By Andy Glockner
BracketBusters is starting to feel like college football's bowl season: lots of meaningless games, a few entertaining higher-profile matchups that mean relatively little, and one game that actually matters.
Conceptually, the event is a great idea. Mid-major programs need all the national TV exposure they can get, and 26 of them get a game on one of ESPN's outlets. Mid-majors also need help with scheduling, and the mandatory return game attached to a BracketBusters pairing helps fill next season's slates.
Several factors, though, have conspired to drain much of the intrigue out of this season's event. The annual preset home and away designations meant that some choice matchups were not even possible. Also, Patty Mills' hand injury has diminished what should have been the second-best game (Saint Mary's-Utah State). Third, and most importantly, there just aren't all that many mid-majors having really good seasons. That all made even filling the 13-game TV card complicated.
ESPN senior manager of programming Nick Dawson said that the TV matchups come from a process where teams first are pooled by performance level and then other factors, such as arena constraints and travel, are considered. Then, according to Dawson, ESPN is looking to make the matchups that benefit the teams -- not the network -- the most.
"Most of the time the better teams in terms of strength of schedule, RPI, those numbers, are the teams that will do the best on TV for us as well," Dawson said. "That usually works hand-in-hand, but in the end, there's very little talk about what matchup is best for TV."
Unfortunately, this season's matchups don't really benefit most of the teams involved. Davidson does get a chance for a resume-improving home win over Butler, which will make the NCAAs regardless of what happens in the Horizon. Beyond that? The help is pretty thin.
Travel convenience aside, Utah State won't get enough credit if it beats the Mills-less Gaels. Siena badly needed a solid wins to help its possible at-large cause, but will the selection committee really value beating surging Valley leader Northern Iowa and its 70 RPI? VCU, which had an outside shot at an at-large (before last night, anyway) if it recovered to win the CAA, has to travel nearly 3,000 miles to play Nevada, which isn't even leading the WAC. We couldn't get Utah State or VCU at Siena instead?
This is not to say you shouldn't watch on Feb. 20 and 21. Butler-Davidson will be tremendous fun. You'll get a second helping of Curry with Liberty-Old Dominion. George Mason-Creighton is solid Valley-CAA fare. UNI-Siena will be a great contrast in styles. Overall, BracketBusters is a good thing for those of us who like mid-major basketball. Make that a very good thing. It's just that you often walk away feeling like it could be more, and this year is no exception.
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Bracket games to keep an eye on this weekend:
Temple at Xavier: Basically a must-get for Temple.
Penn State at Michigan: Both teams really need this one.
Gonzaga at Portland: Pre-Memphis trap game against second-place Pilots?
Cornell at Princeton: First meeting of two remaining Ivy unbeatens.
Florida State at Clemson: Another chance for a marquee win for the Seminoles.
Syracuse at Villanova: Rematch of last season's Big East 8-9 game.
Notre Dame at UCLA: Crucial road game for the reeling Irish.
Michigan at UConn: A huge chance to add to UCLA, Duke hit list.
Memphis at Gonzaga: NCAA seeding battle in the Northwest.
Butler at Wright State: They never win there, and a loss opens the door for UWGB.
Siena at Rider: Unbeaten Saints head to last season's MAAC co-champs.
Washington at Cal: Fading Golden Bears need to get this one at home.
Charleston at Davidson: A serious threat to the Wildcats' perfect SoCon season.