The BracketBusters is a concept introduced by ESPN that takes mid-majors out-of-conference and introduces them to a mid-major of similar stature in another conference. Much on this site has been written about this annual weekend in February event, some negative and some positive. A lot of the focus is put on the games televised by ESPN and its related networks. These games provide ESPN with the chance to "feed the content monster." The games featured on the ESPN networks are usually between the mid-majors who are identified as having the best chance of doing well in March. Much of the motivation behind this is to generate sportz discussion on who will be the "next Cinderella." The schools are fighting to get recognized, and it fits with the ESPN picture of what Our Game is like. Some mid-major conferences do not like this, as it interrupts conference play during the height of the conference race. Other conferences embrace the concept, expecting these games to generate positive publicity. They think that by agreeing to participate in the BracketBusters, ESPN will do this for them.
Only one problem: most BracketBusters games are not televised. Even among mid-majors who have a better understanding of this, a lot think that this weekend is all about getting television coverage. In reality, the solid majority of games get no television coverage. What ends up happening is that a non-conference game is scheduled at the last minute, and last-minute scheduling always has its difficulties. The away team does not know until less than three weeks in advance how much it will be traveling, and the home team does not know when the game will be or who the game will be against. Last year, High Point got to play locally against Appalachian State. This year, the Panthers had to travel to Texas to play Stephen F. Austin. That is a lot of travel in the midst of fighting for conference position.
But these games do a service to mid-majors through setting up better schedules and more fair competition. They usually try to match up teams with a comparable RPI ranking, which makes these games better than guarantee games. As Kyle has written on here before, the best part of these games is that the home team has to make a return trip to the road team. This has helped improve the quality of the games prior to the start of conference play. Four years ago I went to a Southern Illinois-Butler game that was a return game for a game played at Butler the year before. The Bulldogs won the return game on a 35-foot buzzer beater by A.J. Graves. And these games have helped our Big South teams find games rather than having to schedule another road game above the Red Line or another home game against a team below the Black Line.
The biggest problems in scheduling occur when one team is far away from another, like this year with St. Mary's playing Murray State. To ease the scheduling process, teams now aren't required to make the return game for two seasons after the original game. What needs to be done is to pit more comparable opponents from local regions who can't seem to find any other way to play each other. As has been noted on this site before, Wofford and USC Upstate are from the same city but can't agree to play each other aside from a game in the Charleston Classic. High Point has not played UNC Greensboro or Elon in over five years either. These are the games that need to be scheduled, whether through BracketBusters or some other scheduling mechanism.
Tonight's game would be between Gardner-Webb and Delaware State. While not a local matchup, these were two comparable teams in the same region. It is also good to see more matchups between the MEAC and other mid-majors, as when the Bulldogs played South Carolina State this year. These games help better connect Our Game with each other, and BracketBusters has served as a means to unite mid-majors in recent years.
Like other authors on this website, such as Matt Cayuela, I wanted to do two games this weekend. I thought about going to see Davidson play Wichita State, but that would be a very crowded noon game that would likely be more expensive than my original plan of seeing my grad school South Carolina play. I went to see the Gamecocks play at 1:30 p.m. against LSU, and despite being cheaper in travel and tickets than Davidson it was not a great game to be at. South Carolina had most of its hardcore fans at a baseball doubleheader, leaving the half-empty arena with mostly local youth groups. Only three students were standing most of the game, and the crowd was not enjoying a game that the home team lost by 10 points. It was another game above the Red Line that lacked the magic and excitement of Our Game, and was a good demonstration of big-time college sports at its lowest point.
So I looked forward more to the game I was going to that night. I originally considered going to Charleston Southern, but I saw that Matt Cayuela already had that game. I already earlier replaced a game this season that I could not make with one that Matt will be attending, and I wanted to make sure that the 800 Games Project would be getting another game for the weekend. We still have about 200 games left to get with only three weeks left between the regular season and conference tournament. The Official 800GP Statistics has a third of the season left, but I am not sure how much help the postseason will be. We are still on pace to do this, and I want to make sure to do my part to get us to close to 700 going into March. I know Matt went to the Spartanburg area last weekend with the Charleston games taken, so I felt I had to do my part and take the longer trip to Gardner-Webb. Gardner-Webb was just over two hours from my afternoon game in Columbia, and just less than three hours going back home. This would be nearly twice as much driving as Charleston Southern would have been, but I felt it was best to keep pushing for 800 Games to head to Boiling Springs.
