Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Top Ten Countdown: Bracket Buster Weekend

When the announcement of the Bracket Buster weekend games was released a few weeks ago, most college basketball junkies immediately started scouring the list of 50 games to find the best ones. Obviously, there are several unnecessary games. 7-17 Evansville at 4-21 Eastern Illinois? Or 4-20 Jacksonville State at 7-18 Georgia State? What about 6-18 Youngstown at 7-17 Buffalo – and that’s just three of the relatively uninteresting games this coming weekend. However, there is also an abundance of quality contests – and not just the televised games. Nearly every "TV game" is a match-up of competitive teams, but there are plenty of games outside of the viewing arena that should be followed closely. So, what are the Top Ten Bracket Buster Games? Most won't be surprised at the No. 1 and No. 2, but the rest are debatable.

1. Drake at Butler (Saturday, 6:00 PM, ESPN2): Two of the best teams in the country, regardless of conference affiliation, and two teams that will be in the mix for top-four seeds come Selection Sunday (although Drake’s loss to Bradley on Tuesday night could change that). Butler has lost just two games all season, to Wright State and Cleveland State on the road. The Bulldogs own wins over Ohio State, Texas Tech, Virginia Tech, Florida State and Southern Illinois. Mike Green and A.J. Graves form one of the best backcourts in the country, while Pete Campbell is an outstanding three-point shooter. Freshman forward Matt Howard provides a low-post presence that they were missing at times last year. Drake was one of the biggest surprises in the country, as it had won 20 games in a row prior to losing to Southern Illinois and Bradley in the past three games. The most impressive win for the Bulldogs was over Duquesne, although they also beat Iowa and Iowa State. Josh Young and Leonard Houston are solid scorers on the wings, while Adam Emmenecker is a good distributor at the point. Jonathan Cox is a double-double threat inside.

2. Kent State at Saint Mary’s (Saturday, 11:59 PM, ESPN2): Another match-up between two teams that could certainly win a game or two in the NCAA Tournament. However, in Kent State’s case, they have to get there first. A win here would do wonders for the Golden Flashes’ NCAA Tournament profile. They have solid wins over mid-major clubs such as George Mason, Ohio, Akron, Illinois State and Cleveland State, but no marquee victories. Kent State has a very good forward duo in Mike Scott and Haminn Quaintance, both of whom can score and rebound. Guard Al Fisher is the team’s leading scorer, while Chris Singletary is solid. Saint Mary’s is in the mix for a top-five or six seed come March, if the Gaels continue to play the way they have. The own wins over Drake, Gonzaga, Oregon, Seton Hall and Ohio, among others. Patty Mills is one of the premier freshman point guards in the country, while Diamon Simpson is arguably the most difficult personnel match-up in the WCC. Omar Samhan makes a difference at both ends of the court and Todd Golden has shown the ability to shoot and distribute.

3. Wright State at Illinois State (Sunday, 6:30 PM, ESPNU): The next two games could have potential at-large implications, depending on how the rest of the regular-season plays out. Wright State looked like an NCAA Tournament team earlier in the season, but the Raiders faltered during the middle part of the season. However, they have won 10 in a row and are rolling. Vaughn Duggins and Todd Brown are the go-to-guys on WSU; both are very solid guards who can score. Forwards Scottie Wilson and Jordan Pleiman provide balance – Wilson has good range. Illinois State is second in the Missouri Valley – in most years, it would be more than enough for an at-large bid, but not this season. ISU’s best non-conference win is over Cincinnati. Osiris Eldridge is one of the best players in the conference, while Dom Johnson and Boo Richardson are also solid guards. Anthony Slack is the team’s best frontcourt player.

