Thursday February 18th, 2010

BracketBusters may have its flaws, but it's never a bad thing when high-quality mid-major teams get some national exposure. This year's event has a little something for everyone -- at-large considerations, interesting clashes of style, terrific players you may not have heard of and, most important, 15 hours of practically wall-to-wall ball on a winter Saturday.

Here's one man's breakdown of the event, ranked in order of overall importance and watchability:

When: Friday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2.

Why to watch: The most balanced, high-quality matchup on the docket, pairing two teams with significant NCAA tournament hopes in the event's opener Friday night. ODU needs the game a lot more than UNI for possible at-large consideration, and is getting an enormous break with UNI center Jordan Eglseder suspended after a weekend DUI arrest.

Who to watch: Without Eglseder, ODU's Gerald Lee could have a big day. He's the Monarchs' only double-digit scorer and also is their most efficient offensive weapon, currently second on the team in field goal percentage and tops at the free throw line despite carrying the bulk of the load. For UNI, Adam Koch will have to carry even more of the scoring and rebounding load sans the Panthers' 7-footer.

What to expect: A game with around 100 points total. Both teams play at extremely slow tempos and defend well. The game could be decided on ODU's offensive glass. The Monarchs are fourth in D-I (42.3 percent OReb rate) while UNI is the fifth-best at denying second-chance opportunities (26.8 percent allowed). The Monarchs are a poor three-point shooting team that also struggles to get to and convert from the free throw line, so they need those put-backs.

When: Saturday, 11 a.m. ET, ESPN2.

Why to watch: The game is hyped as the event's glamour matchup, but it may mean less from a national standpoint than a couple other games on the docket. Siena really needs this win to maintain any realistic at-large hopes, because a loss at home in the MAAC tournament may not be looked at too favorably.

Who to watch: Butler forward Gordon Hayward clearly is the Bulldogs' best player. Averaging 16 points and eight rebounds a game while shooting 49 percent as an inside-out threat, he doesn't just feed on the Horizon League; he had 18 and 12 vs. Clemson, 24 and eight at Georgetown and 22 and 14 vs. Xavier. For Siena, Edwin Ubiles is the scorer and Alex Franklin is the unsung battler, but it's Ronald Moore, who can't shoot a lick but dishes out eight dimes a game, who makes the Saints march.

What to expect: A classic contrast in tempos as Siena desperately tries to push the pace against the stubborn Bulldogs. Also worth watching: how often Butler can get to the free throw line. The Bulldogs get to the line a lot and make 75 percent as a team while Siena is the nation's best team at preventing opponents from getting to the line, allowing barely one free throw attempt for every five shots taken.

When: Saturday/Sunday, 12 a.m. ET, ESPN2.

Why to watch: This is an important at-large elimination match (although it would have been even better had WSU not lost at Evansville last week). Winning at Utah State is nearly impossible (ask BYU about it), so this would be a high-quality road win for the Shockers. Utah State's leading the WAC and still hosts three of the other top four teams in the league. Win this and run the table until the conference final, and the Aggies' RPI could be very solid. Paired with the BYU upset, would it be enough?

Who to watch: No one, which underscores the beauty of both of these teams -- they're true teams. WSU has four players that average between 9.3 and 12.6 points and five between 4.1 and 5.1 rpg. Utah State has the Tai Wesley-Jared Quayle-Nate Bendell trio that shares the scoring and rebounding burden fairly equally.

What to expect: Another slooooow game. Six of Utah State's last seven games have featured fewer than 60 possessions and Wichita State's fine playing a bump-and-grind. Will the Shockers' perimeter defense hold up against the nation's best three-point shooting team in its own gym?

When: Friday, 9 p.m. ET, ESPNU.

Why to watch: Preset home/away designations forced the Tribe into this less glamorous (but not easy) matchup, but the consolation prize is landing in the event's second Friday night spot, in the only game in the nation being played at that time. This is a prime opportunity to make an impression. The Tribe were the first team out of this week's bracket. After winning at George Mason on Tuesday, they probably will get an NCAA bid if they can win out until the CAA final (five more wins in a row).

Who to watch: W&M senior guard David Schneider shoots more than eight threes a game, but sophomore wing Quinn McDowell is the Tribe's best player. He's 41st in D-I in offensive efficiency while chipping in 14.3 points per game, and had 28 in the Tribe's upset win at Maryland in late December.

What to expect: Threes. Lots of them. W&M's slow-motion offense is a three-for-all. The Tribe take almost half of their shots from behind the arc (fifth-highest rate in D-I). The Gaels should be down for that kind of a game. They hoist more than a third of their shot attempts from that range and convert at a crisp 37 percent clip. The key may be the turnover battle, though. Iona forces miscues on one out of every four opponent possessions, but W&M's style makes it very stingy with the rock.

When: Saturday, 1 p.m. ET, ESPN2.

Why to watch: To check out two solid teams with very fringe at-large hopes, with the winner perhaps inadvertently helping its league mate (Utah State or W&M) in its NCAA quest. Also to hear quotes about how freaking cold the Louisiana Tech kids feel in Boston in February. It's like a Spring Break trip to Quebec.

Who to watch: The CAA doesn't have very many athletes like Tech big man (and LSU transfer) Magnum Rolle or lethal scorers like wing Kyle Gibson. It will be interesting to see how the more balanced Huskies, built around the scoring of Matt Janning and Chaisson Allen, handle the step up in individual class.

