Saturday, February 21, 2004

Bracket Buster does mid-majors no favors

Tipoff Page: Around the nation

Today is made-for-ESPN Bracket Buster Saturday, which is supposed to be the day we get to watch all of the best mid-major teams make their at-large cases to the NCAA Tournament selection committee.

The problem is, the Bracket Buster teams are too much mid and not enough major. They have everything to lose and, in most cases, not enough to gain in terms of NCAA Tournament chances. While nationally showcasing mid-majors, the Bracket Buster also serves to weed out the losers.

Take today's Kent State-Creighton game, one of the most enticing Bracket Buster matchups. Unless both teams win their conference tournaments, there's a good chance the loser won't be playing in the NCAA Tournament.

"I think it would be a much more interesting day if we were taking on teams from some larger conferences," Creighton coach Dana Altman said, "rather than playing each other."

That's not so much an indictment of the Bracket Buster as it is of the imperfect Ratings Percentage Index, which weighs winning percentage against schedule strength and is a significant NCAA Tournament measuring stick. Major conference teams can slip up and still get into the NCAA Tournament because they often lose to good teams. Mid-majors, however, are forced to play events such as the Bracket Buster just to get a top-100 team on their schedules after December.

"It is one of the few chances you're going to get against a quality opponent this late in the year," Kent State coach Jim Christian said. "But at the end of the day, you still want to win."

More like, you better win.

Kent State, 19-3 and 55th in the RPI, is rolling through the Mid-American Conference on a nine-game winning streak and needs every one of those wins just to keep a spot on the NCAA Tournament bubble. A loss to Creighton (19-4, 72 RPI) at this point in the season would be devastating.

"Until the selection committee decides the MAC gets two teams in the NCAA Tournament, we're gearing up for the conference tournament," Christian said. "It does help your argument if you beat a quality team on national TV."

Hawaii at Southern Illinois could be the best of the Bracket Buster games. Southern Illinois is NCAA-bound no matter what, but Hawaii (16-6) could be out with a loss.

"If anyone in our league who was really being considered for that at-large bid, us or Western Michigan, was to lose at home to Central Michigan, our Tournament chances would be done," Christian said. "Yet, Notre Dame lost to Central Michigan at home, and they still have all these other opportunities to get in."

The Bracket Buster opens a small window of improved competition for the top mid-majors. But it should not have to come at the cost of busting a worthy team's NCAA Tournament hopes.

Falling fast

It's hard to believe Florida was ever ranked No. 1, considering that February can't get much worse for the Gators (14-8). Billy Donovan's club has lost four of its last five games and on Wednesday lost starter Christian Drejer to a pro team in Spain. Drejer, a Denmark native, opted to accept a contract with FC Barcelona rather than finish out Florida's season.

The Gators already were moving toward the NCAA Tournament bubble, and they could slide off without Drejer.

Seeds of doubt

The NCAA Tournament selection committee's most difficult task might not be deciding the last few at-large teams. Instead, it might be figuring out where to seed the three or four Big Ten teams that will make the Tournament.

Consider that once-destitute Michigan State has regrouped to lead the league with a 9-3 conference record and is 14-9 overall. Wisconsin (17-5), generally regarded as the league's most consistent team, does not have a notable road win. The same goes for Illinois (17-5), which beat Wisconsin Wednesday at home.

All that could lead to the Big Ten getting just three teams in the Tournament, with none better than a No. 6 seed.

Player of the Week

In a pair of must-win games for Wake Forest, freshman point guard Chris Paul scored 30 and 23 points, against Cincinnati and Duke, respectively. He averaged six assists in the two games, both Demon Deacons wins.



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