THE MOST IMPORTANT THING WE LEARNED THIS WEEKEND
The purpose of BracketBusters Weekend, when it was created in 2003, was to provide a televised showcase for mid-major teams and give the better ones a late opportunity for an RPI-boosting victory. This season's event had somewhat of a reverse effect: All it did was remind us that, by the criteria the NCAA tournament selection committee uses, hardly any good mid-major candidates for at-large bids exist.
Butler is the lone team in the entire BracketBusters pool that appears to be a lock for at-large status, while only three others -- Creighton, Siena and St. Mary's -- are even in iffy situations on the bubble. The mid-major drought means that on Selection Sunday, 33 of the 34 (or even 34!) at-large bids could go to teams from the six BCS conferences as well as the Atlantic 10 and Mountain West. A few big-league schools with mediocre resumes are inevitably going to be dancing. These seven squads -- ranging from long shots to bubble-dwellers -- kept their hopes alive this past week:
1. Temple (17-9, 9-3 Atlantic 10, 38 RPI). The Bracket Matrix (a project compiling all the bracket projections on the Web) only shows the Owls earning a few bids, and they're barely ever mentioned in bubble discussions on the tube. Temple's resume, however, is respectable: It beat St. Bonaventure on Sunday to jump into a tie for second in the A-10, should reach the 20-win mark (by beating La Salle and St. Joe's at home, and George Washington on the road), and has a shot to seal a bid by beating Dayton in Dayton on Feb. 28. Non-conference wins at Penn State and against Tennessee could help get the Owls into the field, too.
2. Washington State (14-13, 6-9 Pac-10, 101 RPI). The Cougars are the long shot of long shots, but they gave themselves a fighting chance by upsetting UCLA in Pauley Pavilion on Saturday. Their overall record is ugly, and they don't have a quality non-league win, but they've also beaten Arizona State on the road, and if they were to sweep the Arizona schools this weekend in Pullman plus knock off Washington in Seattle, they could go from long shot to lock.
3. Notre Dame (14-11, 6-8 Big East, 70 RPI). The Irish were left for dead a couple of weeks ago, when they were 3-7 in the Big East and on a seven-game losing streak. But now they're within sight of a .500 league record -- all they'd have to do is hold serve at home against Rutgers, Villanova and St. John's to finish 9-9. They picked up their first decent road win of the season at Providence on Saturday, and very well may end up booting the Friars out of the bracket and stealing the Big East's eighth tourney bid.
4. Penn State (19-8, 8-6 Big Ten, 61 RPI). The Nittany Lions did absolutely nothing outside of their conference, which is why the matrix has them as one of the last three BCS teams in the bracket, along with Cincinnati and Virginia Tech. But Wednesday's win at Illinois -- the 36-33 game that did nothing to enhance the rep of the Big Ten -- gave Penn State victories over the league's top three teams (Michigan State and Purdue being the others) and a virtual guarantee of finishing over .500 in the conference standings.
5. Maryland (17-9, 6-6 ACC, 53 RPI). The ACC could very well be an eight-bid league with the Terps as team No. 7. Their home win over likely conference champ North Carolina should bump them into most bracket projections, and if they split their remaining four games -- vs. Duke, at N.C. State, vs. Wake Forest, and at Virginia -- plus win at least one ACC tournament game, they should earn an actual bid. The Terps' trump card, should they be a subject of a bubble debate in the committee room, might be a November win over Michigan State in the Old Spice Classic.
6. Miami (15-10, 5-8 ACC, 46 RPI). How can a team that's in 10th place in its league be in the discussion for a bid? When that team has beaten six probable NCAA tournament teams (Kentucky, Maryland, Florida State, Wake Forest and Boston College, twice) and could still finish .500 in the ACC. The 'Canes completed their sweep of BC on Saturday and now have road games against Virginia and Georgia Tech, as well as a home date with N.C. State, left to close the conference season. All three are must-win games against teams with no shot at the dance.
SI.COM'S STARTING FIVE
(Wearing Venezuelan national team gear, in honor of Mr. Vasquez ...)
1. Greivis Vasquez, PG, Maryland: Playing with his team's NCAA tournament hopes on the line, against possible first-team All-America point guard Ty Lawson, Vasquez put up the Terps' first triple-double since 1987, going for 35 points, 11 boards and 10 assists. He also either jersey-popped or made a crazy facial expression 212 times, but they don't keep official stats for those things.
2. Taylor Rochestie, PG, Washington State: Wazzu is getting quite the bargain on Rochestie, whose parents are paying his way in order to free up an extra scholarship for the team. He had a career game at Pauley Pavilion on Saturday, scoring 33 points (including 10-for-10 free-throw shooting) in an upset of UCLA.
3. A.J. Abrams, SG, Texas: He was silent for the first 32 minutes of the 'Horns' upset of No. 1-in-waiting Oklahoma on Saturday, and then erupted on a run of 16 straight points to seal the win and finish with 23. "I asked [Abrams] if he could stop hitting shots," said Oklahoma's Willie Warren, who had 27 points of his own. "But he didn't listen at all."
4. Gerald Henderson, SF, Duke: In his first meeting with Wake Forest this season, Henderson had a respectable 20 points point; in the second, on Sunday night at Cameron, Henderson was unconscious, scoring 35 on 11-of-15 shooting. It was, without question, the greatest game of his Duke career to date.
5. DeJuan Blair, PF, Pitt: Blair, who had 22 points and 23 boards against UConn, was robbed of a double 20-20 week when Jamie Dixon only allowed him to play 23 minutes in a rout of DePaul on Saturday. Blair had 16 points and 16 at half ... and finished with 20 and 18. It was a statistical travesty.
THE ONE GAME YOU SHOULD CARE ABOUT
Wednesday, Feb. 25: UConn at Marquette, 7 p.m.:
This is the beginning of the Golden Eagles' three-game Big East death trap (afterwards, they go to Louisville and then to Pittsburgh), and it's been sold out for weeks. Winning two of three could boost Marquette up to the No. 2 (or even No. 1) line in the NCAA tournament. The Eagles have never received anything higher than a three seed.
YOUR MONDAY MOMENT OF ZEN ...
... in which a press-conference activist gets served.