Thursday February 17th, 2011

BracketBusters weekend is here and there's something for everyone who enjoys the mid-major level. Five of the games have significant NCAA tournament implications and many of them feature a star (or stars) well worth watching. Here are the 11 TV games ranked in order of importance and intrigue.

1. Utah State (23-3, 12-1 WAC) at Saint Mary's (22-5, 10-2 WCC)

Saturday, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2

Why to watch: This game got a whole lot more interesting late Wednesday night when Saint Mary's inexplicably lost at RPI No. 317 San Diego. There's no way to sugarcoat this one. It's a potentially devastating defeat for the Gaels, who have only one top-70 win and have now opened the door for Gonzaga to grab at least a share of the league crown with trip to St. Mary's looming next Thursday. But before the Gaels host that enormous bout, in come the Aggies, also desperate for a win that will help validate their résumé, which barely has a top-100 win on it. The winner of this one isn't in the NCAAs, but the loser will suddenly be in significant bubble trouble.

Who to watch: The Gaels' backcourt of Mickey McConnell and Matthew Dellavedova is as exciting as any in the land, and San Diego transfer Rob Jones has provided a really nice scoring complement from the wing. SMC will be tested inside by the Aggies' stout forward Tai Wesley.

What to expect: The Gaels and Aggies have fairly similar statistical profiles, but SMC is slightly better and is at home. The Aggies' preferred glacial tempo shouldn't really bother a Gaels team that doesn't push pace a ton, either. SMC has won both meetings the last two seasons, and should be favored to make it three in a row, but now the pressure is equally on both teams

2. Virginia Commonwealth (20-8, 12-4 CAA) at Wichita State (22-5, 13-3 MVC)

Friday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2

Why to watch: Another huge bubble game, especially after VCU was handled at home by Old Dominion and George Mason and now is in résumé trouble. Wichita State also badly needs another solid win for its résumé, as even winning the regular-season Valley crown is not an automatic dance ticket this season. Also to enjoy the insane crowd, a staple of life in the Valley, sure to be supporting the Shockers. Lastly, unless you're an Ivy (Princeton-Yale on YES!) or Atlantic Sun fan, it's the only game in town in this time slot.

Who to watch: This is a five-star game without any real stars on either team. Both clubs favor a very balanced approach. Wichita State goes 10 deep and has no one averaging more than 11.5 points a game. Wake Forest transfer big man Jamie Skeen (14.9 ppg, 7.7 rpg) leads a similarly balanced Rams attack.

What to expect: This is a tough spot for VCU on the road against a team that should be difficult for the Rams to keep off the glass or stop from scoring in the paint. VCU thrives on creating a turnover differential, but Wichita State is prudent with the ball. The Shockers should be able to control the tempo and take care of business with the help of its frontcourt size and sizable home-court advantage.

3. Cleveland State (20-5, 11-4 Horizon) at Old Dominion (21-6, 12-4 CAA)

Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, ESPN2

Why to watch: Because neither team is assured of an NCAA berth without its conference's auto bid. Old Dominion has much better nonleague work but still is tied for second in the Colonial, two games behind league-leading George Mason. Cleveland State is now trailing surprising Valparaiso in the wacky Horizon League and sorely lacks the kind of quality wins that equal an at-large. Also, because it's always fun to watch a one-man gang take on a defense-oriented team approach.

Who to watch: If you didn't know about Norris Cole (pumped as my midseason mid-major breakout star) before last Saturday, you surely do after his 41-point, 20-rebound, nine-assist tour de force against Youngstown State. Yes, he's 6-foot-2. The Vikings' lead guard leads the team in basically every category and is one of the nation's top point guards. ODU will counter with the inside muscle of Frank Hassell and the complementary wing play of Kent Bazemore.

What to expect: Cleveland State is going to struggle to keep Old Dominion off the glass. ODU is second in the nation in offensive rebounding rate and CSU is a below-average rebounding team. Both teams like it relatively slow and are defensively oriented. Cole will need to have a monster game to offset ODU's balance and physicality advantages. Cleveland State hasn't beaten a team this good all season and this is a tough spot to break that trend.

