CHICAGO -- BracketBusters 2011 can be summed up tidily in one paragraph. Utah State came back from 10 down at Saint Mary's to earn a résumé win. As the Missouri Valley -- the most successful conference in the short and strange history of BracketBusters -- bombed out with a 3-7 showing, three top teams in the Colonial (George Mason, Old Dominion and VCU) made cases for at-large consideration. We can only hope there are enough spots in the at-large pool for small-conference teams that have done everything they can, and enough internet to handle the inevitable snub debates.
Our position is that the NCAA Tournament selection process is more intricate and logical than most people are willing to accept, March will take care of itself, and until further notice, your team gets in if it wins its league. The most intriguing part of BracketBusters for us is the final chance to see what the stack order of Other 25 conferences really looks like, something that's been hidden for these past weeks while everybody's been cloistered. Take, for instance, Charleston's 85-70 win over Vermont. Both teams sewed up regular season championships in the past week, but this was a good opportunity to see how much better the best of the SoCon is than the best of the America East. Then there were the improving OVC (6-4 after a 3-8 record in 2010) and brutalized Big South (1-8), which have a better idea of where they stand in the crowded mid-major landscape.
And maybe the level of play in the WAC isn't as "unwatchable" and awful as many thought. The Wickity went 7-1, and come to think of it, won 58 percent of its overall non-conference games and split with the WCC. That's not excellence you can measure in "bids," but maybe it's time to stop crapping on it.
So that was fun for a second. Now it's time to get back to what really matters: winning championships.
Horizon League: With an 80-67 win over Missouri State, Valparaiso notched one of the more emphatic wins of BracketBusters and one of the most vile victimizations of the Valley. Back in league play on Monday night, the Crusaders were shocked at Green Bay -- one of the only teams to lose to the MVC over the weekend -- in an 81-80 overtime decision. The Phoenix yanked destiny out of Valpo's hands, setting up a thrilling final week of the regular season. The prize: the one-seed and hosting duties for the final two rounds of the tourney. Cleveland State (new/old first place team, one-half game up) and Butler (hottest team with a six-game win streak) are the 12-win clubs, but superiority-in-context has led to a deep tiebreaker matrix, including Milwaukee's sweep over Butler and the Bulldogs' sweep over Cleveland State. All of this sets up what could end up as the game of the year: Thursday night in Cleveland, CSU Vikings and UWM Panthers. We will be there.
MEAC: Part of the reason for the MEAC's notoriously staggered schedule this year is Morgan State's BracketBusters participation (a 67-62 home win over VMI). Even with all the games in hand and non-conference technicalities with N.C. Central, it's still one of the hottest races in Hoops Nation, though. Bethune-Cookman, which will break a Division I school record with one more win, took their 17th with a last-second (as in 0:01.1) tip-in at Howard on Monday night to escape Washington with a 66-64 win. The Wildcats would yield a one-seed tiebreaker to Morgan State (a 65-57 loss on February 7) but has two home games with S.C. State and Florida A&M before landing in the gate. Three of Morgan's last four are on the road, including next Monday night's ESPNU game at North Carolina A&T. Hampton, which has led or been tied atop the conference for most of the season, has stumbled badly at the wrong time: three straight losses at N.C. A&T, and at home to BCU and Florida A&M.
Southern: After the convincing win on TV against Vermont on Saturday, Charleston wrapped up the one-seed in the league tourney (their first since 1999) by destroying Samford 75-49 Monday evening. And it was Senior Night for All-America candidate Andrew Goudelock, who scored 23 points and dished five assists but was slightly outshined by fellow outgoing Coug Antwaine Wiggins (24 points, nine rebounds). Up in the North Division, there's another team on a seven-game win streak: Western Carolina. The Catamounts, perhaps most famous for featuring Harouna Mutombo (a nephew of Dikembe), dug out of an 0-2 hole and were 4-4 at one point, but remain perfect at home in SoCon play. They and Charleston have already met once (January 20), and that was an ugly 93-64 Cougar home win. They shall meet again this Saturday at WCU in a potential preview of the one-bid title game.
MMBOW #13: Kenneth Faried, Morehead State
Some call it evolution, some prefer "screwing with it," but Our Game has changed a lot over its century. The addition of the three-point line was as profound a change as the insertion of the designated hitter in baseball's lineup. Shot timers and semicircles and elbow laws make it impossible to compare the game now and the game then. Politics and upheaval have changed governing bodies and their roles and rules. This is why we have to use terms like "Division I era," the period of time after 1973 when freshmen could participate. Nobody will ever touch Artis Gilmore's 22.7 rpg or Tom Gola's 2201. But within this "modern" context, Kenneth Faried is the all-time leader now, surpassing Tim Duncan's 1,570. And that in itself is enough to earn a much smaller distinction: Mid-Majority Baller of the Week.
Folks say that he doesn't get to go up against top competition, what with MSU's status as an Ohio Valley Conference member. But ask any Faried fanatic, and they'll point you to this game in November, when he went toe-to-toe with big-media darling Jared Sullinger from Ohio State and went all 15-and-12 to Sullinger's 8-for-8. He is freaking awesome at the basketball, and the real King of Limbs! But don't take our word for it, watch a video!
Boom! Congratulations to Mr. Faried, our two-time MMBOW and all-time* rebounding king.
North Carolina-Asheville at Coastal Carolina (Big South) Kimbel Arena - Conway, SC 7:00 EST
Coastal Carolina was the one Big South team that didn't play a BracketBusters game this season. Since Charleston Southern's victory over UNCW of the CAA was the only win, perhaps CCU would have salvaged pride for the conference. Instead, the Chanticleers were beating on N.C. Central like the MEAC teams like to do. The subtext of all of this is that some kind of inevitable is being delayed. The most recent Big South contest for CCU was their first loss of the season, the 59-57 home drop to Gardner-Webb; since that game a week ago, leading scorer Desmond Holloway was suspended indefinitely. The 6-foot-3 junior was averaging 18.5 ppg on flat 50 percent shooting, and his 2-for-13 night against Gardner-Webb made it seem almost as if he wasn't there. Now, he won't be at all.
Holloway was the second starter to be heavily disciplined by head coach Cliff Ellis. A month ago, senior forward Mike Holmes was also removed. (Bench guard Willie Kirkland was declared ineligible at the start of the calendar year.) It's been a year of turmoil as the Chanticleers work around roster problems, but can they take it into the gate and go to the NCAA's for the first time since 1993?
UNC Asheville is 8-7 in the Big South and holds a 13-13 overall record, but that hasn't stopped them from getting to the Dance in the past. In 2003, with a 15-17 mark and an 8-8 league record, the Bulldogs took a No. 5 seed all the way to the Big Bracket with a 81-80 stunner against Winthrop in the final. Then they won the PIG over Texas Southern! Especially with the cracks up at the top of the league, Eddie Biedenbach's crew looks dangerous again. No conference team is better at causing turnovers (a 23.0 percent force rate, 17 per game), and they do pick their shots well: 52 percent of twos fall for them. Many of UNCA's losses have come from an inability to stop the three -- a favorite weapon of Big South teams -- but Coastal isn't really an outside shooting team. Actually, we don't really know what Coastal is anymore. And that's why this is a key game.