Good Morning Hoops Nation: February 3

PAWTUCKET, R.I. — BracketBusters pairings are out, and we’re temporarily reunited with our own bed and desktop computer, so it’s a good time for a game reset. Who am I? Why am I here?

Seventy-five percent of what The Mid-Majority is about during the regular season is analysis. There are check-ins on league races, five Game! Of! The! Night!s a week, weekly rankings, things like that. What we do in these spaces is not designed to make you, the alumnus, feel good about yourself and your life choices. The object of our analysis is not to give drive-by shout-outs to your school and get links on cubicle-powered message boards. Those things fulfill the intentions of general-practitioner national columnists who are trying to appear well-informed, by recognizing the struggles of the “little guys.” Through a microscope, of course.

No, we attempt to identify the teams most likely and best-positioned to kick power conference ass in the NCAA Tournament. When we talk about emerging programs, it’s an effort to find the ones who will do it next year, and the year after. Imagine if the upsets stopped altogether, which would give the NCAA all the reason it needed to split Division I college basketball into a big-bracket series and a “championship” subdivision. Don’t be a myopic pretender, this could be just a few chalky years away.

And because of this, we may have slightly different perceptions of what BracketBusters is about, you and I. This event has two main components. On one hand, it’s an invaluable sparring match for a handful of teams that are preparing to kick power conference ass in the NCAA Tournament. (At SIU-Butler two years ago, we knew exactly what was playing itself out.) For everybody else, it’s a filled schedule hole next year (with the return game) — so they don’t have to get bought by an SEC team in yet another money game, or play a worthless D-II opponent. Who’s on TV, and who isn’t, doesn’t matter. “Conference respect,” whatever tangible meaning that has, isn’t worth a thing outside these walls.

BracketBusters is about preparing a select few teams for the battle that’s coming all too soon. We want well-rounded, disciplined teams that can play at different speeds, possess an array of positive basketball attributes, and have enough scoring options that the star doesn’t get double-teamed at the Dance, resulting in the 111-44 blowouts that we’re all accustomed to seeing over the first two days. This is why we demand more of Davidson than Stephen Curry, why we recognize the multiple strengths of Utah State behind the weak schedule, why we see more potential in Butler 2008-09 than we ever did in Butler 2006-07. If you can recognize this as Siena’s most important game of the year so far, you’re on our wavelength.

In past years, when I was in league with the WWLIS, I’d be consulted on possible matchups that would look good on TV. I’d argue for certain pairings, and once in a while my argument would win. This time around, a number of mid-major conference executives who were on last week’s planning calls were on my phone and in my inbox looking for input. “Who are the good teams?” they asked. This was a question more in line with this site’s mission. So I went ahead and told them.

Butler-Davidson doesn’t require any analysis, it’s the two best teams this level has and its two brightest hopes for deep March runs. But the top-line game RPI-wise is Northern Iowa-Siena, which is simply a masterstroke of scheduling. These are two teams that are iffy for March play, but both were given the only chance to work on their respective weaknesses, a truer battle than they’ll get in their respective down leagues. It’s swift (Siena) against deliberate (UNI); each team will test the others’ defense in the way the other needs to be tested. Utah State-Saint Mary’s features two teams that are evenly matched and could make the Round of 32, given the right circumstances… as we’ve been using them in the same sentence for months, they were probably destined for each other.

Then there’s a group of flawed second-tier teams for whom any excessive travel will be offset by positive TV exposure. A note regarding the CAA: the league couldn’t get anything done in nonconference, and has a lead pack that would need extremely fortunate March matchups to win at the NCAA’s. Save your boo-hooing and your hand-wringing.

As for Northeastern, which was sent to Wright State, I’ve been frank about their chances all year. I’ve seen them play multiple times, and haven’t bought in. I told everyone in a suit who asked that Mason’s the best team in that league and that despite the current standings, it’s wise to short-sell NU. The Huskies can’t rebound, turn over the ball too much, and don’t really have plans in place to overcome those weaknesses other than to limit games to as few possessions as possible. Judging from the RPI disparity in this matchup, they might have listened to me. But the Raiders, too, slow things down to hide their considerable set of shortcomings… should be a great game.

I think that this slate of 51 scheduled games represents the best balance of quantifiers of any in BracketBusters history. I commend everyone involved with balancing the need to toughen second-weekend contenders, putting attractive matchups on television, and accounting for the travel requirements of smaller schools. Off the top of my head, there are only two or three pairings that didn’t work out so well for all involved, which is definitely an all-time low. Good job, folks.

