Mark D. SMith
Bracket Buster weekend isn't exactly what the founding fathers might have intended if they wanted to give teams a shot at improving their resume. We pick three teams that can't afford not to make the most of the chance they do get come the final weekend in February.
It is the final season of Bracket Busters, and it is destined to go out with a bang. The lineup of games, from the televised to the non-televised, definitely had plenty to see in terms of great basketball.
And while some games don't offer much for the teams involved at this point -- such as Illinois State vs. Utah State, which is no longer an "elimination game" of sorts -- a few offer teams a chance to score that much-needed win for the final push at an NCAA Tournament chance should they fail to win their presumably one-bid conference.
Looking at the lineup of games, I narrowed down the list of three teams that need this game the most, in order to make up for flaws in resumes, or to bolster what could be a shaky standing. To keep it simple, I kept it to the games that are on television, which is important because it means the people making the decisions for the Tournament don't have to get off their couch to see the results.
So who needs to take care of business the most?
1. Ohio -- Plays at Belmont on Saturday. RPI: 90*; KenPom: 70**; MRI: 61***
You would think that the onus would be on the other team in this game, the Belmont Bruins. But keep in mind that Belmont began to get some votes in the AP Poll this week, and is on quite a tear in its first season in the Ohio Valley.
The Bruins took out two of the top contenders for the conference crown over a week ago (both were undefeated at the time) and still have a chance to score a top win against Murray State on Thursday. Plus the "numbers" are there for the Bruins, including a high RPI (oh, if only that didn't matter), good computer rankings, and a couple of nice wins.
No, this game is most important for Ohio, which lost yet another chance to beef up its resume Saturday with a loss to Akron. The Bobcats had won just a single game against the KenPom top 100 coming into the weekend, and that was against Richmond, a team that won't get a lot of tournament consideration. On the list of failures is a loss to Oklahoma (a fringe NCAA candidate) and a blowout defeat at the hands of Memphis.
And then there are the bad losses. Winthrop? At this point, Robert Morris might also fall into that category no matter the surge by the Colonials.
Ohio was an intact team from last season, and yet the loss of John Groce has definitely affected the 'Cats even if it shouldn't have (no knock against Jim Christian, just ... different).
So beating a top 50 team in Belmont on the road will be huge for them to get a chance at an at large bid, even if the overall resume isn't perfect. The only game on the schedule outside of Bracket Buster weekend that is worth its salt is the Akron trip to Athens, and we all know the committee cares little about home victories in the mid-major ranks.
This is a must win game for any consideration (and that probably includes another run to the conference finals) for an at large win. D.J. Cooper, you are on notice (but please don't over reach as you did for most of the North Carolina Sweet 16 game).
2. Stephen Austin -- Plays at Long Beach State on Friday. RPI: 82; KenPom: 59; MRI: 57
Stephen F. Austin is in charge of the Southland Conference and there really isn't any argument there (ok, there is a bit of one from Northwestern State). The team is 18-2 overall and 9-1 in conference with the only non-conference loss coming at the hands of Texas A&M. Not a stellar loss to have, but nothing that you are going to really hang your head about.
The problem comes when you look at the rest of the schedule. The non-conference schedule is in the bottom 50 in the country according to KenPom. The conference schedule -- outside of the aforementioned Demons -- isn't headlining any evening's slate, even here at Mid-Major Madness.
In short, Stephen F. Austin has little chance to do any impressing except for this single Friday night game.
The problem comes in the perception of Long Beach State. Remember that this is a 49ers team that got shellacked in the nonconference season. But this is also a Long Beach team that wasn't what will be taking the floor in late February. What hurts the Lumberjacks is that the change in personnel isn't reflected in the RPI, or computer numbers of Long Beach. They get the complete resume of the team they are playing, not just selective memory.
So while the 49ers are currently leading the Big West at 9-1, the game might not sing for the committee because of the overall profile of the team. The Lumberjacks absolutely need to win this game on the road. A loss will mean they have no shot at an outside at large candidacy. And a win might not even be enough, but at least it doesn't hurt (it won't be easy given the additions that the 49ers have made. We like Long Beach.)
3. Detroit - Plays at Wichita State on Saturday. RPI: 72; KenPom: 62; MRI: 62.
Detroit is in the same situation as Ohio up above. They have a lot of games against the top teams in the country, but just a single win that means anything. The problem for Detroit is that their win came against Akron, another mid-major.
We won't discount that, but you can see the argument now: "But it is Akron, not Oklahoma".
So here you have a team that is 1-3 against the top 50 in KenPom, and all three of those losses are to teams in the top 15. But there are no good wins outside of Akron, and that is balanced off by a loss at home to Valparaiso in which the Titans basically collapsed.
That is not the impression you want to leave the committee.
So this is the chance. You get another team that is in the top 30 of KenPom, and the top 25 of the MRI. You go into one of the most hostile environments in the country (no doubt on this one), and you have a chance to go up against one of the more difficult defenses and prove your worth.
This would be a defining win for the Titans and one that could mean a lot rolling through the final weeks of the season in terms of confidence. Just imagine how good Nick Minnerath will look in the middle after facing off against Carl Hall, or Cleanthony Early. OK, we might have promised we wouldn't rave about the Detroit big man any longer.
He did just win Player of the Week honors though.
Detroit needs this win for any shot at some extra love should they fumble and crumble again against Valparaiso, especially if that trip comes in the conference finals.
So there you have it. But who do you think needs its Bracket Buster win the most?