4. George Mason at Ohio (Saturday, 1:00 PM, ESPN2): A couple of weeks ago, it seemed like these two teams might get at-large bids; however, George Mason has lost two of its last three, while Ohio has dropped three of its last five. George Mason had a killer home loss to UNC-Wilmington, but the Patriots still have wins over Dayton, Kansas State and VCU. Will Thomas is a load to stop down low – he’s basically a double-double guarantee every night. Folarin Campbell is versatile and experienced, while John Vaughan has developed into a consistent option this season. Ohio is in a tailspin, but the Bobcats still have the talent to turn it around and make a run in the MAC Tournament. They already have beaten Maryland, St. John’s and Kent State. Ohio has one of the most underrated big men duos in the country in double-double threat Leon Williams and Jerome Tillman. Bubba Walther is the team’s best outside option.

5. Virginia Commonwealth at Akron (Saturday, 11:00 AM, ESPN2): A similar game to the George Mason-Ohio match-up, as both pit CAA and MAC teams against each other, but this game does not carry too much at-large implications. VCU was everyone’s NCAA Tournament darling after it defeated Duke in the first-round and took Pittsburgh to overtime. Eric Maynor returns from that squad; he is one of the best point guards in the country. Jamal Shuler is a big-time scorer on the wing, while Michael Anderson is an inside-outside option. Akron has won three straight road games in the MAC to move within two games of Kent State. Jeremiah Wood could certainly cause problems for VCU, but he is injury and will likely not play. Nick Dials and Cedrick Middleton will have to take on more of a scoring role in his absence. Nate Linhart and Quade Milum are solid forwards up front.

6. Davidson at Winthrop (Friday, 7:00 PM, ESPN2): Last year, Winthrop was everybody’s favorite upset pick; will Davidson be the 2008 version of the Eagles? There’s certainly a chance, as the Wildcats are undefeated in the Southern Conference and have shown the ability to hang with the big boys in close losses to North Carolina, Duke and UCLA. Stephen Curry is an outstanding shooter and scorer, while Jason Richards is a playmaker who leads the nation in assists. Thomas Sander and Boris Meno lead a deep and versatile frontcourt. Winthrop took a step back from the past few seasons, but a recent losing streak by UNC-Asheville gave first-place back to the Eagles. They have defeated Miami (Fl.), Georgia Tech and Akron this season. Michael Jenkins is an outstanding long-range shooter who has taken more of a scorer’s role this season, while Chris Gaynor is a very solid all-around point guard. Taj McCullough is tough to defend down low; he has plenty of talent and potential.

7. Siena at Boise State (Saturday, 10:00 PM, ESPN360): Both of these teams, despite the closeness of their respective league races, are arguably the most talented squads in their conferences. Siena defeated Stanford earlier in the season, putting the nation on notice. Kenny Hasbrouck and Ronald Moore form an outstanding guard tandem, while Edwin Ubiles is an extremely difficult match-up on the wing. He can score in a variety of ways, and is tough to stop. Alex Franklin provides scoring and rebounding down low. Boise State has won seven of its last eight to move into first-place in the WAC. The Broncos have an outstanding post duo in Reggie Larry and Matt Nelson, one of the most productive inside tandems in college basketball. Larry might be the best big men you’ve never heard of. Tyler Tiedeman is an unbelievable three-point shooter on the wing, while Matt Bauscher can do a little of everything.

8. Rider at Cal State Northridge (Saturday, 9:00 PM, ESPNU):
Two teams heading in the wrong direction at the wrong time. Rider has lost three in a row since beating Siena and Niagara in back-to-back games, while CSU Northridge had lost two in a row before bouncing back with a couple of wins over mediocre teams. Rider is led by one of the best players in the country, forward Jason Thompson. He can do everything on the court, and will be one of the few players to average 20 points and 10 rebounds in the country this season. His brother, Ryan Thompson, is a terrific second option due to his versatility and all-around ability. CSU Northridge has a very solid backcourt in Deon Tresvant and distributor extraordinaire Josh Jenkins, one of the country’s premier passers. Jonathan Heard and Calvin Chitwood form a good forward duo, while Tremaine Townsend is a double-double threat every night out.