When I made it to Paul Porter Arena just before 6 p.m., it was halftime of a women's game between Gardner-Webb and UNC Asheville. Normally I pay close attention to the women's game before a men's game. But I was feeling very stressed and worn out physically from all the traveling I have done this season. As Kyle has written about, it is not easy to stay healthy on the road. The healthiest I eat these days is getting three tacos at Taco Bell. And I was feeling the side effects of this lifestyle on the drive from Columbia. When I got to the arena, I had to keep my coat on and took a walk around the concourse area. After doing that and relaxing with a light dinner, I gradually began to feel better in time for the men's game.
And with Delaware State chosen as a comparable opponent for Gardner-Webb, it would be a close game. Delaware State tried to make the game a slow, defensive-oriented game like that played by teams such as Presbyterian and Winthrop. Gardner-Webb, by contrast, was in the A-Fun until four years ago and likes to play more up-tempo. The early part of the game favored the Hornets of the MEAC, who had a slight lead most of the first half. But the Runnin' Bulldogs were able to get on a run and take a seven-point lead to halftime. The momentum carried over for Gardner-Webb in the second half, and with G-W up 13 points with less than 12 minutes to play it looked as if they would get an easy home win. But the Hornets were able to get defensive stops and combine them with hitting their shots on the other end, and DSU took the lead with less than six minutes to play. It looked like the Hornets might be the ones pulling away later on, up by seven with three minutes left. But Gardner-Webb had one last run in them. The Delaware State lead was cut to three with a minute left, and turnovers and missed free throws gave Gardner-Webb a chance. The crowd came to life after only a handful of students made noise during most of the game. Despite getting called for a charge with 15 seconds left down by one, the Bulldogs would get a steal and be fouled on the next play. GWU hit both free throws, and when Delaware State could not respond, Gardner-Webb had gotten the close home victory by a score of 57-56.
What this weekend was ultimately about was trying to fight hard to get the goals you want. BracketBusters does this for the best mid-majors through the televised games where they can play for respect from the selection committee. Other teams like Gardner-Webb and Delaware State are playing to keep momentum alive for conference play. Conference respect is also in play, and despite the Bulldogs' win, the Big South went 4-7 this weekend in BracketBusters. And each game is its own battle, with Gardner-Webb winning through a fight to the finish. And of course, we are fighting to make 800 Games. We all have goals that we are trying to achieve, and that is what makes Our Game so special at this time of year.
at GARDNER-WEBB 57, DELAWARE STATE 56 02/18/2012
DELAWARE STATE 12-12 (9-3) -- C. Walker 4-9 0-0 12; M. Oliver 6-8 6-8 18; T. Tate 3-11 0-0 6; J. Threatt 2-6 0-1 5; T. Bell 4-8 0-0 11; J. Marcellus 2-4 0-0 4; A. May 0-2 0-0 0; J. Lawson 0-0 0-0 0; B. Oliver 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 21-49 6-9 56. GARDNER-WEBB 12-17 (6-10) -- T. Newsome 5-9 3-4 13; S. Johnson 5-7 2-4 12; T. Strange 0-2 0-0 0; M. Landis 2-6 0-0 5; L. Buggs 3-8 0-0 6; M. Byron 3-6 4-5 10; D. Harper 3-5 5-6 11; K. Hartley 0-2 0-0 0; D. Brown 0-4 0-0 0; S. Butler 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 21-49 14-19 57.
Three-point goals: DEST 8-20 (J. Threatt 1-2; C. Walker 4-7; T. Bell 3-6; T. Tate 0-5), GWB 1-12 (T. Newsome 0-2; D. Brown 0-4; L. Buggs 0-1; M. Landis 1-3; K. Hartley 0-2); Rebounds: DEST 19 (M. Oliver 7), GWB 35 (M. Byron 12); Assists: DEST 12 (J. Threatt 7), GWB 10 (L. Buggs 3); Total Fouls -- DEST 15, GWB 14; Fouled Out: DEST-None; GWB-None.