It didn't even seem like a good idea back when it started. Many of the mid-major teams that kept getting snubbed over the years by the NCAA tournament selection committee were given extra chances to LOSE!
It's as if the power conferences had dreamed up a way to eliminate even more contenders for at-large bids. "Bracket Buster" games would stick half of the participants with a loss they normally wouldn't have had in the final weeks of the season.
ESPN promised, and delivered, national TV coverage of the top matchups. It didn't matter, hardly anybody watched. Fans love rooting for Cinderella teams in March when they have a chance to knock off a big name power. Watching two Cinderella's play each other in a sandbox gym in February? Who cares? The winning team doesn't even get the "One Shining Moment" montage at the end of the game.
Out of desperation, the mid-majors volunteered enthusiastically for the event anyway. National TV coverage is rare for these guys, so they'll take the spot in the listings even if they have to go head-to-head against big games. Every tough loss for a bubble team is a big win for another one. Maybe some of these wins would put teams over the top in the final discussions amidst the cigar smoke and RPI charts. Worth a shot, right?
The selection committee has shown no evidence that they care much at all about what happens on "Bracket Buster" weekend. The NCAA did do some tweaking to the RPI so mid-majors wouldn't get killed as badly in the strength of schedule category. This led to higher rankings for some Missouri Valley and Colonial teams last year. Because those conferences subsequently made headlines in the Dance last year (particularly the Colonial with George Mason reaching the Final Four), the tweaking was justified. The success had nothing to do with the "bracket buster" games though.
Winning a "Bracket Buster" game really doesn't help a team very much at all in the big picture. Losing a "Bracket Buster" game shows up as a loss against a non-marquee team. A win is about a half a step forward...a loss may be as much as two steps backward if it comes on a team's home floor.
For the right to hurt their chances at gaining an at-large bid to the Big Dance, prominent mid-major teams have created this TV schedule for the main windows Saturday on ESPN2:
Southern Illinois at Butler (great game!)
Northern Iowa at Nevada (nice game)
Bradley at Virginia Commonwealth (surprisingly important)
Drexel at Creighton (not bad)
ESPNU is showing some games too...but a lot of people don't even get that channel. Many of the teams involved in those lesser games play in conferences that don't have a chance in hell anyway of getting more than their postseason tourney champ invited to the Dance. Those games involved represent the "big four" TV showcase. They'll be fighting for eyeballs with these marquee matchups on CBS, ABC, and ESPN during the course of the day:
Georgetown at Villanova
UCLA at Arizona
Texas A&M at Oklahoma
Connecticut at Syracuse
Memphis at Gonzaga
North Carolina at Boston College
Other attractive TV matchups involving big name teams that will at least be garnering regional attention in their areas of interest:
Florida at Vanderbilt
Washington at Pittsburgh
Indiana at Michigan
Louisville at Marquette
How can the "big four" of the "Bracket Busters" get an audience against that wall-to-wall lineup? They can't. Fans of the eight mid-majors involved in those games will tune in. Avid hoops fans like our own "Buzz Ravanaugh" from the Mess Hall forum at MajorWager.com will surely be watching. (Buzz posted all the "Bracket Buster" games in the Mess Hall Thursday night as I was writing this up!) He knows those teams play a high caliber of basketball. Teams in the major conferences know it too...which is why they keep those guys off their schedules!
I put together some computer rating averages for the aforementioned "Bracket Buster" TV games so we could all get a sense of what might or might not be at stake in those matchups. These rankings were posted at websites Friday afternoon:
*RPI...the ratings percentage index that is used (allegedly) by the selection committee as they make their final decisions.
*USA Today...the Jeff Sagarin computer ratings that are well-respected in the industry.
*Kenpom.com...tabulated by college hoops fanatic Ken Pomeroy.
For some context, a team typically has to rank in the "consensus" top 50 to be considered for an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament. There are 65 teams in the brackets. About 15 each year go to teams way off the radar that won their smaller conference tournaments. The teams listed below (who are outside the top 50) probably won't get much consideration, even if they win Saturday.
SOUTHERN ILLINOIS AT BUTLER
Southern Illinois: 9th in RPI, 21st at USA Today, 29th at kenpom
Butler: 31st in RPI, 12th at USA Today, 19th at kenpom
Average rankings: Southern Illinois 20th, Butler 21st
What's at stake: Arguably nothing. Both teams have such strong resumes this year that each has likely already earned an at-large bid if they don't win their conference tournaments. This is clearly the marquee game of the day in terms of the "Bracket Busters." Perhaps the result might influence the seeding process. Both of these teams are capable of reaching the Sweet 16 without playing over their heads...and both are capable of going further if they do.
NORTHERN IOWA AT NEVADA
Northern Iowa: 90th in RPI, 77th at USA Today, 77th at kenpom
Nevada: 30th in RPI, 27th at USA Today, 68th at kenpom
Average rankings: Northern Iowa 81st, Nevada 42nd
What's at stake: Northern Iowa is so far out of the top 50 right now that they will probably have to win the Missouri Valley tournament to earn a ticket to the Big Dance. Nevada is getting a lot of respect from two of the three computers. And, the one that has them well back probably isn't a big part of the decision-making process. Nevada has probably clinched a berth regardless of what happens here. A loss on its home floor might make things a bit dicier.
BRADLEY AT VIRGINIA COMMONWEALTH
Bradley: 40th in RPI, 52nd at USA Today, 39th at kenpom
VCU: 45th in RPI, 65th at USA Today, 54th at kenpom
Average rankings: Bradley 44th, VCU 55th
What's at stake: This could be the real high impact game of the day. Bradley is in good shape heading into the weekend...but a loss here might drop them back to the borderline. Virginia Commonwealth would probably be on the outside looking in if not for George Mason's great run last year. That might help the Colonial get some respect in the conference room, though the decision-makers deny they think about stuff like that. Clearly in terms of importance, this is the big game of the day.
DREXEL AT CREIGHTON
Drexel: 55 in RPI, 79 at USA Today, 87 at kenpom
Creighton: 23 in RPI, 31 at USA Today, 43 at kenpom
Average rankings: Drexel 74th, Creighton 32nd
What's at stake: Creighton looks to be in the Dance already with the strong numbers in the RPI and USA Today. Drexel's average ranking is way out of the mix. A road victory here wouldn't nudge them close enough to be considered. Now, this doesn't mean Drexel isn't a good team, or isn't capable of catching Creighton napping. It just finishes off the point that most of these games don't mean much in the big picture. A win is a half a step forward. A loss is at least one step backward...a home loss is two.
Enjoy the games this weekend. Just don't believe the hype about the "bracket buster" games helping mid-major teams garner attention. Only the most avid fans will be watching the games. And, there's a much better chance the teams involved will hurt themselves rather than help themselves.