It’s that time of year when you can feel the electricity and excitement rippling through the Missouri Valley.
It’s BracketBusters Weekend.
There’s nothing like a Bradley visit to Tennessee-Martin to get the basketball blood boiling. I hear Akron is beautiful this time of year, so I’m anticipating Creighton’s trip Saturday to the Ohio city for a classic matchup against the Zips.
At a time when Wichita State and Missouri State should be focusing on what it will take to win the regular-season title, both teams will take time out to prepare for games against Virginia Commonwealth and Valparaiso, games that likely won’t greatly impact chances of landing an at-large spot in the NCAA tournament.
As much as some of us love to hate BracketBusters, it’s important to note that it’s not going away. The Valley is contractually obligated to the event through this season, but talks already have begun about future participation. Valley Commissioner Doug Elgin is one of the founding fathers of the event and a staunch proponent of BracketBusters.
There’s no arguing that participation leads to television exposure for Valley teams on ESPN — Wichita State, Missouri State and Northern Iowa are part of the network’s 11-game television package this year. And there’s little doubt if the Valley wasn’t a part of the event, ESPN’s interest in broadcasting some of the other regular-season Valley games might diminish.
But some league coaches, usually reluctant to criticize the commissioner’s pet project, are starting to wonder if the price is right. Are the rewards the Valley receives from participating in the event worth the risk?
“If we win, people say our teams are supposed to win,” Missouri State coach Cuonzo Martin said. “If we lose, I think it hurts us even more.”
The league has enjoyed plenty of success in the event. Valley teams have compiled a 23-12 record in televised games and a 47-26 overall record in BracketBusters play.
Factor in the return games that the teams must play within an 18-month period, and the record is 89-47.
The intent of BracketBusters was to provide an opportunity for a select group of mid-major teams that might be headed for the bubble on Selection Sunday to enhance their resumé by pitting them together in a series of games in mid-February.
The concept has worked for some, as Creighton’s Greg McDermott can attest. When he was Northern Iowa’s coach, the Panthers’ double-overtime BracketBusters victory over Bucknell in 2006 probably was the difference in their making the NCAA tournament.
“It was great for us at Northern Iowa,” McDermott said, “and we had a chance to play some very meaningful games.”
The problem is, most of the games now have little meaning. Subtract that handful of games that match teams with at-large hopes, and all you have are nonconference games, many of which would never be scheduled.
This year, 114 teams from 14 conferences, plus one independent, are participating.
“When we used to be in it, it wasn’t nearly as large,” said McDermott, who spent the previous four seasons coaching at Iowa State of the Big 12. “I think as we look down the road, we might have to discuss whether this is something our league needs as we move forward.”
McDermott’s thoughts are echoed by several other league coaches, all of whom try to be as politically correct as possible.
“I guess I’m kind of mixed on the question, and I would have to really study it more,” Illinois State’s Tim Jankovich said. “But my gut feeling is that BracketBusters has sometimes hurt us in trying to get teams to the tournament.”
As Martin pointed out, the Valley, traditionally the highest-ranked RPI conference in the event, takes on the role of the big dog. The better Valley teams are supposed to win, and when they don’t, it can be a black mark on Selection Sunday.
“At one point, when we were getting two, three and four teams into the tournament, it was probably in the best interest of the league,” Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said. “I think we’ll get to a point where we’ll have to evaluate whether being in this type of event is worth it.
“Or is there a better way to achieve our goal, and that’s to get as many teams into the NCAA tournament as possible.”
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