This weekend, ESPN’s BracketBusters will once again showcase the best that college basketball’s mid-major conferences have to offer, providing the sport's “Little Guys” with a chance to boost their NCAA tournament resumes and enjoy some much-appreciated exposure, if only for one game.
Now in it’s eighth season, BracketBusters has developed into something of an annual spectacle in the college basketball world. The 2010 version will feature 98 teams representing 14 different mid-major conferences. While most of these squads have no realistic shot at competing in next month's "Big Dance," save for winning their conference tournaments, the BracketBuster event as a whole is widely considered a success.
Each year has seen at least 11 BracketBuster participants move on to the NCAA tournament, and the event boasts several tournament success stories, including George Mason of '06 and Davidson of '08 (both BracketBuster alumni).
Yet for all the exposure and opportunity the weekend bestows upon the mid-major conferences, the question must be asked: is a BracketBuster game truly beneficial for a mid-major team?
In theory the weekend’s matchups provide underexposed teams with another quality opponent and an opportunity to prove their worth against their mid-major peers, but in reality the weekend has devolved into a series of elimination games.
In the grand scheme of a mid-major’s overall tournament resume, teams are judged heavily on how they compare to members of the major six conferences, or the "Big Six." As such, a mid-major does not gain a great deal by beating a fellow BracketBuster participant, but a BracketBuster loss can be devastating to a team's at-large hopes.
In fact, throughout the BracketBusters’ eight years of existence only two teams, Butler in 2007 and St. Mary’s (CA) in 2008, have lost their BracketBuster game and still managed to receive an at-large invitation to the NCAA Tournament.
Meanwhile, winning a BracketBuster game is really only a prerequisite for the chance to be judged against college basketball’s major programs. Every year, Selection Sunday seems to feature a "bubble clash" between a quality mid-major school that failed to win its conference tournament and a middling major conference team battling for the precious final at-large spot.
Debate still rages as to whether the tournament’s selection committee is better served choosing the mid-major or the major-conference team in this instance, and the tournament has proved inconclusive in backing either candidate.
For every 2006 George Mason team, an at-large mid-major that proved their detractors wrong, there seems to be a 2008 Villanova team, a group many felt only received a bid only because of its Big East membership yet still managed to reach the Sweet 16.
So if the contest between mid-majors and the Big Six on Selection Sunday appears to have no conclusive winner, perhaps BracketBuster weekend could be put to better use.
Imagine if BracketBusters pitted mid-major teams not against themselves, but against their major conference brethren against whom they will be judged come Selection Sunday?
It would be an intriguing idea to say the least, if college basketball’s eternal underdogs were allowed a shot at the major conference’s bubble teams to truly prove who is worthy of a bid.
Ambitious mid-major programs do get to battle big-name teams during their non-conference schedules early in the season, but why not allow them another chance in the middle of conference scheduling, when teams are rounding into form? In this scenario, a close loss to a major program wouldn’t necessarily eliminate a mid-major’s at-large chances, but a victory would serve as a monumental trump card come Selection Sunday.
Of course, the major conferences would likely never go for such a plan for several reasons. Not only would a Big Six school’s participation in such an event stand as an admittance that its team sits precariously on the selection bubble, they also would have very little to gain and everything to lose from hosting a mid-major team in this type of game.
A loss at home to a mid-major school this late in the season would be disastrous for a major conference school fighting for its tournament life.
For the Big Six conferences to even consider such a radical idea, large sums of money would undoubtedly need to be tossed their way, and perhaps even the idea of relocating or duplicating some of the early season tournaments (think the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic) could entice the major conferences to bite.
Realistically, because the BracketBusters weekend does not truly need fixing, it will almost certainly remain as it is, which is completely acceptable. The event still contains plenty of excitement, as smaller schools give their all in front of the bright lights that normally pass them by.
Yet part of the magic of the NCAA Tournament’s opening round is watching an underdog go toe to toe with an elite team. What if, every year, we were provided a small preview of basketball's version of David vs. Goliath in late February?
That’s something I would pay to see.
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