ESPN BracketBusters: Previewing the 12 Marquee Matchups of BracketBuster Weekend

BracketBuster weekend is right around the corner, starting with a pair of games on Friday night. Here are previews for all of the best mid-major matchups of the weekend.

North Dakota State at Akron, Friday at 7 p.m. on ESPN2

Akron (21-4, 12-0 MAC) needs to win this game mainly because a loss would really damage its at-large résumé. The Zips have a top-25 win over Middle Tennessee and an additional top-100 win over Ohio, but an important aspect of their season is that they have only one bad loss to Coastal Carolina, which came way, way back on November 9. And it was on the road in overtime. A home loss to a mid-major that is third in the Summit League could be devastating if the Zips fail to secure the MAC’s automatic bid at the conference tournament.

Even though North Dakota State (20-7, 11-4 Summit) has no chance at an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, it could still sneak into the NIT. The Bison already have a top-100 win at home over South Dakota State, but they do not have any impressive road wins. With a top-50 road win and a strong finish in conference play, they will be guaranteed a postseason berth somewhere.

There are a number of exciting players to watch in this matchup. Akron has a NBA prospect in 7-footer Zeke Marshall, who averages 12.6 points and 3.5 blocks per game. He also ranked No. 8 in the nation in block percentage and true shooting percentage.

The Bison also have a good forward in Marshall Bjorklund, who is No. 2 nationally in field-goal percentage at 68.8.

Stephen F. Austin at Long Beach State, Friday at 9 p.m. on ESPNU

This is the most underrated BracketBuster out there this year.

Long Beach State (17-9, 13-2 Big West) struggled in non-conference play, but it was not at full strength. The 49ers needed to wait until midseason for transfers Tony Freeland and Keala King to become eligible, and their additions have made a huge impact. The combination of Freeland and West Virginia transfer Dan Jennings, who has been eligible all season, forms the best frontcourt in the Big West, and King provides a veteran pal for sophomore Mike Caffey in the backcourt.

Stephen F. Austin (22-3, 13-2 Southland) does not get much publicity playing in the Southland, but it is a team that could give a top seed problems in March. With the No. 5 defensive effiency in the nation, the Lumberjacks are tied for first place in the conference, and they have a non-conference win at Oklahoma. 6’6” forward Taylor Smith is a beast inside, averaging 15.9 points, 8.8 rebounds and 3.1 blocks. Due to his size, he has no future in the NBA, but he is leading Division I in field-goal percentage at 71.2 this season.

This game has zero effect on at-large berths, but both teams could use a top-100 win for seeding if they win their respective conference tournaments as expected. 

Iona at Indiana State, Saturday at 11 a.m. on ESPNU

This is a perfect trap game for Indiana State (16-11, 9-7 MVC). The Sycamores are one of the more enigmatic bubble teams this season with six top-100 wins and six sub-100 losses. They defeated Miami (FL) and Ole Miss at the Diamond Head Classic, upset Creighton and Wichita State, and swept Northern Iowa. But how much will the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee penalize Larry Bird’s alma mater for losing road games to Morehead State, Southern Illinois, Drake, Missouri State and Bradley? The Sycamores at-large chances are already slim, but a home loss to Iona, another sub-100 team, would for sure force Indiana State to win the MVC tournament to make the Big Dance.

Iona (15-12, 9-7 MAAC) went to the NCAA tournament as an at-large team last season, but the Gaels recent struggles in the MAAC will force them to win the MAAC tournament if they want a return ticket to the Big Dance. Although they have lost five of their last six games, they are still a dangerous mid-major because of their offensive firepower. This is a team that blew out Wake Forest, won at Georgia and nearly took down Rutgers at Madison Square Garden. With their recent struggles, the Gaels are looking to prove that there is hope for them at the MAAC tournament. After their most recent loss to Fairfield, star shooting guard Sean Armand tweeted, “We will make an impact when it’s done” and “Better days ahead.”

Canisius at Vermont, Saturday at 1 p.m. on ESPN3

Canisius (17-10, 10-6 MAAC) is one of the few times in the MAAC that has a chance to get a No. 15 seed or higher in the 2013 NCAA Tournament. The Golden Griffins have a win at Temple and no bad non-conference losses.

Canisius has a potential all-MAAC first teamer in Rhode Island transfer Billy Baron, who averages 16.7 points, 4.3 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game. A couple of weeks ago, Baron posted a career-high 33 points in a win over Niagara.

Vermont (Record, Record A-East) will also need to win its conference tournament to make the NCAAs, but with wins over Harvard and Stony Brook it could also earn a No. 15 seed if its wins this weekend.

The Catamounts have one of the more versatile players in all of college basketball in junior Brian Voelkel. The 6’6” forward averages 6.2 points, 8.7 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 1.5 steals per game, and he is shooting 11-of-28 (39.3%) from three-point range this season. A triple-double threat every time he steps on the floor, Voelkel posted 10 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists against Fairleigh Dickinson and 11 points, 12 boards and six dimes against Boston University a couple of games ago.