What to expect: Like Siena-Butler, the road team here wants to run-and-gun and the home team will say, "Eh, no thanks." Northeastern is the more balanced team, is playing better ball at the moment and is at home, so if the Huskies can keep the tempo to their liking, they should be good, especially with Tech coming off a midweek road game at Utah State. That's a lot of travel from Ruston, La.

When: Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, ESPNU.

Why to watch: To see two pretty good basketball teams face off and to make friendly bets on how many Akron players will play double-digit minutes (over/under is set at 8.5) or take at least 10 shots (O/U set at 2.5).

Who to watch: Inspector Gadget-armed VCU big man Larry Sanders, he of the 10 double-doubles and the 7-foot-7 wingspan. He punished Drexel with a 29 points, 13 rebounds and five blocks on Tuesday night. Also watch Akron coach Keith Dambrot to see if he blows out a rotator cuff signaling for substitutions.

What to expect: A rare college game that will be contested primarily in the paint. Neither team relies very much on the three and they're both among the nation's leaders in preventing opponents from launching from the arc. Old-time basketball!

When: Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN2.

Why to watch: To feel the angst of North Carolina fans bitter at both teams. College of Charleston started the Heels' decline this season with a shocking upset and Mason catapulted itself into the 2006 Sweet 16 (and then the Final Four) at the expense of 3 seed UNC with freshman Tyler Hansbrough.

Who to watch: Highly entertaining Charleston guard Andrew Goudelock. He rarely comes off the court, rarely isn't involved in the offense, and shoots extremely well for an undersized guard who's clearly option No. 1 on every team's defensive scouting report (19.4 ppg, 48.5 percent FG, 39.8 percent 3s).

What to expect: An interesting style contrast. C of C prefers things fast, likes to shoot a lot of threes and doesn't turn the ball over at all. Mason likes it leisurely, rarely takes or allows 3s and is sloppy with the ball. C of C is an utterly atrocious rebounding team (bottom 10 in D-I on both backboards) and never gets to the free throw line. Mason is so-so on the glass and gets to the line a lot.

When: Saturday, 12 p.m. ET, ESPNU.

Why to watch: To take a peek at the Racers, one of four remaining unbeatens in conference play and one of the most balanced offensive teams in NCAA history. Also to wonder how many major-conference ADs with struggling programs are watching the game, eyeballing formerly blacklisted Morgan State coach Todd Bozeman, seeing the success he's had in Baltimore in addition to his early Cal years, and thinking Bozeman might deserve a second chance.

Who to watch: For Murray State, it could be any of their top six guys, all of who average between 10.0 and 10.7 points. That's insane. Forced to choose, go with Isaiah Canaan, who does his damage from deep in shorter minutes. For Morgan State, it's Reggie Holmes (22.2 ppg, 39 percent FG), who has had to take 184 more shots than anyone else and has 20 assists on the season. The Golden Bears' Kevin Thompson has 129 offensive rebounds -- most of which presumably are off of Holmes misses.

What to expect: On paper, this looks like a potential blowout, but Murray State's had some trouble putting away teams of Morgan State's caliber at home, despite not having lost since Dec. 22. We'll see. The balance and extremely competent shooting of the Racers should be more than enough.

When: Saturday, 3 p.m. ET, ESPN2.

Why to watch: To get a long look at Nevada sophomore forward Luke Babbitt, who's really, really good even though the Wolf Pack aren't all that great. Also to see Missouri State's sweet new arena. The Valley knows good home courts.

Who to watch: Babbitt, in part to wonder what might have been had JaVale McGee not bailed early for the NBA before last season and then Mark Fox not left to take over at Georgia. Armon Johnson's not a bad second banana for Nevada, either. Kyle Weems is the big threat for the Bears.

What to expect: Lots of shots, many of which will be from inside the arc. Both teams are incredibly prudent with the basketball and neither turns foes over all that much, either. Nevada's losses have all come to teams more or less as good or better than the Bears, so a road win's not unthinkable.

When: Saturday, 10 p.m. ET, ESPNU.

Why to watch: To support Pacific's decision to give up D-I football a number of years back, making Bob Thomason's team the school's marquee program. Also to support my best friend, who's a professor at the school, and to have a reason to think about all of the taquerias and the In-N-Out Burger in Stockton. Also to see a remarkable contrast in preferred styles between run-and-gun New Mexico State and the glacial Tigers.

Who to watch: New Mexico State's backcourt of Jahmar Young and Jonathan Gibson pours in almost 40 a game for the Aggies. Pacific's operates like a poor man's Murray State, with statistical balance and depth.

What to expect: New Mexico State to get incredibly frustrated with Pacific's patience and take some bad shots. Pacific hasn't played anyone this talented in awhile, though, and when they did, it didn't go well. If New Mexico State doesn't completely lose its mind in a halfcourt slog, the Aggies could grab a road "upset."

When: Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPNU.

Why to watch: Because clearly there's nothing else to do at 8 p.m. on a Saturday night. Also to check out the Catamounts, who beat Louisville at Freedom Hall in December and now have six losses in the SoCon. Also to guess the time in the broadcast of the announcers' first Kevin Martin reference.

Who to watch: When I saw that Justin Greene was averaging a team-leading 13.2 points and 6.4 rebounds per game for Kent State, my first thought was "Let me guess, he's around 6-8, 230." Yup. They build 'em that way in the MAC. For WCU, the exquisitely named backcourt of Harouna Mutombo and Brigham Waginger (who make up for the Cats' generic top-scoring trio of Brandon Giles, Jake Robinson and Mike Williams).

What to expect: A decent, evenly-matched game.

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