Top Six Games for Bracket Buster Weekend
by Robert Ferringo - 02/18/2009
This weekend is one of the most energized and unique on the college basketball calendar: Bracket Buster weekend.
Now, the official "BracketBuster" games are actually the 13 televised contests between the top mid-major schools in the country on the ESPN channels. Those 13 games, featuring 26 teams, were selected from a pool of 102 potential programs. The other 76 teams that aren't on ESPN games will square off in the remaining 38 games - most of them lined by the oddsmakers - to form what is commonly known as Bracket Buster weekend.
This particular set of games provides a unique opportunity for sharp and experienced gamblers to turn a healthy profit. If you are familiar with the teams, know the key angles and trends, and understand the relative conference strength between programs then you really could be at an advantage over the oddsmakers. In a lot of ways the fundamentals of handicapping the Bracket Buster matchups is similar to what it takes to be successful in the nonconference portion of the season: instincts, guile, and confidence in your own perspective on these teams.
With that in mind, here is a look at the six best Bracket Buster games on the slate this weekend:
Illinois State at Niagara (7 p.m., Friday, Feb. 20)
The Bracket Buster weekend tips off with a good one, as the Missouri Valley's No. 3 team heads to The Falls to take on the Purple Eagles. Niagara is presently the No. 72 team in the country while Illinois State is No. 79 so this should be a tight one and I think the home squad will be a small favorite. Niagara has solid wins over Buffalo, South Florida and Murray State in the nonconference while the Redbirds have played only one team ranked in the top 140, and that was their opener against Wright State.
Both clubs rely heavily on their exceptional guard play. For Niagara it's the threesome of Tyrone Lewis, Bilal Benn and Rob Garrison that get it done, combining for nearly 40 points per game. Illinois State features four guards that average over 10 points, led by Oregon transfer Chamberlain Oguchi (14.7). ISU is No. 44 in the country in three-point shooting and in the top 75 in both field goal defense and three-point defense. Niagara is ISU's equal on the defensive front, but the Purple Eagles are prone to scoring droughts and are just No. 262 in field goal shooting and No. 297 in three-point shooting.
I give the slight edge here to Illinois State but mainly I think this game is going to be played in the 60s and will stay 'under'. I anticipate the total to be set around 141.
VCU at Nevada (9 p.m., Friday, Feb. 20)
One of the best guards in the country, Eric Maynor, takes a young VCU team into Reno to tussle with a has-been WAC program. Nevada is somehow in second place in the WAC after a shaky start to the year. Their main issue has been that they don't consistently knock down the perimeter shots. They are one of the 20 worst three-point shooting teams in the nation at just 29.1 percent and not one of their guard shoots better than 34 percent.
VCU, on the other hand, has one of the most lethal snipers in the game in Maynor. The senior is an absolute ninja, and his icy demeanor belies a cold-blooded viciousness. He manages 22.6 points per game and is nearly unstoppable one-on-one. The Rams run a variety of different press options and they will try to force the tempo against the Wolfpack. Finally, this game fits into a very profitable Bracket Buster trend. Teams that have had to undergo major travel are 24-9 ATS over the last four years in Bracket Buster games, and teams that have endured significant travel from east to west are a solid 16-6 ATS.
Nevada is playing at home (which isn't always a bonus in BB games) and they have a full week to prepare. Be wary of a live home dog here, but I don't know if I'd be laying points to a VCU team that has a neutral court win over New Mexico and rolled at Akron last year.
Butler at Davidson (Noon, Saturday, Feb. 21)
This is definitely the marquee game on the Bracket Buster schedule and I felt it should have been given primetime billing. Butler is one of just two Top 25 teams participating in the Bracket Buster weekend (Utah State) and both of these teams have made captivating NCAA Tournament runs over the last two years. Further, both teams are exceptionally well coached and have a load of experience playing in marquee games.
The focus this week will be on the ankle of Davidson's Stephen Curry and the line will be set based on his health. Now, if Curry can't go (and the Wildcats face Citadel tonight so we'll get an idea on his condition then) then I think Davidson is going to take an ass whooping. I think he will play, but he is the best scorer in college hoops so obviously his status is critical.
Butler actually lost, at home, to Drake last year in the best Bracket Buster game of the day. And I also think that they need this game a bit more. There is a good chance that the Bulldogs won't win their conference tournament this year so I think they need this game to solidify their resume. Nearly half of Butler's shots are three-pointers and they are one of the better shooting teams in the nation. If they are on they can definitely win on Davidson's home court. Butler has wins over UAB, Xavier and Northwestern this season so they won't be the least bit intimidated.
Northern Iowa at Siena (3 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 21)
Siena brought back their top eight players from a team that pulled a sweet upset in last year's NCAA Tournament. The Saints are 21-6 overall this year and a spotless 13-0 at home, and after an overambitious schedule this is a critical game for them. They decided to take on Kansas, Pitt and Tennessee in the nonconference but lost those three games by an average of 11 points per. They also have a two-point loss to MVC bottom feeder Wichita State on the docket.
Siena struggled early in the year mainly because they weren't knocking down shots. But they have managed to win 16 of 18 games since their loss at Pittsburgh and they have worked their way up to a nearly respectable 32.6 percent from deep. This team has shown that it can get up for big games and they absolutely hammered a good Boise State crew on the road last year in the BB.
Northern Iowa, on the other hand, has had no problem putting the ball in the basket. They are one of the best shooting teams in the country and have won 12 of 14 games of their own, including an 11-game winning streak. They have five guys averaging nine points or more and are getting surprisingly good guard play. The trouble is that they played just six nonconference games against teams in the Top 200. They are 1-5 in those games and lost the road ones by seven, 30, 19 and nine points. And Marquette (the 30-point loss) was only team better than Siena.
Miami, OH at Evansville (3:30 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 21)
The Redhawks execute as well as any team in the country and play a very unique style that Evansville will have to adjust to. They feature Michael Bramos, one of the best mid-major players in the country, and this Miami team is ranked No. 67 in the nation. Miami lost by just four points at UCLA, by seven at Xavier, and by seven at Dayton. They can win on the road and will be a live dog.
Evansville is just another shaky, up-and-down Missouri Valley squad. They are just 4-8 in their last 12 games and are coming off a tight loss at Creighton. But the Purple Aces are pretty spry at home and the Redhawks better be ready to defend against a three-point barrage.
Utah State at St. Mary's (5 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 21)
This is the second-best game of the day and features a pair of clubs that have spent time lingering in the Top 25. Unfortunately for St. Mary's they are still without superstar point guard and leading scorer Patty Mills, who will be out for at least two more weeks.
St. Mary's was rocked at home last year by eventually tourney team Kent State. They have dumped four of their last six games without Mills after working through an excellent nonconference schedule with an 18-1 mark. However, all of that work with Mills leading the way. This is still a good team - they gave Gonzaga a run at home and beat a solid Portland team last week - and I think they are desperate for a win here.
I, personally, think that Utah State is a fraud. I think that they are the best team in a weak and rebuilding WAC this year and they have played just two games (BYU and Utah) against teams in the Top 115. They split those games and both were near home. USU is still a decent squad, but all I know is that they are headed into a hornet's nest and I'm not sure if they are up for it.