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BracketBusters: Checking Out The Best Home and Road Teams In This Year’s Pool | The Catch and Shoot

BracketBusters: Checking Out The Best Home and Road Teams In This Year’s Pool

By Jesse Kramer

This year’s ESPN BracketBusters will special, as this is the final season where they will take place.

On Monday night, ESPN will announce the 2013 BracketBuster matchups, which will take place on February 22, 23 and 24. Every year, this weekend provides great opportunities for mid-majors looking to make the NCAA tournament by matching them up with another high-caliber team from a different conference.

Although the event grew too big for itself as too many mediocre teams joined the festivities, the weekend has helped mid-majors on the bubble punch their bids to the NCAA tournament in the past—look at Southern Illinois (2003), Northern Iowa (2005), George Mason (2006), Utah State (2006, 2010), Bradley (2006), Old Dominion (2007),  VCU (2011, 2012), and Iona (2012).

Here are previews of the best home teams in this year’s pool:

Home

Belmont (19-4, 10-0 OVC, No. 22 RPI)

Outside of Gonzaga, Belmont might be the best mid-major in college basketball this season. The Bruins beat Stanford in November and then easily beat fellow mid-majors Middle Tennessee and South Dakota State in December. They also lost a close game at VCU.

Belmont has become a staple of the NCAA tournament over the last number of seasons, and that should not change this year.

The Bruins have a dynamic backcourt with Ian Clark and Kerron Johnson, and sophomore Reece Chamberlain provides a good boost off the bench. Clark is among the nation’s best three-point shooters at 51.4 percent, and Johnson leads the Ohio Valley with 1.9 steals and is third with 4.7 assists per game.

As good as Belmont has been in the past, this is probably the best team that Rick Byrd has ever had.

Most likely, the Bruins will be matched up with the Creighton Bluejays (more on them later).

Wichita State (19-4, 8-3 MVC, No. 29 RPI)

Wichita State has already essentially punched its ticket to the Big Dance with six Top-100 wins, including victories over VCU, Iowa, Southern Miss and Creighton.

The Shockers have an outstanding starting five, beginning with a frontcourt made up of junior Cleanthony Early and senior Carl Hall. These two have been Wichita State’s best scorers this season, as well as its best rebounders. Also, you cannot overlook 7-foot senior Ehimen Orukpe, who is averaging 5.1 rebounds and 2.2 blocks in 18 minutes per game.

Guards Malcolm Armstead, Demetric Williams and Tekele Cotton provide the balance that the Shockers need to be successful. Armstead, an Oregon transfer, averages 2.1 steals per game and he is No. 24 in the nation in steal percentage. Williams and Cotton combine for another 2.5 steals per contest.

All five starters are strong forces on the defensive end, and they are why Wichita State is No. 27 nationally in defensive efficiency.

Indiana State (14-8, 7-4 MVC, No. 54 RPI)

One reason why Indiana State is a dangerous mid-major because of its balance. Eight Sycamores average more than 15 minutes per game, and nine average more than three points per game.

The other reason is point guard Jake Odum. A junior from Terre Haute, Odum is averaging 13.9 points, 4.6 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.4 steals per contest. He is having the best season of his college career, and it is no coincidence that Indiana State is also having an outstanding year.

Backing up Odum in the backcourt are Dawon Cummings and Khristian Smith. Cummings’ 5.1 points per game provide a good boost, and he will become more dangerous if his jump shooting continues to improve. Although he is shooting only 24.2 percent from beyond the arc, he has made 6 of his last 11 attempts. And although Smith has struggled in conference play, he showed signs of a bright future with four outings with 10 or more points in non-conference play.

Up front, Indiana State has the strong trio of Manny Arop, RJ Mahurin and Justin Gant. These three combine for 30.5 points and 14.3 rebounds per game.

The Sycamores are not a team to overlook. Just ask New Mexico, San Diego State, Ole Miss, Miami and Wichita State.

St. Mary’s (19-4, 8-1 WCC, No. 62 RPI)

St. Mary’s has been one of the top offensive teams this season, ranking No. 9 in offensive efficiency. The Gaels have a potential NBA prospect in point guard Matthew Dellavedova, who is averaging 16 points and 6.6 assists, and six other players are posting at least six points per games.

