INDIANAPOLIS -- Things were different eight years ago. Folks were afraid of SARS. Valerie Plame was still anonymous. People still had AOL e-mail addresses. This website, Bally Basketball, and Willow Smith's recording career weren't even figments of imagination yet. But in 2003, a huge TV sports network had a dream... a dream to give mid-major college basketball teams national exposure in February.
Kent State was the original Bracket Buster. The season before the show began, the No. 10 seed Golden Flashes from the MAC charged all the way to the Elite Eight, clearing out Oklahoma State, Alabama and Pitt before falling to Indiana. I remember watching those games on television and knowing, even then, that the announcers and reporters were vamping. They didn't know who these guys were, and they were doing a horrible job at faking it.
Into this void stepped ESPN. Kent State was off to a 17-2 start and was a premier attraction in that first 10-team event, which also included Butler, Gonzaga and Southern Illinois -- all of whom earned at-large bids a month later. But the Golden Flashes lost at home to Hawaii, 79-78, as part of a larger stretch of six losses in seven games. They ended up in the NIT, and went down in history as the first team to be hurt by their participation, and perhaps the first to question whether any of this Bracket Busting business was worth it.
It was a well-thought-out format: the guest team's conference sends the referees to help countervail the force of a home crowd, and the home team has to return the game and go play the visitor in non-conference later. But the event became gigantic in the latter part of the century's first decade -- the number ballooned past 40, then past 100 -- and ESPN chose a slate of TV matchups out of a pool of home and road teams. The changes didn't sit well with conferences like the Sun Belt and West Coast, which pulled out of the event. Only four or five teams will see actual NCAA war room effects from this weekend's results -- a miniscule percentage of all actual participants. What began as a showcase for borderline Dance candidates became a festival of premium-tier cable, risk, last-minute travel, and boring internet debates.
The landscape has changed too. "National exposure" doesn't mean what it used to: there wasn't an ESPNU in 2003, which in 2011 broadcasts five or six mid-major games a week. There wasn't #pixelvision back then, which allows fans to watch whatever games whenever they want for free. You can learn everything you want to know about any Division I team on the web. Back in 2003, you couldn't find Horizon League or CAA scores until days later, which was one of the initial and prime reasons for The Mid-Majority's creation in 2004. And now that the rule about returning the game has been relaxed -- teams have two years -- that filled schedule slot in November (one less guarantee game) is less of a factor.
But things that have outgrown their original purposes, yet continue to exist, can easily be claimed by others. BracketBusters is now something for the fans, and the stat wonks, and the hopeless obsessives like us. Nobody thought about conference pride when this was being put together, but Valley and Horizon and CAA followers keep careful count of league records. It's one last chance to see which conference really is the best among us. And there's the thrill of seeing two teams from different places that play different styles -- ones that might normally never even think about scheduling each other -- on the same floor, in the same crucible, playing Our Game as it was meant to be played.
Here is the full listing of games on TV and radio-only too, with links to full Basketball State precaps. To celebrate, that black hole of relevant information (and the continuation of the DNA strands from TMM v1.0) will be free on Friday and Saturday, and we'll dedicate our Chat Block tomorrow to Buster discussion. We will be present at the Missouri State-Valpo game, and we'll be monitoring the Saint Mary's-Utah State game very closely. After all, those are our top two teams in our daily rankings, and BracketBusters has given them the opportunity to play for the designation as best team in the Other 25. So we're grateful for that.
Horizon League: Last night's G!O!T!N! did not have enough exclamation points. Tony Meier's sofdunx sealed a 79-76 Milwaukee win over Valparaiso, which knocked the Crusaders out of first and kept the Panthers' hopes for a No. 1 seed alive. The new/old frontrunners are those Cleveland State Vikings, who slipped by Wright State 74-72 in Dayton Former Capital. Current MMBOW Norris Cole had 16 points and 10 assists, but it was the imbalanced boxscore that was the real star. No bench points for CSU. And if you didn't think the Horizon League was exciting enough -- and where's your pulse, mac? -- the city game between Loyola and UIC ended in as exciting a fashion as possible: a Courtney Stanley superhoop at the overtime buzzer that gave Loyola a 67-66 win and a sweep of the season series. It was also a replay of last year's #ALLCAPSGAME, a topic that we'll discuss in depth tomorrow.
West Coast: Just when we were making excuses for one-loss teams over at Prospectus, Saint Mary's joined the ranks of the two-time losers, a proud group that includes George Mason and Vermont. Randy Bennett's fightin' Aussies were their normal beautiful-game selves on offense, but if it counts as irony, it was the same things that beset the Gaels in the loss at Portland: a defensive meltdown in the second half. SMC was up by eight at halftime, but they gave up 50 points after the break. The efficiency margin is an absolute leading indicator for this team: 22-0 when positive, 0-5 when negative. Minus-11.2 last night. So Gonzaga and San Francisco now hover a game and a half behind with two or three to go, in a league where nobody wants to finish third and play an extra game. The Zag-Gael return game looms on Thursday the 24th.
Today on 360
In addition to that in an NAIA semi-exhibition at Utah State, Fairfield (MAAC) and Vermont (America East) clinched regular season championships.
After last year's crazy four-way tie for first, was really looking forward to another hot race in the Atlantic Sun in 2011. Lipscomb looked like the best team back in November, Jacksonville was coming off an NIT road upset, and ETSU brought in seniors that had been a part of two consecutive championships. Oh, and Belmont too. The Bruins overachieved with underclassmen in 2009-10, what would their next step look like? Uh, this. Rick Byrd's team is 15-1 and 23-4 overall, and their three non-league losses are all to Vanderbilt and Tennessee (twice) by single digits. If only the SEC wasn't so bad, maybe Belmont would have a better strength of schedule than 249, amirite?
Truth is that we won't really know how good Belmont is until March, when they get another shot at a power-conference school. And furthermore, the current nucleus still has one or two more years left to run, so anything that happens next month is gravy. Leading scorer Ian Clark (12.1 ppg), a 6-foot-3 #superhooper, is a sophomore. The inside presence, in the person of 6-foot-9 Mick Hedgepeth and 6-foot-10 Scott Saunders (20.7 ppg, 11.4 rpg combined), are juniors. So a team that's leading the A-Sun in every offensive category and shows up in the national top 20 in most, one that allows .88 points per trip, will get even better. At some point, they'll break through and win #puppetvision.
For now, they're playing the two-time defending champions tonight at home, where they're an impenetrable 12-0. But East Tennessee State, despite losing the first meeting 72-62 on January 23, has never seemed like the team to roll over and concede to alternate greatness. The Bucs are 14-3 in the league (19-9 overall) and will go into the conference tourney at Macon with a better record than last year (20-15, 13-7 in 2009-10). Murry Bartow's team tries to slow you down, force bad shots on defense, and pick the right one on the other end. ETSU is a better ball control team than Belmont -- they only turn it over on 18.3 percent of possessions. Senior Mike Smith, a 6-foot-6 four-time A-Sun POTW, is another in a long line of Bucs who can go off for 20 any time, and the Bruins held him to 11 last time around. Win the turnover battle and get the ball to Smith, and there's a chance they might pull this out. That goes for March, too.