A half-decade’s passed since ESPN ended its Bracket Buster weekend, yet plenty of college basketball fans long for the mid-major showcase’s return.
Bracket Buster ceased operations for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the logistical challenges of scheduling non-conference games in the final month of the regular season. As I brainstormed a hypothetical version of this event for 2018, the first and most pressing question is defining mid-majors.
The conferences have to leave a February weekend open for scheduling around the Bracket Buster, so these leagues must be clearly defined. Although teams from the American like Houston and SMU — and, lately, Wichita State — would benefit from a Bracket Buster, the AAC is out.
The West Coast Conference is in — excluding Gonzaga. The Zags are the sole individual exclusion from any of the qualifying leagues.
The original Bracket Buster became watered down as schedules were made too far in advance, and the abundance of games left the event lost in the background against the intensifying power-conference races. That bastardized the entire concept behind Bracket Buster, which was to offer mid-majors both the national spotlight ahead of the NCAA Tournament, as well as an opportunity for a marquee win at a critical juncture in the campaign.
Like the NCAA Tournament, The Open Man’s fictitious Bracket Buster features four regions. Matchups are drawn within region two weeks out from the event. Each region features a “Main Event;” two games of particular importance to the NCAA Tournament race.
Each Bracket Buster Main Event is played at a neutral site in a doubleheader, intended to create both a March feel, and avoid giving any one team an unfair advantage with home court — or a disadvantage by robbing it of the opportunity for a road win.
Rematches are a no-go, as well, so a few teams selected for this hypothetical cannot play (MTSU and Belmont, St. Bonaventure and Buffalo).
WEST: Las Vegas
Las Vegas becomes the epicenter of Western basketball in the first half of March, hosting the conference tournaments for the Pac-12, Mountain West, West Coast and Western Athletic Conferences. So long as the NCAA bars any Madness from Sin City, may as well pack as much basketball in before Selection Sunday.
What better way to kick off the Road to the Final Four than with a Bracket Buster double-header at T-Mobile Arena?
SAINT MARY’S (West Coast: 22-2 ) vs. NEVADA (Mountain West: 19-4; No. __ RPI, No. 17 KenPom)
The crown jewel of this fictional Bracket Buster weekend isn’t so much about playing for the possibility of an at-large berth; barring utter collapse down the stretch, both Saint Mary’s and Nevada are firmly in the Field of 68.
Rather, this high-profile showdown will aid with seeding for the winner.
NEW MEXICO STATE (WAC: 19-3; No. 45 RPI, No. 36 KenPom) vs. BOISE STATE (Mountain West: 18-4; No. 37 RPI, No. 47 KenPom)
Various bracketologists have Boise State rather solidly in the Field of 68. The Mountain West’s track record over recent years, even with a dip last year, helps buoy the Broncos’ case. It also doesn’t hurt that Boise State has some impressive wins out of conference, including a blowout of fellow mid-major at-large contender, Loyola Chicago.
New Mexico State’s at-large case is much more peculiar. The Aggies have been regulars in the Big Dance over the past decade, but always as the automatic berth out of the WAC. New Mexico State was last an at-large in the early 1990s at a time when national powerhouse UNLV elevated the Big West beyond mid-major status. The current WAC isn’t the ’90s Big West — the WAC is a low-major. And yet, New Mexico State’s put together a very serious at-large resume.
This is arguably the most high-stakes of all the matchups in this hypothetical breakdown.
EAST: New York
Madison Square Garden boasts a rich and illustrious college basketball history. We add to its lineage with the East Region of the Bracket Buster Main Event.
BUFFALO (Mid-American: 15-6; No. 33 RPI, No. 81 KenPom) vs. RHODE ISLAND (Atlantic 10: 19-3; No. 6 RPI, No. 34 KenPom)
Frankly, Rhode Island would not have a ton of use for a Bracket Buster matchup. The Rams are firmly in the NCAA Tournament. However, with an RPI currently in the Top 10, adding another potential quality win could shore up the Rams’ prospects for strong seeding — something that has evaded some of the better A-10 teams in recent years.
A Rhode Island-Saint Mary’s pairing might be the pinnacle for this fictitious event, but sticking to the framework set forth, the Rams get MAC leader Buffalo. There’s a fun connection here: The Bulls reached their first NCAA Tournament in program history in 2015 with Bobby Hurley at the helm, while his brother Dan coaches Rhody.
VERMONT (America East: 18-5; No. 52 RPI, No. 62 KenPom) vs. ST. BONAVENTURE (Atlantic 10: 16-6; No. 49 RPI, No. 75 KenPom)
The Atlantic 10 has been a pretty consistent multiple-bid conference — so much so, it might be debatable whether the A-10 really qualifies as a mid-major. However, with VCU and Davidson down this season, the A-10 might be relegated to a single bid if Saint Bonaventure is unable to build a credible at-large case.
