BracketBusters has grown so big (100 teams) that there are nearly as many schools taking part as there are items available on the title sponsor's auction Web site. It's become so humongous a spectacle that it's transcended a single Saturday to become a multiday mid-major festival: the Burning Man of college hoops.
And the lineup for the event's fourth edition is so packed that ESPN was forced to knock out the space between the words "Bracket" and "Busters," just so everything would fit on the marquee. On the only weekend of the year when mid-majors take center stage, here's what to watch for on Saturday:
Bucknell at Northern Iowa
Saturday, noon ET (ESPN2)
At this time of year, the polls seem to reserve a rotating slot near the bottom for a token mid-major squad, and these are the last two to occupy it. Northern Iowa (21-6, 11-5 MVC) briefly had a national ranking until losing to Creighton on Feb. 1, and now No. 24 Bucknell (21-3, 12-0 Patriot) gets its shot, thanks to its perfect league record and recently completed sweep of arch-nemesis Holy Cross.
The home-standing Panthers have lost two in a row, but don't let that fool you: This is still the strongest team in the Valley and the team best positioned to win out in the MVC tourney in St. Louis. The Panthers have four potent double-figure scoring threats across the size spectrum, led by preseason Wooden candidate Ben Jacobson (14.2 ppg). They also play smart, fouling only 14.8 times a game (seventh-fewest in the country), so opponents can't expect to win it at the line. Pittsburgh, Kansas and Syracuse all know how fearless Bucknell is away from home -- 6-11 Chris McNaughton and Co. will try to contain UNI with the fourth-most efficient defense in the nation (.854 points allowed per possession) and shoot the lights out with their Patriot-leading 47.3 field-goal percentage. Add it all up, and you've got the best matchup of the weekend.
Buffalo at Iona
Saturday, noon ET (ESPN360)
Or you can tune in to ESPN.com's broadband service and watch the Bulls (16-8, 6-7 MAC) and Gaels (18-5, 12-3 MAAC) mix it up. Buffalo, last year's Mid-American runner-up, has dropped five of six to slump out of contention and will be fighting to get a home playoff game when it returns to league play. Coach Jeff Ruland's Iona squad, on the other hand, has won four of six; the Gaels still are the presumptive candidate to represent the Metro Atlantic in the NCAA Tournament and have scored a whopping 82.3 points per game in conference contests. Their only problem here is one of counterprogramming, and as such Iona's high-octane backcourt of Steve Burtt (24.6 ppg) and Ricky Soliver (16.5 ppg) will remain one of Hoops Nation's best-kept secrets.
Butler at Kent State
Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET (ESPNU)
The U's slate of Saturday action kicks off with a tense backcourt battle between teams that have been fighting for respect in their own conferences. Kent (18-7, 12-2 MAC) has kept pace just behind crosstown rivals Akron (see above) in the Mid-American East division, beating the Zips at home on Feb. 4, 63-57. Butler (16-9, 94, Horizon) has been slightly overshadowed in the conference race by Wisconsin-Milwaukee (see below) but overcame its rival by a 63-60 count (also Feb. 4). Few teams shoot the 3 as well as Butler's guards (38.5 percent), a trick they use to overcome their rebounding weakness (22.8 per game, third-from-worst nationally). The Golden Flashes use their guard play -- led by senior point man DeAndre Haynes (12.5 ppg, 4.0 apg) -- to mount a stingy perimeter defense that's allowed a league-low 61.2 points.
Missouri State at Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Saturday, 2 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
Anyone with a poll vote is hereby required to keep his TV locked to the Deuce on Saturday afternoon so he can watch all the Missouri Valley teams that have been unfairly snubbed all season. Missouri State (17-7, 10-6 MVC) sits in fifth place yet still leads the league in just about every meaningful offensive category: field goals (47.2 percent), free throws (75.1 percent), 3s (39.0 percent) and floor percentage (53.3 percent), which measures how many possessions result in scores. And the Bears' D is well above average too, allowing only .928 points per possession.
