Thanks to the wonderful promotional power of the folks who sign the checks in these parts, Saturday is all about the teams we've come to love in this space. So, sit back, grab the remote, a morning, afternoon and evening snack, along with your favorite beverages, and enjoy Bracket Buster Saturday II.
The question, however, is: With 14-plus hours of basketball to watch, which of the mid-majors below are really worth watching?
Sure, the exposure for teams like Manhattan, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the College of Charleston and Hawaii is great. But reality says a win over a fellow mid-major -- no matter how impressive -- won't get any of these teams into the Dance. A loss? Well, it may be the final bit of evidence the selection committee points to in why an at-large bid went elsewhere on Selection Sunday.
Of the 20 teams playing in Saturday's 10 televised games on ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNFullcourt, just two enter the Bracket Buster boasting seasons worthy of at-large bids: Gonzaga and Southern Illinois. Among the other 18, only a few others may remain in the discussion until Selection Sunday. The rest will likely need to win their conference tournaments to go dancing.
But all this talk about at-large bids shouldn't diminish what should be a great day of basketball. And here is a Cinderella Watch guarantee on Feb. 20: At least two of the 20 teams playing Saturday will be playing in the second week of the NCAA Tournament. Three, if you want to count the Zags.
So, if you don't have 14 hours to spare Saturday, or at least two TVs, what games should you either TiVo or tune in to live? Just follow the Cinderella Watch's Bracket Buster Viewer's Guide:
Creighton at Kent State, noon ET (ESPN2): The Golden Flashes have emerged as a viable at-large team out of the MAC, winning nine straight heading into Saturday to improve to 19-3 overall. Kent hasn't beaten a team in the RPI top 50, so it lacks a win it can hang its NCAA hopes on. Beating Creighton (19-4) would have looked much better come Selection Sunday if the Bluejays had held up their end of the bargain. Creighton's at-large chances are over with two of its four MVC losses to teams outside the RPI top 150.
Manhattan at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 2 ET, (ESPN2) Don't leave the couch, yet, if for no other reason to see the day's best one-on-one matchup: Luis Flores vs. Dylan Page. While neither have at-large hopes, these two seniors should light up the scoreboard for teams who danced last year and are favored to win their conference tournaments again this year. Flores averages 23.8 points a game, which ranks fifth in the country. He's scored at least 24 points in seven straight wins and 30 or more three times for the Jaspers (20-4). Page, meanwhile, is averaging 20.6 points and 6.5 rebounds for a Wisconsin-Milwaukee team that still leads the Horizon, despite back-to-back losses.
Austin Peay at Wichita State, 7 ET (ESPNFullcourt): OK, do a few chores, but if you have ESPNFullcourt, be back in your seat for a game way off the national radar. Why watch. To see if Austin Peay can win outside the OVC, where the Govs have been perfect -- reeling off 14 straight wins after a 3-7 nonconference. Wichita State (17-8) isn't so bad, either. The Shockers slumped early, but a late surge has 'em third in the MVC and a real threat to steal the MVC's automatic bid in St. Louis.
Hawaii at Southern Illinois, midnight ET (ESPN): Put on a pot of coffee, because the best of the Bracket Buster was saved for last this year. Talk about some Midnight Madness in Carbondale. All the Salukis have done this season is go 15-0 in the MVC, 21-2 overall, and crack the top 25 for the first time since Jimmy Carter was in the Oval Office. Win or lose, the Salukis will be in the dance. As for Hawaii, the Warriors will be hard-pressed to beat SIU on its own turf. But an at-large bid isn't on the line for the Warriors, who are in the middle of a wide-open WAC race.
There are certainly other storylines to watch throughout Saturday. We haven't even mentioned Louisiana-Lafayette's trip to Rice (ESPNFullcourt, 1 ET), where the Rajun Cajuns can prove the best in the Sun Belt is every bit as good as the WAC's leaders. Or East Tennessee State, which is 14-0 in the SoCon and boasts 22 wins heading out West to play Fresno State. And there's always Gonzaga to enjoy, or Western Michigan to get to know (vs. College of Charleston, 4 p.m. ET, ESPN2).