9. Creighton at Oral Roberts (Saturday, 3:00 PM, ESPN2): Two of the best mid-major programs in recent years, both teams came into the season with lessened expectations. Creighton’s lack of attention seems somewhat deserved, as the Bluejays are just 9-7 in conference play, but Oral Roberts has not missed a beat, as it has won 12 of its last 13 games. Creighton is led by the inside-outside combo of P’Allen Stinnett and Dane Watts. Watts is very experienced and can do a variety of things. Booker Woodfox leads a host of talented guards in the rotation. Oral Roberts misses departed seniors Caleb Green and Ken Tutt, but the Crusaders still have more than enough weapons to make noise. Robert Jarvis is an explosive guard who can score, while point guard Adam Liberty has improved his all-around game. Shawn King is a defensive ace who can rebound against anyone in the league. Moses Ehambe is an excellent three-point shooter.

10. UC Santa Barbara at Utah State (Friday, 9:00 PM, ESPNU):
One of the major reasons to watch this game is the simple fact that it will pit two of the best perimeter players in the country against each other in Utah State’s Jaycee Carroll and UCSB’s Alex Harris. Both are outstanding long-range shooter who can also get inside the arc and finish baskets near the rim. Utah State has lost three straight games, though, and is essentially fading from the WAC title race. Still, Carroll gives the Aggies a chance to win against anyone. Kris Clark is a very solid point guard, while Gary Wilkinson is the main man up front. UCSB is just a game and a half out of first-place in the Big West, and the Gauchos are heating up. James Powell starts next to Harris on the perimeter. Chris Devine is the leader up front, while Ivan Elliot is another option in the frontcourt.

Other Televised Games

Nevada at Southern Illinois (Saturday, 4:30 PM, ESPNU):
Maybe this game would have been better last season, when both teams were legit Sweet Sixteen threats and had something to truly play for in late February. Both teams are playing well lately, though.

Marist at Cleveland State (Saturday, 6:30 PM, ESPNU): Two teams who were playing much better a few weeks ago. Marist has dropped to sixth in the MAAC with losses in five of its last six games, while Cleveland State has lost six of its last nine.

Miami (Ohio) at Valparaiso (Saturday, 6:00 PM, ESPN Classic): Another game that would have been better off scheduled for earlier in the season. Miami (Ohio) was the talk of the mid-major world in November and December, but they are just 13-12. Valpo had lost five in a row before winning its last game.

UW Milwaukee at Bradley (Saturday, 9:00 PM, ESPN360): How did this game make the televised section of the Bracket Busters? UW Milwaukee is just 12-11 overall with an 8-6 Horizon record, and they have to visit a hot Bradley team that has won eight of 10, including a win at Drake tonight.

Non-Televised Games to Keep an Eye On

1. Portland State at Cal State Fullerton:
The Big Sky leader vs. the hottest team in the Big West. PSU has won eight games in a row and has a 2.5-game lead on Northern Arizona, while CSU-Fullerton has won seven of its last eight, with just one win coming by single-digits.

2. Niagara at Appalachian State: Some complained when Appalachian State didn’t make the televised portion of the Bracket Busters, although ASU has lost two in a row. Niagara has won three in a row to get back into the MAAC title race. Charron Fisher is one of the best players in the mid-major world.

3. Georgia Southern at Austin Peay:
An interesting game between the second-best team in the Southern and the Ohio Valley leader. GSU is 12-5 in the Southern and second in its division; however, it’s in Davidson’s division, so they’re five games back. APU had won five in a row before falling at Tennessee State on Monday.

4. Vermont at UNC-Wilmington: A match-up between two of the better teams that have basically no chance to reach the postseason. Vermont has an outstanding duo that is vastly underrated on a national level in guard Mike Trimboli and Marquis Blakely. UNCW has four double-figure scorers and could be a real sleeper in the CAA Tournament due to its late play and overall talent and balance.

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