Hello, Bally Tuesday

While we have proof of ballot-stuffing activities in our Refrigerator Art Contest, we’re going to turn a blind eye (but not a blind link) to these nefarious practices. So congratulations to Chris, whose image of Bally riding the University of Vermont Catamount Rally captured the imagination of basketball fans and rhyme aficionados alike. So Chris, just drop your mailing address in the form. Or if you’d prefer, and you’re going to be at the game tomorrow, I can deliver Bally personally.


Now to our next weekly contest for your very own stuffed Bally. This one is almost as much about basketball as our last one.

The other twenty-five percent of what we do here at The Mid-Majority is travel to mid-major gyms. We’ve logged over 13,000 miles so far this season. Much of that travel is done on the highways and byways of America, and most of those roads are pretty dull and uninspiring. Those long cornways on I-80 through Iowa comes to mind, and nothing beats I-5 up through Southern California for pure tearjerking sameness. But what’s America’s Most Boring Interstate™? We really want to know


Forward your choice through the form, keep your chosen stretch to 500 miles or less, and enter a short nomination essay as to why your least favorite interstate highway portion is worthy of being celebrated this way. The deadline is Friday, voting begins Saturday, and a winner will be announced a week from now. Good luck.

And in keeping with the theme, here’s a pot-sweetener. When I picked up my Ford Focus at Omaha two weekends ago, the tank was only 3/8ths full of gas. This is really not good, since you’re charged eight bucks a gallon for anything that’s not there when you bring it back. So I had them notate it, and when I returned it full yesterday morning, I demanded a credit. Since I prepaid with Hotwire, they couldn’t do it. But they did give me a $25 mea culpa coupon off my next rental (that’s, like, a free day) — since I prepay everything through Hotwire, it’s of no use to me. But I bet you could use it! Win this contest, and it’s yours along with the Bally.

Conference Calls

Patriot League: Anybody have Holy Cross (6-1) as PL champs? OK, except you CrosSports folks? The Crusaders are riding the Bally mojo all the way to the top of the charts, outpacing the other Past Amateurs despite an 11-11 overall record. Defense has always been the team’s calling card, and since league play began, HC is allowing just 55.9 points a game — an average helped along with a 67-52 shutdown at Lehigh over the weekend. Nationally, only Duke, Ball State, Butler, Northeastern, Stephen F. Austin have allowed less in conference games. American, a team the Crusaders have already beaten, is a half-game back at 5-1.

Ivy League: Every year, we check our watches constantly for the Ancient Eight to finally join the party and get in the conference-play pool. But they’re different — they play on Friday nights and still wear short-shorts. (Lying about that last part.) Cornell is once again way out front with a 4-0 record and an average victory margin of 21, having already swept Columbia and taking both games in its BrownYale home weekend. And you might not have noticed the possible resurgence of Princeton, a school whose recent record belies its proud NCAA tradition. The Tigers are 2-0, having dropped Dartmouth and Harvard on its northern New England swing.

MEAC: Morgan State, the first MEAC school to participate in the BracketBusters (the Bears drew old city rivals Towson) has recovered from its recent stumbles and leads the league by a game at 7-2. Morgan knocked off Del-State on the road last night by three, a deliberate game played at the HOOOOORRRnets‘ preferred sticky-slow pace. Norfolk State, which looks to be Morgan’s top competition next month at the tourney, fell back to 6-3 with a loss at Howard. Those Bison from D.C. have won four of six since Inauguration Weekend.

SWAC: Definitely picked a good G!O!T!N! last night… Jackson State defended its home court last night against Arkansas-Pine Bluff in a jumper-shooting display for both teams (JSU: 52 percent; UAPB: 53). With the 87-83 win, the Tigers (7-2) move past the Golden Lions into sole possession of second-seed position behind Alabama State. Those Hornets are 8-1 after dismantling Texas Southern on the road, 72-56.

U’useless Stat of the Day

Not really a random factoid today, but a BracketBusters fact. Six of the 11 televised matchups will feature teams that have never played each other. But Portland State and Boise State used to have a little yearly series at the beginning of the century (the Broncos won four of five before it was discontinued), and four games will feature old acquaintances who’ve played home-and-homes in recent years.

You may recall a thrilling tooth-and-nail 58-56 Creighton win over George Mason eight months after the Patriots’ Final Four appearance — it got a lot of national pub, because hey, it was George Mason. It was the completion of a two-game series; Creighton had blown out the Patriots the year before by 20, leading to a lot of validation of conventional wisdom… oh, George Mason isn’t going to do anything this year. Northeastern and Wright played at each others’ gyms in 2004 and 2005, and the Raiders swept. Evansville similarly swept Miami (Oh.) in their short series that lasted from 2000-01.

And Siena and Northern Iowa? They played in 2002 and 2003. The home team won both games.