Thursday, February 15, 2007

Following George Mason's footsteps

The college basketball gods -- and by that I guess I mean ESPN -- created a special event where mid-major programs face one another for the right to... improve their resum├ęs? I have no idea. But they sure gave it a classy name: BracketBusters.

This weekend marks the event's fifth year, but the first since George Mason of the Colonial Athletic Association made it to the Final Four. Could one of these less televised teams follow the Patriots' footsteps onto the big stage in April? Ever in search of a new angle, many are willing to speculate. Most of them, like Mike Jarvis in this article, point their fingers at the usual suspects: Butler, Air Force, Southern Illinois, Xavier, and Nevada.

Those teams are fine, and each would make a great Final Four story, but none of them are really like George Mason last year. Save Xavier, they've all been ranked most of the season, and are on everyone's radar. In 2006, George Mason was a bubble team that received one of the very last at-large bids on Selection Sunday. They were an 11 seed. (UNC-Wilmington won the CAA tournament and got the automatic bid.)

The Patriots' run last year was the perfect storm of good coaching, experienced leadership, and a favorable bracket. They beat erratic Michigan State and unproven North Carolina to make the Sweet 16 in Washington, DC. (It's a testament to the selection committee's shortsightedness that they got to play so close to home.) There they defeated a Wichita State team they played earlier in the season -- in a BracketBusters matchup -- and outperformed the seemingly invincible Connecticut Huskies. Maybe no one could have predicted their success, but in retrospect, it makes sense.

Could their feat be repeated this year? Of course. But it will have to come from a team seeded much lower than Butler. It's impossible to make a guess at this point: only a handful of mid-majors are assured of making the NCAAs, and they will be seeded 8 or higher.

If I were forced to pick a team, I'd choose Winthrop. The Eagles are one of only three teams in the nation that are still undefeated in conference play; Florida and Memphis are the others. They have four losses, all on the road, to UNC, Maryland, Wisconsin, and Texas A&M. Not bad at all. Their RPI is 81, which doesn't seem so great, but is spectacular compared to the rest of the Big South, one of the nation's lowest-rated conferences.

Better yet, Winthrop's starters are all juniors and seniors with NCAA tournament experience. Last year, as a 15 seed, they nearly stunned Tennessee before falling 63-61. The year before that they were a 14 seed who lost to Gonzaga 74-64. Finally, coach Gregg Marshall may have something to prove; last June he reneged on his decision to coach the College of Charleston, returning to Winthrop for an ninth season.

An at-large bid is unlikely; they're not a Power 16 kind of team, and only a real moron would seed them that high (see below). They'll need to win the Big South tournament to make the NCAAs, but if they do, watch out. First things first, though: they face Missouri State this weekend. So that's one reason to watch BracketBusters.

This week's seeds. Out: Marquette, Virginia. In: BYU, Winthrop.

San Jose Regional
1. Wisconsin: Rebounding nicely from misstep in Bloomington.
2. UCLA: Will West Virginia loss prepare them for Atlanta?
3. BYU: Suddenly the class of the Mountain West.
4. Pittsburgh: I know Louisville is surging, but still.

St. Louis Regional
1. Ohio State: Shouldn't be faltering against Penn State.
2. Kansas: Can they sweep Huggy Bear next Monday?
3. Southern Illinois: Salute the Salukis, the MVC's top dogs.
4. Butler: BracketBusters pit Bulldogs against said Salukis.

East Rutherford Regional
1. Florida: Aside from Memphis, most likely to win out.
2. Georgetown: Now looking like the best of the Big East.
3. Texas A&M: Got swept by Texas Tech.
4. North Carolina: Got swept by Virginia Tech.

San Antonio Regional
1. Memphis: Last year's other top seeds now fight the bubble.
2. Washington State: Three of last four games against ranked teams.
3. Nevada: Host a slipping Northern Iowa in BracketBusters.
4. Winthrop: Yeah, I know. But no one else looks that good.


Angry Pregnant Lawyer said...

Thanks for giving '06 Mason its props.

Neel Mehta said...

Hey, no problem. I'm all about George Mason: the team and the man.

By the way, they play Kent State in BracketBusters this weekend.

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