4. George Mason (22-5, 14-2 CAA) at Northern Iowa (19-9, 10-6 MVC)

Saturday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2

Why to watch: George Mason has surged to the top of the Colonial, but the Patriots' overall profile still isn't great for an at-large team. Winning a solid league by multiple games would be an excellent at-large chip, but even with a two-bid CAA looking pretty likely, a loss here could offset some of that good work. Also, with the Panthers missing glue guy Lucas O'Rear, they haven't been the same. A legit NCAA team should win in this spot.

Who to watch: Ryan Pearson is the Patriots' best inside threat, but he can step out and shoot it. Not that he needs to, because George Mason surrounds him with five excellent shooters, including leading scorer Cam Long and three-point specialist Andre Cornelius. UNI's leading scorer, Kwadzo Ahelegbe, is one of the holdovers from last season's Sweet 16 team.

What to expect: This game will be settled from the three-point arc. Mason is one of the nation's best teams at both making (even though they don't shoot a ton) and defending the three, and Northern Iowa struggles in both categories, even though they take more threes than almost any team in the land. Mason is crushing the CAA at a scoring differential better than Butler's when it went unbeaten in the Horizon last season. Expect a high percentage of made threes and a Patriots road win.

5. Missouri State (21-6, 13-3 MVC) at Valparaiso (17-7, 11-3 Horizon)

Saturday, 5 p.m. ET, ESPN2

Why to watch: This is an enormous bubble game for the Bears and a classic negative-EV scenario. If they beat the Horizon leader on the road, they won't get nearly as much credit for it as they will have removed if they lose. Wins in their last three games, though, including the season finale vs. Wichita State, would give the Bears the Valley title, a sweep of the Shockers and solid positioning for an NCAA bid. Also to see if legendary coach Homer Drew is referred to as "Scott Drew's dad."

Who to watch: Dynamic scoring guard Kyle Weems is the Bears' leading man and Will Creekmore has stepped up to provide the scoring punch Missouri State expected from the really struggling Adam Leonard. Brandon Wood and Cory Johnson lead Valpo in scoring, but the most intriguing Crusader is Aussie wing Ryan Broekhoff, who grabs five boards a game, has blocked 31 shots and shoots 49 percent from three.

What to expect: Missouri State's mediocre defense scares me a bit on the road in this spot. Valpo's not a lethal offense, but the Crusaders score very effectively from inside the arc. Missouri State doesn't turn teams over very much, so Valpo's general carelessness with the ball may be less of an issue. KenPom likes Valpo by three and that sounds about right. Call for the mini-upset at home.

Thus endeth the reasonable at-large hopefuls section of our program, but that doesn't mean there's not more to watch below ...

6. Hofstra (18-9, 12-4 CAA) at Wright State (15-11, 10-6 Horizon)

Saturday, 11 a.m. ET, ESPNU

Why to watch: Charles Jenkins. Hofstra's scoring sensation made the Naismith midseason watch list for good reason: He can really play, as William & Mary found out on Tuesday. Hofstra is tied for second in the CAA and is a dark horse auto-bid thief. Wright State is one of five or six teams that could win the Horizon tourney, so there's a chance they could be in your bracket on Selection Sunday, too.

Who to watch: Jenkins. The diminutive senior guard is one of the most efficient high-usage players in the nation. It might actually benefit Hofstra if he were more selfish sometimes. He's not even taking 15 shots a game, even as he averages over 23 points an outing. Wright State's leading scorer is relatively inefficient fifth-year senior Vaughn Duggins. He and N'Gai Evans will have their hands full.

What to expect: Jenkins. Lots of him. Will that be enough in what's a pretty tough road venue in the Horizon? It will be fun to find out. KenPom says no. I'll say yes.

7. Vermont (21-5, 12-2 America East) at College of Charleston (19-7, 12-2 SoCon)

Saturday, 5 p.m. ET, ESPNU

Why to watch: If you enjoyed the Charles Jenkins Show earlier in the day, you can double dip on excellent scoring guards with C of C's Andrew Goudelock. In fact, why couldn't we have gotten Hofstra at Charleston? Damn you, BracketBusters selection committee. Still, these two teams are favored to win their leagues' auto bids, so you could see both in the bottom part of the bracket on March 13.

