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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Friday, February 17, 2012 at 11:29 AM

It’s BRACKET BUSTER weekend in college basketball. The first games go tonight, and there’s a humongous schedule on Saturday. You longtime hoop fans know that most of the Bracket Buster games are irrelevant. Entire leagues leave this weekend open…which means that the majority of games are non-contenders playing each other in front of mostly empty small-time arenas. But, a few of the matchups really MATTER. We’re going to focus on the SIX games that are, in our view, the most important Bracket Buster games of the weekend.

First, let’s list the six games we’re going to focus on. Then, we’ll run through some preview numbers for you in that schedule order. If you have a schedule handy, we suggest writing the games down in this order than taking some notes. If not, just use a blank piece of paper. It would be crazy to try and handicap any of these games without knowing the strengths and weaknesses of each team, and what’s at stake!


Northern Iowa at VCU (Friday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2)

Drexel at Cleveland State (Saturday at 11 a.m. ET on ESPNU)

Wichita State at Davidson (Saturday at noon ET on ESPN2)

Akron at Oral Roberts (Saturday at 2 p.m. ET on ESPN 2)

St. Mary’s at Murray State (Saturday at 6 p.m. ET on ESPN)

Long Beach State at Creighton (Saturday at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN2)

The first game of interest is tonight, which is why we’re running this preview on a Friday instead of a Saturday. We’re very fond of Virginia Commonwealth, though they may get hosed in the selection process this year. They were a Final Four team last year, and are contending in an expected mid-major. The rest of the slate largely consists of teams who are expected to go Dancing this year…though some of them may not qualify for at-large’s if they don’t win their conference tournaments. At the very least, these six games will give you a March feel…and should be entertaining to watch. You’ll note that ESPN2 is basically wall-to-wall Bracket Busters on Saturday…though the biggest showcase game of St. Mary’s at Murray State cracked the big time on ESPN.

Now let’s get a little better sense of what we’re talking about here…

PROJECTED DANCE SEEDINGS (in Joe Lunardi’s Bracketology)

Northern Iowa (non-qualifier) at VCU (non-qualifier)

Drexel (14th) at Cleveland State (non-qualifier)

Wichita State (6th) at Davidson (14th)

Akron (13th) at Oral Roberts (13th)

St. Mary’s (5th) at Murray State (7th)

Long Beach State (11th) at Creighton (6th)

You never know with the seeding committee. They might love Long Beach and hate Creighton before it’s all said and done. And, teams like Drexel, Davidson, and Oral Roberts probably need to win their conference tournaments to get into the Dance even with respected seedings at the moment. Lunardi assumes conference tournament wins for the smaller leagues.

We have three teams on the outside looking in heading into the weekend. Cleveland State has fallen behind Valpo in the Horizon League standings, and they wouldn’t currently earn an at-large. The loser of tonight’s Northern Iowa-VCU game probably has no shot for an at-large.

Lunardi shows St. Mary’s-Murray State as being the dream game of the weekend…possibly with a second round flavor to it. We expect tournament type intensity in all six of these games of course.

Let’s see if respected computer ratings are seeing the matchups in the same light. We start with Jeff Sagarin’s numbers at USA Today’s website.


Northern Iowa (67) at VCU (58)

Drexel (78) at Cleveland State (71)

Wichita State (11) at Davidson (68)

Akron (59) at Oral Roberts (69)

St. Mary’s (34) at Murray State (53)

Long Beach State (44) at Creighton (23)

Suddenly the big game becomes Long Beach-Creighton, because the computers aren’t all that fond of Murray State just because they’ve been beating up on a crap schedule. The lowest sum of ratings for Sagarin would be in that nightcap, followed by Wichita State-Davidson and then St. Mary’s-Murray State. Gives you a slightly different perspective on what the best games may be.

Also, we see more here regarding teams that HAVE to win their conference tournaments to get into the Dance. Top 40 is pretty safe, if you’re not top 50…you need a friend in high places to get taken seriously. The Colonial teams (VCU and Drexel), along with Davidson, Akron, and ORU better take care of business next month. Murray State isn’t a lock either, though it would be hard to exclude them regardless of computer ratings if they run the table.

Let’s see what Ken Pomeroy thinks about these teams…


Northern Iowa (75) at VCU (49)

Drexel (64) at Cleveland State (73)

Wichita State (9) at Davidson (63)

Akron (60) at Oral Roberts (84)

St. Mary’s (42) at Murray State (67)

Long Beach State (48) at Creighton (34)

With Pomeroy, Wichita State-Davidson becomes the showcase game because he has the Shockers as a top ten team, while Creighton’s recent slump has hit them harder in this assessment. Murray State still isn’t getting computer respect. And, we still have the same issues for teams who need to win their conference tournament. Winning a Bracket Buster game may not help them anyway!

Now to the nuts and bolts. Let’s see who plays defense. Let’s see who has balance on both sides of the floor.


Northern Iowa (82nd on offense, 79th on defense) at VCU (98th on offense, 30th on defense)

Drexel (78th on offense, 69th on defense) at Cleveland State (112th on offense, 53rd on defense)

Wichita State (9th on offense, 24th on defense) at Davidson (31st on offense, 131st on defense)

Akron (86th on offense, 50th on defense) at Oral Roberts (29th on offense, 198th on defense)

St. Mary’s (24th on offense, 107th on defense) at Murray State (70th on offense, 86th on defense)

Long Beach State (41st on offense, 91st on defense) at Creighton (6th on offense, 161st on defense)

(The word “adjusted” means that the stats are adjusted for tempo and caliber of opponent)

If you’re a Cinderella fan, you have to be distressed that so many of these teams are better on offense than on defense. The only team who’s better on defense…with a top 40 caliber defense…is Virginia Commonwealth (the Colonial deserves more respect!). Wichita State is elite on both sides of the ball…and is basically a national power stuck in a Bracket Buster this year. It’s as if Indiana or Florida had to visit Davidson Saturday.

Otherwise, it’s hard to get excited about this group for the Dance because you need DEFENSE to string together victories. Anybody can get hot one time from the floor and spring an upset. And, obviously any team listed today is capable of doing that even if they don’t ultimately earn an invitation. Oral Roberts can spring an upset with a peak performance in a first round game. But, if you rank near 200th in defense, glory just isn’t coming your way when facing a string of top competition.

We may or may not have major releases in a few of these games this weekend. We can tell you that we’re most interested in evaluating Murray State and Long Beach State in their Saturday challenges. And, we’d like to see how Akron and Oral Roberts perform under the spotlight. That may foreshadow a pick in the MAC tournament or the Big Dance down the road.

We hope today’s numbers will give you some perspective on the games if you watch or handicap them this weekend. If you’d like some help finding the very best college and pro games on the board Friday and Saturday Night, link up with JIM HURLEY’S NETWORK!

Game day releases always go up a few hours before first tip.

If you have any questions about our basketball service, please call the handicapping office at 1-800-323-4453. We have great rates that take you through MARCH MADNESS, or through the NBA PLAYOFFS.

Friday Night will feature one of our top NBA plays so far this season. We’re looking at Dallas-Philadelphia and Phoenix-LA Lakers in the ESPN doubleheader, along with Milwaukee-Orlando, Miami-Cleveland, Minnesota-Houston, and Denver-Memphis. Among the showcase games Saturday we’re looking at for our TV Triple Crown: Ohio State-Michigan (see the NOTEBOOK early Saturday for a stat preview), Marquette-UCONN, UCLA-St. John’s, Arizona-Washington, Florida-Arkansas, and Dayton-Xavier.


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