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If the Saints, who are cruising in the MAAC with a 10-0 record, can survive this stretch -- let alone another five-game string against upstart Iona and Fairfield at home and Niagara, Canisius and Rider on the road -- still unbeaten in the league, then the BracketBusters opponent on either Feb. 19 or 20 will be even more important to the Saints' NCAA at-large hopes.
It's essentially Butler or bust.
If the Saints can win this week (at St. Peter's Thursday and at Marist on Saturday), there's a very good chance the Saints will be Butler's opponent in the highest-profile BracketBusters game. Matchups will be made this weekend so teams have a few weeks to deal with travel and scouting.
The concept has done wonders for some and been irrelevant for others, but one thing is certain: Teams that have an outside shot at an NCAA tourney at-large or are looking for a seed boost once they qualify as an automatic can't go wrong with another quality nonconference game in late February.
Some teams won't get that chance. The West Coast Conference isn't participating in the event and there are some omissions from other conferences like the Summit (only Oral Roberts and not Oakland), the America East (no Maine), the Big Sky (served up only Montana State and not Northern Colorado or Weber State).
There are 98 teams involved in 49 games during BracketBusters. The 11 games that will air on the ESPN family of networks are determined first and then the conference commissioners will pair up the remaining 76 teams.
Home and road teams are already set for the event, so it's a bit difficult to maneuver who can go where. But the most important aspect of matching teams should be done based on who has a shot to be in the field. Not all of the 22 set teams are in that group. Actually, maybe only six could have an outside shot at an at-large.
AP Photo/Mike CarlsonFran McCaffery is hoping BracketBusters provides a way to boost his team's NCAA at-large chances.
Siena is one of them.
"It's going to mean something and I would say if we could have a phenomenal league record and beat Butler and then not lose until the finals of the [MAAC] then we'd have a shot," said Siena coach Fran McCaffery. "We'll be right there in that discussion, but we don't want to get ahead of ourselves and assume the next five or six games."
McCaffery would actually be in favor of holding off on announcing the BracketBusters matchups until a few more weeks. But nevertheless, he still wants that Butler game. From a storyline perspective, it makes sense. Those are two of the better-known programs in the field and each has had some NCAA tournament success (Siena has won its last two first-round games).
"We're hoping we can put ourselves in position to get an at-large bid," McCaffery said. The problem for the Saints will be the six games prior to a possible showdown with Butler at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
Ubiles didn't play against Manhattan on Jan. 18, played 33 minutes in a win over Loyola (Md.) on Jan. 21, but then missed the road game at Manhattan on Sunday. Meanwhile, guard Kyle Downey, who scored 16 points in Ubiles' absence in the first Manhattan game, broke his foot and is now out, possibly for the season.
"We're short-handed for this tough stretch, but I know we have to keep winning," said McCaffery.
Siena did beat Northeastern early in the season for what might turn out to be a solid win. It was a game McCaffery said was scheduled because "nobody wanted to play us and nobody wanted to play them and we're two hours away." But losses to Temple, St. John's, Georgia Tech and Northern Iowa were the supposed "up" games that the Saints failed to win.
Meanwhile, Butler has been rolling in the Horizon at 9-0 with a 16-4 record overall. That mark includes a win at Northwestern and home victories against Ohio State (without Evan Turner) and Xavier. Playing Clemson on a neutral court and UAB on the road (both losses) will help the power rating.
A year ago, Butler coach Brad Stevens said beating Davidson on the road was a key win for helping the Bulldogs get an at-large bid after losing to eventual champ Cleveland State in the conference tournament.
"We were coming off two losses that week before the Davidson game," Stevens said. "And you don't want to be on a losing streak at that time of the year. Doubt starts to creep in. That was a good win that got us going in the right direction."
Stevens knows the Bulldogs will get a quality BracketBusters opponent as the premier home team. There was a time when the staff was anticipating Wichita State as a possible opponent, but two losses last week for the Shockers have led to a belief that it could be Siena. Louisiana Tech, which tops the WAC, is also a possibility, but the name value of a Siena-Butler matchup may have more cachet.
The Bulldogs are handling their business in the Horizon as they become the top draw in every opposing building. That won't change as the Bulldogs go to Green Bay on Friday (ESPNU, 9 ET) and then to Milwaukee, two places the Bulldogs lost last season.
With Matt Howard staying out of foul trouble in the league after being in it throughout the nonconference, the Bulldogs are getting more of a complete effort. Gordon Hayward has been a Horizon MVP and barring a complete collapse, the Bulldogs are in good shape as far as the NCAA tournament is concerned.
Joining Butler as a BracketBusters home squad is Northern Iowa (8-1, 17-2), which leads the Missouri Valley. But Siena has already played Northern Iowa (the Panthers won 82-65) and that's why it makes more sense to send Siena to Butler and Louisiana Tech to Northern Iowa. The latter matchup may not seem headline-worthy to the mainstream fan, but these are the leaders in the WAC and MVC and both teams are talented enough to win a first-round NCAA tournament game.
If you were to pit Siena-Butler and Louisiana Tech-Northern Iowa, you'd likely have four teams that are going to be in the field of 65 matching up a few weeks before Selection Sunday.
The other hot teams are in the Colonial, but they obviously can't go up against each other. Northeastern, Old Dominion, George Mason and William & Mary all could be in play for the CAA's automatic bid with the Tribe the most likely at-large candidate because of nonconference wins over Wake Forest and Maryland on the road and Richmond at home.
That's why the question of who will play at GMU and Northeastern and where ODU and William & Mary will play during BracketBusters will be a fluid process this week.
I'd like to see the following: Wichita State at Northeastern as two of the top teams in the MVC and CAA; William & Mary hitting the road to play the best team in the Ohio Valley (Murray State); ODU traveling to Green Bay, pitting one of the top teams in the CAA against the second-best in the Horizon; and Charleston, which took out North Carolina, makes sense at George Mason in a matchup of two of the best from the Southern and CAA.
"We need a good game," said Northeastern coach Bill Coen, whose Huskies have won 11 games in a row, the third-longest streak in the country. "We've used all our mulligans and probably need to stay perfect the rest of the way to get an at-large berth. But in the spirit of the BracketBusters, we'd like to play our way into the conversation."
Northeastern failed to win games in the nonconference against potential NCAA teams Siena, Rhode Island and Saint Mary's before a humbling loss to Western Michigan in Honolulu on Dec. 23 -- its last loss -- set the team straight.
"It was good for us to be on the road because we had to take a hard look at ourselves," Coen said. "It was like a foreign tour. We were together all the time and had to go eat together breakfast, lunch and dinner and figure it out."
Now Coen says the Huskies are cheering for a BracketBusters game "that will help us the most."
They're not alone.