Thanks to their ability to shoot the three-ball, the Gaels’ effective field-goal percentage is also No. 9 in the nation. Five main players on the team are shooting at least 36 percent from three-point range.

The Gaels did not get any wins in non-conference play, but they have already beaten Brigham Young in conference play and nearly took down Gonzaga on the road.

Akron (17-4, 8-0 MAC, No. 53 RPI)

Akron’s status as a top mid-major is nothing new. The Zips are consistently a contender in the MAAC, and this year they are getting the job done with an extremely balanced attack.

10 Zips average more than 12 minutes per game, and eight of them post at least five points per game.

Leading the charge in the frontcourt are Zeke Marshall, Demetrius Treadwell, Nick Harney and Chauncey Gilliam. Marshall, a 7-foot center, is a contender for MAC Player of the Year, averaging 13 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.6 blocks. Most impressively, he is leading the nation in field-goal percentage at 70.9 percent.

Running the point is junior Alex Abreu, who leads the team in minutes played. Abreu averages 9.9 points and six assists per contest, and he shoots better than 42 percent from beyond the arc. In his last six games, he is averaging 12 points and 6.8 assists.

Valparaiso (17-6, 7-2 Horizon, No. 97 RPI)

Valparaiso is a dangerous mid-major this year because of its size. Forwards Ryan Broekhoff and Kevin Van Wijk are the team’s best players, combining for 29.7 points, 13.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game. Broekhoff can also stretch the floor as the team’s best three-point shooter at 44.2 percent. Van Wijk is more of an inside presence, and he leads the team in field-goal percentage at 61.7 percent.

The Crusaders also have some great alliteration in their backcourt, with Erik Buggs, Ben Boggs and Will Bogan.

Niagara (14-9, 10-2 MAAC, No. 119 RPI)

Niagara, which is No. 36 in the nation in scoring with 75.4 points per game, has a pair of dynamic guards who do the bulk of the work. Antoine Mason, son of former NBA star Anthony Mason, leads the team with 18.9 points per contest. The redshirt sophomore struggled with efficiency last season, but this year his shooting percentage is up to 44.7. In his last two games he is averaging 26.5 points. Alongside him is Juan’ya Green, who won MAAC Freshman of the Year last season. Green averages 16.7 points, 5.2 assists and 1.9 steals.

These two guards make any game fun to watch.

Road

Creighton (20-3, 9-2 MVC, No. 33 RPI)

Creighton has received more attention than any other mid-major this season.

The Bluejays’ star is Doug McDermott, who was an All-American last season. McDermott averages 23.9 points and 7.4 rebounds while shooting 56.3 percent from the field and 51.6 percent from three-point range. Despite being a junior from a mid-major program, he is a possible National Player of the Year.

Even though McDermott gets most of the attention, he is not the Bluejays’ only good player.

Grant Gibbs and Austin Chatman are two of the best point guards at the mid-major level, combining for 16.5 points and 10.5 assists per game.

Working alongside McDermott in the frontcourt are Rutgers transfer Gregory Echenique and junior Ethan Wragge. At 6’9″ and 260 pounds, Echenique has a huge advantage over most mid-major big men. Wragge does most of his work from the outside, with 59 of his 63 made field goals this year coming from beyond the arc.

South Dakota State (18-6, 9-2 Summit, No. 70 RPI)

South Dakota State’s record is good, but it does not jump out at you. But when you realize that four of the Jackrabbits’ six losses came by three points apiece on the road and an additional loss came at the hands of Minnesota with point guard Nate Wolters out of the lineup, you realize that this team is a force to be reckoned with.

Wolters, a NBA prospect, is averaging 20.9 points, 5.9 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game, making him the only player to average 20, five and five. In almost every game he appears in, he is the best player on the floor.

The Jackrabbits have a pair of reliable shooting guards in Chad White and Brayden Carlson. White averages nine points while shooting 38.6 percent from beyond the arc, and he has already made a pair of game-winning three-pointers this season. Carlson is shooting only 33 percent from deep this season, but last year he made triples at a 46.1 percent clip.

In the frontcourt, South Dakota State has Jordan Dykstra (13.0 ppg, 7.1 rpg and 46.1 3P%) and Tony Fiegen (10.5 ppg and 5.6 rpg), who can both stretch and the floor with their mid-range games.