But for the purposes of Cinderellas, be sure to follow the Watch's Viewer's Guide. Speaking of Cinderellas, let's clarify once again what the Cinderella Watch is all about. First of all:
- In the eyes of ESPN.com, a team in the Mid-Major Top 10 (see chart below) may not "officially" be on the Cinderella Watch.
However, those 10 teams certainly could qualify as Cinderellas come March. But, for now, those 10 teams are a bit more mainstream in our view. (See: Gonzaga rule below). So, just because Utah State, Southern Illinois or Murray State isn't on the Cinderella Watch, it doesn't mean they aren't Cinderella-worthy come tourney time. In fact, we'd be surprised if at least two or three teams on our final Top 10 list in March didn't win a game or two in the NCAA Tournament.
Each week leading up to Selection Sunday (March 14), we'll chronicle the progress of all deserving mid-major teams around the country -- via the Cinderella Watch and Mid-Major Top 10. The goal is to identify a few teams that fans should become familiar with heading into the Big Dance. The teams we feature this week may become regulars. They may fall by the wayside. But chances are the Watch will have its share of changes during the next two months.
As for the definition of a Cinderella? Well, the only rule when it comes to the Watch is a team can't play in the Big East, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC or Pac-10. So, unlike the Mid-Major Top Ten (which doesn't include the Atlantic-10, WAC or Mountain West), those conferences can produce Cinderellas. But, just because South Carolina is enjoying surprising success in the SEC, don't look for the Gamecocks on the Watch.
Why? Because we said so.
One aspect to the Watch hasn't changed this year: Fans will still play a major role in the look of the Watch. Not only can you vote for the most deserving Cinderellas each week in the poll below, but be sure to send in your Cinderella Watch comments, telling us why your school should get more attention from not only us but the selection committee, as well. Last week, the fans spoke and Drexel was eliminated.
Oh, and remember the Gonzaga Rule: The Zags outgrew their slipper several years ago.
Aside from that, the Watch is pretty much open to everyone. So, with all of this in mind, let's take a look at the teams the big boys should be watching along with us this week.
East Tennessee State: The Bucs are slowly separating themselves from the rest of the SoCon. ETSU has won a school-best 14 straight conference games to clinch the regular season title. It's biggest threats to prevent a return trip to the NCAA Tournament remain in the SoCon's other division, but both Georgia Southern and College of Charleston have shown flaws, while the Bucs remain perfect in their final SoCon season. Fueled by 5-7 guard Tim Smith, the Bucs can introduce themselves to the nation with a Bracket Buster victory at Fresno State.
Slipping Into A Slipper
University of Pacific It happened after midnight for those of us on the East Coast, but we still noticed the Tigers' 64-60 upset of Utah State to move into a share of the lead in the Big West. Picked to finish seventh in the preseason, the Tigers had been lurking since losing in Logan as the team that could prevent Utah State's perfect Big West campaign. Now winners of eight straight, beating the Aggies sets up an interesting Big West tournament. UOP (18-7) won't dance without the automatic bid, which likely won't come unless it can beat the Aggies one more time in the title game.
Slipping Out of Its Slipper
Vermont: A year ago, reigning America East player of year T.J. Sorrentine broke both wrists in practice before the start of the season. Vermont still won 21 games and reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history behind America East player of the year Taylor Coppenrath. This year, Sorrentine returned to join Coppenrath and guide the Catamounts back to the top of the America East standings. Now, Coppenrath (who was averaging nearly 25 ppg) is done for the season after breaking his wrist against Stony Brook. Vermont has reached the NCAAs without a conference POY before, but two would have made things much easier ... especially with Boston University breathing down the 'Cats necks into March.
Does The Slipper Fit?
The following teams may or may not have the stuff to be included in this week's Mid-Major Top 10, but certainly could become a Cinderella story. And here's where you come into play. Vote in the poll to the right. Your vote will help eliminate one team users don't feel has shown it can be a Cinderella in March. Want to express yourself more? Click here to let us know who we missed, or why your team should stay on next week's guest list.
Ron Buck is ESPN.com's men's college basketball editor.