The eve of BracketBusters always brings me back to my time at UW-Milwaukee, especially this year, the 11th and final season for the event.
Starting Friday night, the ESPN family of networks will televise 13 games selected from 15 conferences and 122 teams. The premise is to give mid-majors some visibility heading into March Madness.
For those teams that have been able to get games on television, BracketBusters has been great. It has been pivotal in introducing basketball fans to teams like Creighton, George Mason, Ohio, VCU and way-back-when Gonzaga. Heck, I would argue some of that exposure has helped get some of the coaches of these schools higher-profile jobs. Guys like Dana Altman (Creighton), Jim Larranaga (George Mason), John Groce (Ohio) and even some other guy that wound up in Knoxville all participated in BracketBusters.
It is a great stage for mid-major teams that are trying to become relevant. Last year, ESPN sent Dickie V to the Saint Mary's-Murray State game. Vitale, one of the network’s highest-profile color analysts, flew to tiny Murray, Ky., to cover a game there for the first time. It was a huge deal for that program and its fans, and it never would've happened without BracketBusters.
What’s interesting about the event is the cooperation that goes on at multiple levels among the teams and conferences. Essentially, teams leave a weekend open in late February and wait for ESPN to decide who they will play. The schedule rotates year to year between road and home games and that, along with overall rankings, dictates who plays who.
That, of course, has its drawbacks, too. Teams at the bottom or even middle of the pack in their conference typically do not get a televised game. That means teams have to travel or miss class, and the game doesn’t mean that much to them. So, Southeastern Louisiana has to travel to Winthrop, or Northern Arizona flies out to Hawaii this year for a game that, more than likely, doesn’t mean anything to any of those teams.
But I loved it in Milwaukee. It gave my teams something to play for because we wanted ESPN to cover us, and it helped us during tournament time. In return for our effort, ESPN put us on a national stage, and we had some great games. My first BracketBusters game was against Bruce Weber’s Southern Illinois team, which beat us, 66-64, on a last second tip-in.
In a year that is expected to have a “soft bubble,” this extra game could be huge for some of the non-"power six" conference teams. In a culture that only offers a finite amount of automatic bids, RPI can make or break a team’s chance at a postseason berth. This additional game against a quality opponent could be the last chance for a team to bolster its tournament résumé.
No conference has figured this system out better than the Missouri Valley Conference. From 2003-07, the MVC had at least two and as many as four teams make the NCAA tournament. This year, Indiana State, Creighton and Wichita State are all vying for an NCAA berth. Although ISU probably won’t get too much of a bump by playing Iona, these three will have the chance to add another quality win.
I had always thought of a bracket-buster as a mid-major team upsetting a high-major team in the NCAA tournament. In 2005, we beat an Alabama team that had been to the Elite Eight the year prior and a Boston College team that had started the season 20-0. I guarantee you that UW-Milwaukee making the Sweet 16 busted some brackets. But with overall records, conference strength, RPI, quality wins, etc., all considered, BracketBusters can happen any time now -- hence the name.
If this is the last year that BracketBusters is played, and it looks like it is, we should remember it fondly. It has given teams from the non-power six conferences that precious visibility to not only make themselves potential NCAA tournament teams, but perennially competitive and publicized programs.
I will miss the event a great deal but can't wait to see it one final time.