A History of the BracketBusters Event
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by Kyle Winchester
“The purpose of this event remains to provide national exposure to NCAA Tournament hopefuls…”
- Burke Mangus, Director, ESPN Programming and Acquisitions
So the Hokey Pokey isn't really what it's all about--it's all about national exposure! Who knew?
This weekend is the fourth annual “Bracket Buster” weekend, a two-day period devoted to all things mid in majorness. A weekend where the Cinderella of March could first be discovered by the nation. A weekend full of Missouri Valley, Patriot League, and the MAC. A weekend full of exciting games, buzzer beaters, and great players who do not get the national recognition they deserve.
BracketBuster weekend, named because of the success of mid-major teams in NCAA Tournament play over the years, will provide 22 teams an opportunity to play other top non-conference opponents in nationally-televised games three weeks prior to Selection Sunday. A number of teams from the so-called mid-major leagues will compete against each other as well in non-televised affairs.
But does it work? In its initial conception, the BracketBuster weekend was said to be a balancer for all the exposure the high major league teams receive throughout the season. Or at least that was the general idea. Sure, everyone and his brother has seen the Kentuckys, UCONNs, Michigan States, and Arizonas throughout the season. And Coach K University. But have you seen Western Kentucky? What about UNC-Wilmington? Anyone seen Northern Iowa, Bucknell, or George Mason? You might have seen one or more of these teams in non-conference matchups. However, unless you live in the proper geographical region, chances are you have not seen them play frequently.
In truth, as Burke Mangus stated in its inception, this weekend is designed to help expose the casual college basketball fan to some of the teams with the potential to ruin their office pool in March: hence the term “Bracket Buster.”
I have probably told you little you could not figure out for yourself. But the question remains: does the Bracket Buster weekend work?
The point of this expose is to take a look at the brief history of the Bracket Buster weekend and discover if it has also assisted teams in gaining enough exposure to warrant inclusion in the NCAA Field of 65, as this is clearly the secondary goal of the weekend. Without further ado:
Creighton, Gonzaga, Kent State, and Butler all entered the first Bracket Buster ranked in the top thirty teams. Manhattan, Utah St, Weber St, Fresno St, Tulsa and Southern Illinois were also on the Tournament radar coming into the Saturday event.
Kent State and Fresno State, and Hawaii all missed the tournament. Three teams (Gonzaga, Southern Illinois, and Butler) were at-large teams. Butler took advantage of its 12-seed in the East region to make a run to the Sweet 16. However, notice that Butler made the tournament without playing in the Bracket Buster. Gonzaga and Southern Illinois each won their Bracket Buster games. The Zags were looking pretty good coming into the event; however, SIU greatly improved its profile with the victory over Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Creighton may have gained a seeding line or two (they ended up a 6-seed) with the victory over Fresno St, but the Blue Jays made sure they sat comfortably on Selection Sunday by winning the Missouri Valley tournament.
The main stories in the first year were the losses for Fresno State and Kent State. Fresno faded down the stretch after their loss, but the turmoil of self-imposed sanctions precluded them from postseason play, including the WAC Tournament. On the other hand, Kent State took a severe blow by losing 1) at home; 2) to a non-tournament team. The Rainbows of Hawaii ended up in the NIT, but were nowhere near the caliber of Kent State over the course of the season.
The summary from the inaugural Bracket Buster: seeding boost for Creighton, help for Southern Illinois, and a huge loss for Kent State.
Gonzaga entered the event flying high with a cushy number five ranking. Other teams on the radar included Nevada, Southern Illinois, and Western Michigan, and, to a lesser extent, Kent State, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Manhattan, and Creighton.
Gonzaga would, of course, earn a birth in the NCAA tournament a few weeks later, this time by winning the West Coast Conference tournament. Nevada would earn a birth as well, and the Zags found out the hard way just how good the Wolfpack was by losing in the second round to the Kirk Snyder-led team. SIU, Western Michigan, and Manhattan all made the Big Dance. Southern Illinois rode a hot streak through the end of the season, eventually falling in the MVC Tournament to Northern Iowa. Western Michigan would sneak in as an automatic-bid #11seed after defeating Kent State in the MAC Tournament final. Manhattan also earned an automatic bid. Both of these latter teams may have improved their seeding as a result of the Bracket Buster event.
Year Two did not produce the same impact as the first year of the event. Gonzaga was well past the bubble watch and into the tournament before the weekend started. Nevada and Southern Illinois each may have improved seeding, but would have likely made the Dance regardless. Hawaii may have damaged its chances by falling to SIU, but the Rainbows went cold late in the season once again. Creighton and Wichita State both fell in the Missouri Valley tournament, ending any hopes of an at-large bid. Neither case was impacted, however, by the Bracket Buster. All in all, the games were not quite as exciting, or the impact as profound as the first edition.
UTEP and Pacific entered the Bracket Buster weekend with much to gain. Pacific was riding the number two win streak in the country (behind Illinois) and was looking good to make the Tournament. UTEP also had a solid resume entering the matchup, which Pacific pulled out in the end. Nevada’s home contest with Vermont was also a prime game for the third edition of Bracket Buster. Nevada’s outlook was far stronger entering the game based on a strong RPI and higher conference RPI. Wichita State also entered the Bracket Buster weekend in pretty good shape. The Shockers were leading the Missouri Valley prior to their meeting in Oxford, Ohio with the Miami Redhawks. Finally, Southern Illinois and Kent State were each fighting for position within the MVC and MAC respectively, but each had aspirations of making the Big Dance as an at-large team.
Victories by Pacific, Southern Illinios, and Nevada were helpful when Selection Sunday arrived; each received a single-digit seed instead of being forced into dangerous double-digit territory. UTEP’s loss may have lowered its seeding (the Miners received an 11-seed), but they still made the NCAA's by winning the WAC Tournament. Vermont faced a similar path to March Madness, winning the America East tournament before pulling off its upset over fourth-seeded Syracuse as a 13-seed.
Once again, teams suffered from Bracket Buster defeats, none more so than Wichita St. The Shockers never recovered from the shock of losing at Miami and were unable to right the ship during the remaining MVC regular and post-season games. Western Michigan, Hawaii, and Fresno State also took hits as a result of losing, but mainly because this was their last good opportunity to beat a decent team and help their weak RPI rankings.
From this data, we can draw a few conclusions.
One far-reaching impact of the Bracket Buster weekend is the recruiting exposure. “It is a great opportunity to showcase our university to the nation,” says Toledo coach Stan James. For all of those schools with a televised game, promoting their institution in a positive manner is a step towards future institutional and athletic success.
This season’s matchups should prove entertaining and may enhance or downgrade a Tournament resume. But don't fool yourself by thinking that the Selection Committee weighs these games more heavily than any other late-season game.
Instead, use these contests as a chance to view teams you may not see very often. If you see a potential Cinderella, you might just gain the inside track to winning your office pool. Truly, this is the extent of the BracketBuster's effect.
For example, note that Western Kentucky has two terrific players, both of whom must be guarded on the perimeter. If the Hilltoppers draw a team who plays poor perimeter defense, then take the information you learn this weekend into account when making that pick.
The BracketBuster is a terrific concept, but these games cannot be used as a foundation for a Tournament resume. For this to be the case, mid-majors need the opportunity to play bubble teams from high-major conferences, which simply will never happen because the big boys have too much to lose by scheduling such games.
Bracketography.com hopes you've enjoyed the history of the Bracket Buster weekend. Sit back and enjoy the prelude to March Madness.