No one would define the America East as a mid-major conference — because it’s actually a low-major. As such, there’s no way it could field an at-large invitation to the Big Dance…right?
Well, should something trip up Vermont in conference play come Championship Week, the Catamounts seem poised to test the selection committee. A defeat of a Saint Bonaventure team squarely on the bubble would strengthen Vermont’s case. At the same time, beating a Catamounts bunch positioned near the Top 50 in both RPI and KenPom would bolster the Bonnies’ resume at a time they really need it.
SOUTH: New Orleans
The Crescent City boasts an impressive college basketball history, with the Superdome serving as one of the primary locations for the Final Four over four decades. The Smoothie King Center plays host to our Bracket Buster Main Event in the South, offering a more central location than another South Region option, Atlanta.
LOUISIANA-LAFAYETTE (Sun Belt: 20-3; No. 54 RPI, No. 53 KenPom) vs. EAST TENNESSEE STATE (SoCon: 21-4; No. 61 RPI, No. 67 KenPom)
UT-Arlington was a heavy favorite to waltz through the Sun Belt in 2018, en route to the NCAA Tournament bid snatched away via the conference tournament. Few accounted for an excellent Louisiana-Lafayette team emerging to set the pace.
The Ragin’ Cajuns have not lost since before Christmas, rolling behind BYU transfer Frank Bartley. As impressive as their winning streak is, however, SoCon front-runner East Tennessee State hasn’t lost in 15 games — and the Buccaneers last defeat was by a single bucket at Xavier on Dec. 16.
MTSU (Conference USA: 17-5; No. 22 RPI, No. 41 KenPom ) vs. MURRAY STATE (OVC: 18-5; No. 94 RPI; No. 63 KenPom)
MTSU knocked off opponents from the Big Ten in the opening round of the last two NCAA Tournaments. This year’s Blue Raiders aren’t sneaking up on any opponents come March. However, the benefit of both previous Tournament success and a stronger Conference USA — including resurgent Old Dominion, which MTSU edged on the road for a Quadrant 1 win this past week — could have MTSU poised for its best seeding ever.
MTSU played and lost to Murray State’s top competitor in the OVC, fellow Bracket Buster Main Event invitee Belmont, back in November. Murray State’s excellent offense (No. 25 in adjusted efficiency) would make for a fun counter to MTSU’s outstanding defense (No. 14 in adjusted efficiency).
The United Center hosts some of the most high-profile college basketball of the early portion of the season, when the sport is in the shadow of football. With the Big Ten opting to take its tournament to New York for…some reason, Chicago has a need for big-time basketball in this latter stretch of the campaign.
BELMONT (OVC: 19-6; No. 76 RPI, No. 77 KenPom) vs. SOUTH DAKOTA STATE (Summit League: 20-6; No. 69 RPI, No. 82 KenPom)
Coach Rick Byrd has built former NAIA program Belmont into one of the most consistent mid-majors in college basketball. This year’s Bruins currently hold the edge in the OVC over fellow Bracket Buster Main Event selection Murray State, one of eight straight victories for Belmont.
The Bruins boast an impressive resume with the Murray State and MTSU wins, as well as a victory over Western Kentucky and the SEC’s Vanderbilt Commodores.
If this was Bracketology, South Dakota State would be the “Last In.” The Jackrabbits are jockeying with South Dakota for the Summit League championship, and the Coyotes won head-to-head in January. However, SDSU has a much stronger RPI — USD barely clears the Top 100 as of this writing — and the Jackrabbits also have Mike Daum. The Dauminator deserves a national stage, as he has March breakout star potential.
LOYOLA-CHICAGO (Missouri Valley: 19-5; No. 52 RPI, No. 56 KenPom vs. WESTERN KENTUCKY (Conference USA: 16-7; No. 50 RPI, No. 55 KenPom)
The Missouri Valley has historically earned an at-large bid into the NCAA. A combination of conference realignment pillaging (Creighton and Wichita State to the Big East) and some typically strong programs like Southern Illinois suffering through lulls might leave the Valley with just a single bid in 2018.
Loyola-Chicago is the Valley’s strongest candidate for an at-large, but the Ramblers are an interesting test case. They beat Florida, a highly impressive Quadrant I victory, but lost a ghastly decision to Milwaukee (No. 220 RPI). With the MVC somewhat down this year, a Bracket Buster matchup such as this would be the Ramblers best hope to score one more resume victory.
Western Kentucky has its own interesting at-large case. The Hilltoppers have wins over SMU and Purdue, the latter of which is in line for a No. 1 seed. WKU also lost to Ohio and UTSA, a couple of unsightly dings on its resume.
Conference USA is strong enough at the top this year, with MTSU, Old Dominion and UAB all joining WKU in the KenPom Top 100. But one more quality opponent couldn’t hurt a resume that needs all the padding it can muster.