This game has little to no effect on the NCAA tournament, but it is worth checking out for the individual players. 

Eastern Kentucky at Valparaiso, Saturday at 1 p.m. on ESPNU

Eastern Kentucky (22-6, 11-3 OVC) made some national headlines with a 9-0 start to the season. Although the Colonels have fallen off the national stage, they have still been one of the better, more consistent mid-majors this season. They have puzzling losses to North Carolina A&T and Tennessee-Martin, but their other losses are to Illinois, West Virginia and Belmont (twice). Glenn Cosey, Corey Walden and Mike DiNunno are all among the best players in the Ohio Valley Conference.

Valparaiso (21-7, 11-3 Horizon) won’t be getting an at-large bid with its best wins coming against Detroit and Murray State, but the Crusaders are one of the favorites to wind up with the Horizon League’s automatic bid. They have a fantastic stretch four in 6’7” Ryan Broekhoff, who averages 16.1 points, 7.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists. Their backcourt possesses the best alliteration of any trio in college basketball with Erik Buggs (6.3 ppg, 3.6 apg, 1.5 spg), Will Bogan (6.2 ppg, 41.3 3P%) and Ben Boggs (5.7 ppg).

Montana at Davidson, Saturday at 3 p.m. on ESPNU

These two are among the hottest teams in the nation right now. Montana (19-5, 15-1 Big Sky) has won 15 of their last 16, and Davidson (20-7, 15-1 SoCon) is riding an 11-game winning streak. On Wednesday night, they clinched at least a share of the SoCon title by throttling Furman 73-36.

The Grizzlies have one of the most versatile college basketball players in Kareem Jamar. At 6’5″, Jamar averages 13.3 points, 5.9 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game. He can also step out and knock down three-pointers at a 38.8% clip. Last season, he posted a triple-double during BracketBuster weekend with 21 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists against Hawaii, so watch out.

The Grizzlies have two other stars in guard Will Cherry and forward Mathias Ward. Cherry missed almost all of non-conference play with a foot injury, but since returning he is posting 13.4 points, 4.4 rebounds and 4.5 assists per contest. Ward averages 14.8 points, and he can stretch the floor as a 40% three-point shooter.

Davidson has a pair of great forward in Jake Cohen and De’Mon Brooks. Cohen leads the team in scoring with 14.6 points per game, and he can also makes 40.5% of his three-point shots. The Wildcats also have Nik Cochran, one of the deadliest long-range shooters in the country at 48.1%.

Northwestern State at Niagara, Saturday at 3 p.m. on ESPN3

Northwestern State (19-6, 13-2 Southland) leads the nation in scoring with 84 points per game, but don’t be fooled. The Demons’ adjusted offensive efficiency on KenPom ranks only No. 109. They do like to get up and down the floor, though, with the fastest tempo in college basketball.

Niagara (16-11, 12-4 MAAC), the leaders in the MAAC, is also an up-tempo team, ranking in the top 40 in pace. The Purple Eagles will likely be without leading scorer Antoine Mason for the fifth straight game. Head coach Joe Mihalich said Mason is getting close to 100%, but it would be silly to rush him back for a non-conference game considering the MAAC title will be on the line next weekend.

The matchup between Northwestern State’s Jalan West and Niagara’s Juan’ya Green in the backcourt will be one of the best during BracketBuster weekend. Both are underclassmen, but they have been nothing short of exception this season. West, a freshman averages 10.6 points and 5.1 assists to only 1.8 turnovers. He also gets 2.5 steals per game. Green could win MAAC Player of the Year despite being only a sophomore with 16.7 points, 4.1 rebounds and five assists per game.

Detroit at Wichita State, Saturday at 4 p.m. on ESPN2

Wichita State (23-5, 12-4 MVC) has responded to its three-game losing streak a few weeks ago with wins in its last four, proving that it still is a top mid-major. The Shockers will easily make the NCAA tournament regardless of the outcome in this game, but picking up a second home loss could hurt their seeding.

Detroit (18-9, 10-4 Horizon) played a rough non-conference schedule but has come around in Horizon League play to move within a game of first-place Valparaiso. The Titans beat Akron in December, and they also won at Valparaiso last Saturday. With the bubble being as weak as it is this season, the Crusaders could get some consideration for an at-large bid with another top-100 win in Wichita.

Detroit has two highly dynamic players in Ray McCallum and Doug Anderson. McCallum was a top-100 recruit out of high school, but went to Detroit in order to play for his father, Ray McCallum Sr.. The younger McCallum is averaging 18.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 4.7 assists and two steals this season, and he nearly posted a triple-double at Cleveland State last week with 16 points, 13 boards and eight dimes.

At 6’6”, Anderson is among the best dunkers in college basketball. If you want to know why, click here.