Who to watch: If you can take your eyes off Goudelock for a few seconds, you'll get treated with the fantastically awful facial hair of Vermont leading scorer Evan Fjeld. Fjeld's actually from Durham, N.C. As a Duke benchwarmer, he'd have made Club Trillion look unpopular.

What to expect: C of C is a much better team than anything Vermont has seen in the America East or has handled this season out of conference. Best player + better team + at home = Cougars win.

8. Austin Peay (15-11, 11-5 Ohio Valley) at Fairfield (20-5, 13-2 MAAC)

Saturday, 1 p.m. ET, ESPNU

Why to watch: Fairfield is the MAAC leader and the favorite to win the league's auto bid, as the Stags are hosting this year's conference tournament. Austin Peay has fallen behind Murray State and Morehead State, the expected heavyweights in the Ohio Valley, but could be a thorn for one of those two in a semifinal tourney matchup.

Who to watch: Fairfield's main man is lead guard Derek Needham, who takes a lot of shots (even though he doesn't make a ton of them) and turns the ball over a lot. That said, I think he's pretty good. I know that doesn't make any sense. Just trust me. Austin Peay will see Fairfield's relatively inefficient leading scorer and raise them with the exquisitely named TyShwan Edmondson, who is in his first season at Austin Peay after transferring from St. John's.

What to expect: Sounds like a broken record, but the better team is at home. It's a Stag party.

9. Kent State (16-8, 8-3 MAC) at Drexel (17-9, 9-7 CAA)

Friday, 9 p.m. ET, ESPNU

Why to watch: Because how many matchups of ranked Big East teams can you possibly watch in one season? (Yup, UConn-Louisville's also on the Friday night slate ...) Also because the Dragons fans come strong at the DAC in spots like this. Also because if they pan cameras around outside the gym, you may see Penn's campus.

Who to watch: Hey, it's a 6-8 forward doing work in the MAC! The league that spawns undersized frontcourt fiends has another one in Justin Greene, who's pacing the Golden Flashes in scoring and rebounding. He's also one of just four Kent State players to play in every game this season. Drexel's Samme Givens is even three inches shorter, but does the same kind of work for the Dragons. Of course, the most entertaining figure in the game could be peripatetic Drexel coach Bruiser Flint.

What to expect: Physical, lots of bodies on the floor, low-scoring. Sounds like a middle school dance.

10. Montana (17-7, 11-3 Big Sky) at Long Beach State (14-10, 11-2 Big West)

Saturday, 11 p.m. ET, ESPN2

Why to watch: Because after 12 hours of college hoops, there's nothing better to do on a Saturday night than watch Big Sky and Big West leaders clash. Also to see if Long Beach breaks out its flu bubbles. Also for the fun of Utah State fans rooting for The Beach to stay in the RPI top-100.

Who to watch: Montana big man Brian Qvale is just shy of the team lead in scoring and grabs almost nine boards a game, to boot. Long Beach will respond with the explosive backcourt of Casper Ware and Larry Anderson, the team's two leading scorers and assist men, and undersized-but-rugged rebounder T.J. Robinson.

What to expect: The Beach is a poor defensive team and Montana defends well enough to win on the road. The Grizzlies already went to the L.A. area once and won (at UCLA). Why not twice?

11. Iona (17-10, 11-5 MAAC) at Liberty (16-9, 13-3 Big South)

Saturday, 3 p.m. ET, ESPNU

Why to watch: Because you're intrigued to see how Liberty, with the 15th-best offensive rebounding rate in the nation, can still have the 257th-best offensive efficiency. (Answer: It can't shoot or stop turning the ball over.) Or to see the team most likely to spoil Coastal Carolina's auto-bid party, especially after the Chanticleers lost point guard Kierre Greenwood for the season with a torn ACL. Or because you have strong feelings about Liberty founder Jerry Falwell. Or you're related to Iona's Scott Machado.

Who to watch: Machado may be more well-known nationally, in part for the way Iona steamed William & Mary in last season's BracketBuster affair, but Michael Glover inside is what makes Iona tick. For Liberty, Evan Gordon takes the shots, but 6-4 guard John Brown is an unexpected double-double guy.

What to expect: Iona shoots the ball well and doesn't turn it over. Liberty doesn't do either of those things. Take the MAAC guys on the road.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.