of ODU’s recent victim, VCU.
A road win doesn’t do much good for ODU because the caliber of opponent simply isn’t high enough for any Committee bonus points, and a loss would be devastating to any at-large hopes.
Key Matchup:ODU's frontcourt vs. Toledo’s frontcourt
The tallest player on Toledo’s active roster is 6’7” Jerrah Young, who only averages 13 minutes a game. 6’5” Florentino Valencia is the tallest mainstay, which is probably the end of the story.
Prediction: Old Dominion 81, Toledo 68
The Mid-Con’s current leader and overwhelming favorite to win the conference is looking for a program-defining win against a consistent NCAA Tournament team.
USU is hoping for two consecutive at-large bids this year, but are significantly hindered by a cupcake non-conference schedule (we don’t blame them; the Committee sent the wrong message last year). USU’s RPI number is in the high 60s, and its resume is devoid of any marquee W (at home against New Mexico State is the best one to date).
Trivia question: which coach named Sutton has a win in Allen Fieldhouse this year? No, it’s not Sean, whose Oklahoma State Cowboys were waxed by 30 in their visit to Kansas. It’s Scott, Sean’s brother. Scott Sutton led ORU to what has to be considered the most shocking victory of the year in the non-conference season. A win over a quality Utah State team added to the Kansas victory would put the Golden Eagles in line for a 13-seed and would set up a realistic chance for a first-round NCAA Tournament upset.
Key Matchup: USU's Jaycee Carroll vs. ORU's Caleb Green
Prediction: Oral Roberts 87, Utah State 82
Right now the Braves (17-10, 8-7) are looking eerily similar to the 2006 Missouri State Bears. Jim Les’ team is well-liked by the computers, but is just 1-7 against the RPI’s Top 50 teams, the one win coming against SIU at home. A road win to improve that record to 2-7 this late in the year would be a huge boost to Bradley’s at-large profile.
Virginia Commonwealth (21-5, 13-2), like fellow CAA members Drexel and Old Dominion, is squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble. A regular-season CAA championship should be good enough to earn the Rams an at-large bid, were they to stumble in the CAA Tournament, but a win over a quality Missouri Valley team might turn out to be a desperately-needed insurance policy.
Key Matchup: BU's trio of guards vs. VCU's trio of guards
For VCU, it’s Eric Maynor who leads the way with over 14 ppg and 6 apg. Maynor’s gaudy 3.1 Assist:Turnover ratio compares favorably with any guard in the country. On the receiving end of a number of those assists are backcourt mates B.A. Walker and Jesse Pellot-Rosa, both of whom average double-figures for Anthony Grant’s Rams.
Prediction: Bradley 75, Virginia Commonwealth 70
Normally Fullerton (18-5, 8-3) fans can't help but already concentrate on their nationally-ranked baseball program. However, with Fullerton standing just ½ game back in the Big West Conference, more people are making their way into Titan Gym.
Wright State had been an afterthought for much of the season, but woke up everyone around the country by knocking off Butler handily on Saturday evening. Brad Brownell’s team had been beaten by 31 at Hinkle Fieldhouse earlier in the year, so it was an impressive turnaround for the Raiders.
Key Matchup: WSU's Dashaun Woods vs. CSU-F's Bobby Brown
"(DaShaun) is too good of a player to hold down for 40 minutes most nights," Brownell said in the post game press conference following the Butler win. "He might not always score 30 points, but there are nights when he has 10 or 12 and has six or seven assists and he has played just as well."
Brown, a local Southern California product, leads his team with 19 ppg and 47 FG%. The 6-foot-2 guard quite simply makes the Titans offense go.
Prediction: Wright State 66, Cal State Fullerton 63
Bruiser Flint brings his full-court, up-tempo, high scoring squad to Omaha’s undoubtedly sold-out Qwest Center in this marquee clash, one of the two or three best in this year’s event. A fourth marquee road win of the year (in addition to Syracuse, Villanova, and St. Joseph’s) would put Drexel on the cusp of an NCAA bid. Creighton’s non-conference profile is currently a little weak, and a second prominent win (the Bluejays also won at Xavier) would make Selection Sunday a little less stressful for Dana Altman & Co.
Drexel scored 95 points against Hofstra this past week, but Creighton’s halfcourt offense is a bit more methodical than the Pride’s, and CU’s defense is ranked second in the Valley, allowing just 61.6 ppg.
Creighton is finally healthy and is finally playing like the team everyone predicted before the season began. Nate Funk leads the conference in scoring, as expected, coming off of last year’s injury-shortened season.
Key Matchup: Drexel's Frank Elegar vs. CU's Anthony Tolliver
Prediction: Creighton 75, Drexel 73
Much like Old Dominion, New Mexico State couldn’t have asked for a worse matchup. Ohio isn’t even ranked in the RPI’s Top 100, and the Bobcats just suffered a brutal home loss to previously 4-17 Northern Illinois.
Rick Pitino disciple Reggie Theus has done a remarkable job turning this program around after the somewhat disappointing tenure of legendary coach Lou Henson. NMSU had been on track for a potential at-large bid until this past week, when they lost games to Utah State and Fresno State. A win at Nevada in the final game of the year is now critical for any at-large hopes, but a loss to Ohio Saturday night would render even that game meaningless.
Key Matchup: Backcourt vs. Backcourt
Prediction: New Mexico State 85, Ohio 70