In its final season, the BracketBusters kick off tonight with Akron-North Dakota State, followed by two more televised games on Saturday.
You can't say it was a bad idea. The concept of pitting similar teams against each other in the middle of February felt like a fun little midterm exam. They're a wild gaggle of mid-major basketball bowls, and like football bowls, maybe they need to be pared down. Perhaps only the top four teams from each conference participate in them. Or perhaps they simply do nothing; take it away and let the teams focus on conference play.
Whatever happens to it, we still have one more installment of it to get through, and some of the matchups look pretty tantalizing:
Friday, February 22
Akron (21-4, 12-0) vs. North Dakota State (20-7, 11-4 Summit), 7 p.m., ESPN2
Since the announcement of this game, NDSU has gone 2-2 with a weird 49-36 loss to Western Illinois. This team plays slow but they are efficient on both ends of the floor. It's not like Akron plays at breakneck speed but if they can get some quick shots early and shake the tempo around, that might be a good sign. It'll be a quality win but perhaps nothing that will launch them into the top 25 anytime soon.
But this is a classic example of what the BracketBusters was meant to do: give a team some type of extra resume booster that may make them considered for an at-large spot should the Zips not win the MAC. Keith Dambrot famously requested that this matchup be a road game, but to no avail, so this must suffice as a home contest, where they're unbeaten.
Saturday, February 23
Western Michigan (16-9, 8-4) vs. Pacific (15-11, 9-5 Big West), 2 p.m., ESPN3
Since the announcement the Pacific Tigers are 2-3 but this is still the same team that beat Xavier and Saint Mary's in back-to-back games on a neutral site. The thing I notice here is that Pacific doesn't have much of a shot blocker, and their tallest rotation player is Khalil Kelley, a 6'8" center, which means Shayne Whittington may have an advantage inside in both scoring and rebounding. But on offense, Pacific turns over the ball just a hair under 11 times per game, which is incredibly good. But I do like WMU's chances here.
Ohio (20-6, 11-1) at Belmont (21-6, 12-2 OVC), 10 p.m., ESPN2
Hope you like points, because you're gettin' 'em. Both teams average about 75 points per contest. The two schools have never met but they've both featured exciting levels of basketball and found much success in their respective conferences. I am not one for hyping up games, because I am usually wrong, but these teams are very similar and this one ought to constitute must-watch Saturday night teevee. This will be a great challenge for the Bobcats and I can only go on recent history, but I think given the location and opponent, Belmont's got this one. (But still watch, though.)
Toledo (12-11, 8-4) vs. McNeese State (11-13, 5-9 Southland), 2 p.m. (MAC Digital Network)
Who says the BracketBusters don't have a sense of humor? Toledo has no postseason this year, so their final BracketBusters matchup ever is against a team they beat last year ... in a postseason tournament. Irony on a silver platter. Toledo can and should win this game if they just sink their free throws, as they have done all year.
Kent State (14-12, 5-7) at Loyola Illinois (14-13, 4-10 Horizon), 4 p.m. (Horizon League TV)
Remember when Loyola won the NCAA championship back in the '60s? Since then it's been a rough road for the Ramblers, who haven't been to the tournament since 1985 and have struggled to put together winning seasons. This might be one for them, while Kent State is mired in one of their worst seasons in recent memory. At least it's looking like they won't get to their standard 20-win benchmark. And with this road challenge, the hope is that Chris Evans and Randal Holt can double-handedly will them to a road victory and just get on with this season.
Eastern Michigan (12-14, 5-7) vs. Missouri State (8-20, 6-10 Missouri Valley), 4:30 p.m. (MAC Digital Network)
What do you do when neither team averages 60 points a game? Grin and bear it. MSU looks a lot like Eastern Michigan statistically: slow the tempo and hope for the best. But their defense is nowhere near what EMU can do, but they only commit 10 turnovers a game and their TO% is 21st overall. The Eagles ought to come away with a win here, however.
Miami (8-16, 3-9) at Southern Illinois (11-16, 4-12 Missouri Valley), 3:05 p.m.
When we last saw SIU, they played a tough game against Creighton before bowing out gracefully. They also have some recent wins against Evansville and Wichita State, which should give the RedHawks pause. They have a string of close losses, from that buzzer-beater in Toledo to holy crap what is Akron doing losing to them at halftime. They're up for the challenge. And there's a reason SIU was paired up with them. But the Salukis should be able to handle this one.
Buffalo (8-14, 3-5) vs. Manhattan (7-15, 5-7 MAAC), 2 p.m. (MAC Digital Network)
Well it's about time these in-state teams played each other again. It's been nearly 14 years since they last tangled. The Jaspers are yet another team that has trouble scoring, but this game does present an intriguing matchup for Javon McCrea: Manhattan's 6'7" junior forward Rhamel Brown, who averages 12 points, seven rebounds and three blocks per contest. He had an outstanding performance two games ago in a double-overtime win against Iona where he totaled 21 points, 17 rebounds and 7 blocks. Very McCrea-ish. The Jaspers have some good interior defense but Buffalo has a counter: Tony Watson has scored 55 points in his last two games, including 12 made 3-pointers, so he has no reservations trying to go deep on them.
Bowling Green (11-15, 5-7) at IPFW (13-16, 6-9 Summit), 7 p.m.
I must be wearing orange-and-brown-colored shades because I think the Falcons have a chance here, and I've been banging the "home court advantage" drum all throughout the preview. But BGSU does look like the better team here, at least on paper. They have been miserable on the road, being only NIU and Alabama-Huntsville away from home. The Mastodons are a little better on offense but BG is noticeably better on defense. IPFW relies on one main scorer, senior Frank Gaines who almost averages 20 points a night. They also seem weaker inside, and that's a matchup BGSU may want to exploit. If A fun note about IPFW: they beat a non-Division I team this year by the score of 92-22.
Northern Illinois (5-19, 3-9) vs. Eastern Illinois (8-20, 5-10 OVC), 4 p.m. (MAC Digital Network)
If these low-level BracketBusters games have brought us nothing else, it's the marriage of directional Illinois teams, as it should be. For some reason there is not a tournament where NIU, EIU, SIU and WIU play each other. Do I have to schedule everything around here? Back to the basketball topic at hand, the Panthers of Eastern Illinois has a decent offense and to NIU's credit, their defensive numbers are kind of impressive. It may be ugly but NIU has a shot here.
Central Michigan (9-16, 2-10) at Youngstown State (15-12, 7-7 Horizon), 7:05 p.m. (Horizon League TV)
Brutal draw for CMU, at least right now when they're mired in a big losing streak. The Penguins are a very competitive team in their conference, graded as stronger than the MAC, where the Chippewas haven't won in a month. While they haven't been close lately, Central did play well at Akron, and maybe Kyle Randall has some tricks up his sleeve. But it's going to take the best game of the season to win this game, and I don't like to expect extremes.
Ball State (10-14, 4-8) at Southeast Missouri State (14-14, 6-8 OVC), 8 p.m.
Say what you will about the Cardinals, but Majok Majok is one of 14 players this season to average at least 10 points and 10 rebounds. The problem is that SEMO is a dangerous team when they have the basket, especially around the perimeter. They're not all that great defensively but have some noticeable shot blocking power, and since the game's in Missouri, I'll defer to that team.