Creighton at St. Mary’s, Saturday at 6 p.m. on ESPN/2

This should be the most entertaining BracketBuster of the weekend, plus it could have a substantial impact on the NCAA tournament field. St. Mary’s (22-5, 11-2 WCC) is on the bubble right now, and no one really knows where to put them. The Gaels have a great overall record and a good RPI, but their best wins are Harvard, Utah State and Brigham Young. Plus, they lost to Pacific and Georgia Tech in non-conference. With a top-50 win, the Gaels should be make the Big Dance as long as they do not lose to Pepperdine or Santa Clara in their last two games.

And although Creighton (22-6, 11-5 MVC) is pretty safely in the field, another top-100 win never hurts.

The Bluejays have a National Player of the Year candidate in Doug McDermott, who is among the nation’s top scorers. McDermott averages 22.5 points and 7.8 rebounds and he ranks No. 4 in offensive rating on KenPom among players who are used in at least 28% of their team’s possessions. He can score from anywhere on the floor and shoots 47.9% from beyond the arc.

The Bluejays have a strong forward in Rutgers transfer Gregory Echenique (9.5 ppg, 7.8 rpg) and a stretch four in Ethan Wragge, who averages 2.3 three-pointers per game. They also have two solid point guards in Grant Gibbs and Austin Chatman, who combine for 10 assists per game.

St. Mary’s’ high-powered offense is run by point guard Matthew Dellavedova. Dellavedova averages 15.8 points and 6.4 assists per game, which ranks in the top 15 nationally. He does a great job running this team and could have a future in the NBA.

South Dakota State at Murray State at 8 p.m. on ESPN2

Nate Wolters’ stellar play has been a consistency, but the rest of the South Dakota State Jackrabbits have often not showed up in road games. That is why South Dakota State (21-8, 12-3 Summit) lost at Cal State Bakersfield in double overtime on Wednesday despite 32 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists from Wolters. They also nearly lost at IPFW a few weeks ago despite his 53-point outburst. If the entire team shows up on Saturday, South Dakota State is the better team. This Jackrabbit team upset New Mexico at The Pit when four Jackrabbits scored in double figures to support Wolters’ 28 points and seven assists.

But Murray State (19-7, 10-4 OVC) still has plenty of talent. Point guard Isaiah Canaan is a stud, and the matchup between him and Wolters is as good as any. Canaan is averaging 20.6 points and 4.2 assists per contest and he hit a number of big shots in the Racers’ recent, double overtime win at Morehead State. The Racers also have an undersized, but great nonetheless, forward in Ed Daniel, who averages 13.4 points, 10.4 rebounds and 1.8 blocks.

Denver at Northern Iowa, Saturday at 8 p.m. on ESPN3

Denver (17-8, 13-2 WAC) and Northern Iowa (17-11, 10-6 MVC) have been two of the hotter mid-majors in the nation. The Pioneers have won their last six games and 13 of their last 14, putting them in second place in the WAC, and the Panthers have won their last six as well, which includes victories over Wichita State and Creighton. After being an afterthought in January, they sit in third place in the competitive Missouri Valley Conference.

This game will not be great for the average college basketball viewer, as both teams play at a very slow pace. But watching Denver go through its offense is simply beautiful. The Pioneers are No. 13 in the nation in assists per game with 16.2, and five players average two or more dimes per game. Their 64.2 points per game may fool you into thinking they are not an offensive-minded team, but they rank among the top 75 offenses on KenPom.

Ohio at Belmont, Saturday at 10 p.m. on ESPN2

Despite a pair of losses in the Ohio Valley Conference, Belmont (21-6, 12-2 OVC) could still get an at-large bid on Selection Sunday if it loses in the conference tournament. The Bruins have non-conference wins over Stanford, Middle Tennessee and South Dakota State, and they have not lost at home. Their worst loss is to Tennessee State, which is 15-11, 9-4 in the OVC, and ranked No. 98 in RPI.

For whatever reason, people tend to associate Belmont with defense. Although the Bruins do rank in the top 75 in defensive efficiency, they rank No. 35 in offensive efficiency and No. 4 in effective field-goal percentage. They have two all-conference guards in Ian Clark and Kerron Johnson, and Trevor Noack, J.J. Mann and Blake Jenkins give them solid size for a mid-major.

Ohio (20-6, 11-1 MAC) won’t be getting into the NCAA tournament as an at-large team, but it is still arguably the best team in the MAC. The Bobcats, who advanced to the Sweet 16 last season, have all of their pieces from 2011-12.

D.J. Cooper is once again the quiet leader of this team. His 7.7 assists per game rank No. 3 nationally, and, soon, he will become the first player to ever record 2,000 points, 900 assists, 500 rebounds and 300 steals in his career.

All stats are as of Wednesday, February 20, 2013. All times are listed in E.S.T.

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, College Insider, The Comeback/Awful Announcing, and 247Sports.

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