By Tom Comi
This is the weekend when the have-nots get to prove what they really have. It’s an opportunity to show they belong in the big-boy conversations. And it’s a chance for college basketball fans across the country to get a sneak peak at the unheralded teams that will shatter March Madness office pools across the country.
BracketBusters weekend is an ESPN-created event that gives mid-majors (teams outside the six “power” conferences) exposure to state their case nationally and — most importantly — to the committee that will be determining which 68 teams make the prestigious NCAA Tournament.
Don’t be fooled by the league names such as Colonial Athletic Association (CAA), Missouri Valley Conference (MVC), Horizon League, West Coast Conference (WCC) or the Big South. They might not have the cache of the Big East, Big 10, SEC or ACC, but they have produced such Cinderella teams as Butler, George Mason, Northern Iowa, Wichita State, Davidson, Gonzaga and St. Mary’s. And many of these same teams that will be featured this weekend are ready to make another run this March.
“We love being a part of the ESPN BracketBuster,” said George Mason coach Jim Larranaga, who guided his team to an improbable run to the 2006 Final Four. “I think it gives each team an opportunity to showcase its talent. In our situation, we get a chance not only to play against an outstanding Northern Iowa team but play in front of a national television audience on ESPN2.”
Here are the games being televised on the ESPN family of networks this weekend, with a preview of each game (all times Eastern):
VCU at Wichita State (Friday, 7pm, ESPN2): The Rams looks to bounce back after dropping back-to-back home games to CAA heavyweights George Mason and Old Dominion, but VCU coach Shaka Smart’s team will have his hands full. WSU is one of the top mid-major programs in the country, and this could be the statement game the Shockers need to stake their claim to a spot in the field.
Kent State at Drexel (Friday, 9pm, ESPNU): Kent State of the Mid-American Conference (MAC) hosts Bruiser Flint’s scrappy Dragons of the CAA. Both teams have a lot of work to do to play in the big tournament, and that starts with tonight’s game.
Hofstra at Wright State (Saturday, 11am, ESPNU): This should be a great CAA/Horizon League clash, but it’s also an opportunity to watch Charles Jenkins of Hofstra — arguably one of the top 10 guards in all of college basketball.
Austin Peay at Fairfield (Saturday, 1pm, ESPNU): Not only is this Fairfield’s first time playing a televised BracketBuster game, but the MAAC-leading Stags have won 15 of their last 16. The Governors, meanwhile, are in first place in the Ohio Valley Conference and will be leaning heavily on TyShawn Edmondson (18.8 points a game) to pull the road upset.
Iona at Liberty (Saturday, 3pm, ESPNU): This is battle between 2nd-place teams in the MAAC and Big South, respectively. The host Flames are very young with only five underclassmen, so the high scoring Gaels (78.7 points a game) will be looking a much-needed road victory.
Missouri State at Valparaiso (Saturday, 5pm, ESPN2): Perhaps the most underrated of the weekend’s games, it features two teams hovering right around the Top 50 in the Rating Percentage Index (RPI). MVC Player of the Year candidate Kyle Weams leads the visiting Bears, who will have their hands full with the host Crusaders of the Horizon League (10-2 at home).
Vermont at College of Charleston (Saturday, 5pm, ESPNU): With the visiting Catamounts (America East) and host Cougars (Southern Conference) both standing in first place in their respective leagues, this will be a great test for both teams. College of Charleston loves to run the court with standout guard Andrew Goudelock leading the way, and Vermont is a great defensive squad, so something will have to give.
George Mason at Northern Iowa (Saturday, 7pm, ESPN2): The Patriots have won a nation-leading 12 straight games behind a well-balanced offense (led by Cam Long, pictured above, and Ryan Pearson) and stellar defense. But UNI is very tough at home, especially with players like Anthony James and Kwadzo Ahelegbe.
Utah State at St. Mary’s (Calif.) (Saturday, 9pm, ESPN2): This was once billed as the marquee game of the weekend, but it lost some luster when St. Mary’s lost a headscratcher to San Diego State this past week. Still, should be fun to watch two teams that should be dancing next month.
Montana at Long Beach State (Saturday, 11pm, ESPN2): Here is another wonderful contest between two 1st-place teams with the visiting Grizzlies leading the Big Sky Conference and the 49ers sitting atop the Big West Conference. Long Beach State has won five games in a row, so Montana will need a great showing to steal one away from home.
Cleveland State at Old Dominion (Sunday, 1pm, ESPN2): Old Dominion is one of the best defensive teams in the country, and they are almost unbeatable at home. But coach Gary Waters and his Vikings won’t be intimidated, especially when they have senior Norris Cole on their team. In a game last week against Youngstown State, Cole scored 41 points, grabbed 20 rebounds and dished out nine assists. Yeah, he’s good.