Detroit (15-8, 7-3 Horizon, No. 73 RPI)

For the most part, Detroit plays only six guys: Ray McCallum, Nick Minnerath, Jason Calliste, Doug Anderson, Juwan Howard Jr. and Evan Bruinsma.

McCallum is the most notable of this group. The point guard was a Top-100 recruit out of high school, but he chose to play for his father at Detroit. This season, he is averaging 18.6 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.7 assists, making him the frontrunner for Horizon League Player of the Year.

Anderson is the second most impressive player on this team. He is extremely athletic and already has a number of posterizing moments this season. He is largely unknown because he plays in the Horizon League, but he is one of the more electrifying players in college hoops.

Stephen F. Austin (18-2, 9-1 Southland, No. 89 RPI)

Stephen F. Austin’s two losses this season are to Texas A&M and Northwestern State, which is a respectable mid-major at 14-6, 8-2 in the Southland. And in case you think the Lumberjacks are not for real since they play in a small league, they did win at Oklahoma in December.

The reason Stephen F. Austin has been so successful this season is its defense. The Lumberjacks are No. 3 in the nation in defensive efficiency and No. 3 in three-point defense. In 20 games, an opponent has scored more than 60 points only four times.

The Lumberjacks also have an outstanding forward in senior Taylor Smith. Smith averages 15.5 points, 9.1 rebounds and 3.2 blocks per contest, and he is No. 3 in the nation in field-goal percentage at 69.5.

Ohio (15-6, 6-1 MAC, No. 91 RPI)

Ohio, which advanced to the Sweet 16 in last year’s NCAA tournament, did not pick up any notable non-conference wins, and it failed to make a statement at Akron on Saturday, losing 86-72. But this team still has a lot of talent and could once again be a threat in the NCAA tournament if it is able to win the MAC.

Senior point guard D.J. Cooper is No. 3 in the nation in assists with eight dimes per game, and he is also a scoring threat with 14.5 points per contest.

The Bobcats also have four other talented players in Reggie Keely (11.5 ppg and 67.6 FG%), Walter Offutt (10.9 ppg), Nick Kellogg (9.1 ppg and 38.7 3P%) and Ivo Baltic (8.2 ppg and 5.3 rpg).

North Dakota State (18-5, 9-2 Summit, No. 72 RPI)

North Dakota State was looking like the top team in the Summit League until leading scorer Taylor Braun went down with a broken bone in his foot. Since then, the Bison are only 3-2. But, there is a good chance that Braun will return for BracketBuster weekend and the Bison will be at full force.

Even without Braun, the Bison have the talent to be a mid-major force.

Junior forward Marshall Bjorklund, who averages 12 points and six rebounds, is No. 2 in the nation in field-goal percentage at 70.7 percent. TrayVonn Wright plays alongside him in the frontcourt and posts 10.1 points and 5.6 rebounds per contest. Wright, who is one of the more athletic players in the Summit League, has had six games with 16 points or more this season.

In the backcourt, the Bison have point guard Lawrence Alexander and shooting guard Mike Felt. Alexander is No. 4 in the conference with 4.0 assists per game, and Felt is No. 2 in three-point shooting with 57 made treys.

Montana (16-4, 12-0 Big Sky, No. 114 RPI)

Montana struggled in non-conference play, but that was because point guard Will Cherry missed the first seven games of the season with a broken foot. Since his return, the Grizzlies are 12-1, with the only loss coming to South Dakota State by one point in double overtime.

Currently, KenPom predicts Montana to lose only once in conference play (at Weber State), and that is not surprising considering how the Grizzlies’ trio of Cherry, Kareem Jamar and Mathias Ward have been playing.

Since his return, Cherry is averaging 13.1 points, 4.1 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 1.8 steals. Against Weber State, he showed his full potential with 28 points, six rebounds, three assists and four steals.

Jamar and Ward have been fantastic all season. Like Cherry, Jamar is a strong, all-around player. This season, he is averaging 13.7 points, 5.9 rebounds and 4.1 assists, and he is also shooting better than 40 percent from three-point range.

Ward leads the team in scoring with 15.2 points per game, and he also shoots 51.7 percent from the field.

Author: Jesse Kramer

Jesse Kramer is the founder of The Catch and Shoot. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. He has had work featured on SI.com, College Insider, The Comeback/Awful Announcing, and 247Sports.


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