As for UWM (18-7, 11-4 Horizon)? Well, you know the team, what with its deep run last March and all. Most of the scoring from that freewheeling Sweet 16 squad is back, like 2005 NCAA Tournament star wing Joah Tucker (16.2 ppg, 6.0 rpg) and tough power forward Adrian Tigert ( 13.1 ppg, 7.6 rpg). Erstwhile head coach Bruce Pearl might be working miracles in Tennessee right now, but new coach Rob Jeter's staff has the Panthers believing in defense, too, as indicated by their league-best .921 points allowed per possession.
Northern Arizona at Western Kentucky
Saturday, 2:30 p.m. ET (ESPNU)
Nobody expected Northern Arizona (17-7, 10-1 Big Sky) to amount to much after a nonconference schedule in which it went 7-6, with losses to 200-plus RPI teams like Texas-Arlington and Tulsa. But Lumberjacks fans' Christmas wishes all came true: They've blitzed the conference by winning their first nine games -- mostly on the strength of surprisingly good shooting (48.1 percent field goals, 23rd nationally), shockingly good free-throwing (76.2 percent, 11th in D-I) and league-best defensive efficiency (.986 points per possession defense).
The Jacks' actual legitimacy as a tournament team will be determined in the crucible of BracketBusters, as they travel east to the land of Diddle. Western Kentucky (18-5, 10-1 Sun Belt) had one major slipup against Troy last month (a 79-46 blowout loss), but they've passed every other test with flying colors -- make that waving red towels. The Hilltoppers have been outscoring their Sun Belt opposition by nearly nine points on average (76.0 PF, 67.3 PA in league games), and keep an eye on their high-scoring backcourt tandem: sophomore Courtney Lee (18.0 ppg) and senior slasher Anthony Winchester (18.5 ppg).
Marist at Old Dominion
Saturday, 4 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
If you need a breather from all the hot Valley action on ESPN2, a not-too-shabby Eastern seaboard tilt will get you through the afternoon in fine style. Marist (16-8, 10-6 MAAC) had won seven in a row going into BracketBusters' version of Selection Sunday (Jan. 29), but are 3-2 in their last five. At this point, the team with the Metro Atlantic's best team shooting (48.9 percent) has the inside track to land the conference tourney three-seed behind Iona and Manhattan. And as you watch the gritty Red Foxes attempt to outshoot their hosts (ODU owns just a 43.7 percent field-goal percentage), scratch your head and try to figure out what's happened to the Monarchs (18-8, 11-5 CAA), who were picked by nearly everyone as a Sweet 16 candidate in the preseason. These days, they're simply clinging to a bye from the CAA's version of First-Round Friday, when all teams but the top four slug it out.
Louisiana Tech at Southern Illinois
Saturday, 6 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
You might not be able to name anybody on SIU's roster, but the Salukis (18-7, 11-5 MVC) don't mind that. Their calling cards are their nationally ranked team defense -- 87.2 efficiency rating and a minuscule 56.7 points allowed per contest -- and the deafening noise of their SIU Arena (a recently snapped 42-game conference home win streak). Both will be on full display as Valley hoops and BracketBusters' dinner hour go hand-in-hand.
The visiting Bulldogs (16-10, 9-4 WAC) will try to add to SIU's recent woes -- the Salukis have lost three of five since dropping that 64-53 streak-ender to Indiana State on Feb. 1. This also will be a rare national showcase for the nation's leading rebounder, LaTech's Paul Millsap ( 19.7 ppg, 13.2 rpg). Millsap won the national rebounding title in his first two seasons and is aiming for a third, despite standing only 6-8 in a league with big men much bigger than he. Watch how well he positions himself on the floor after a shot, anticipating the deflection of the ball.
George Mason at Wichita State
Saturday, 8 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
Here's the second-most intriguing matchup of the weekend, as the current sole leader of the Missouri Valley, Wichita (21-6, 12-4 MVC), meets the current sole leader of the conference that wishes to eventually follow in the Mo-Val's large and successful footsteps. George Mason (20-5, 14-2 CAA) is riding a seven-game win streak and leads the Colonial by a game; the Patriots will try to use the event much like Nevada did last year, to erase and avenge a bad early loss (a 72-52 home blowout at the hands of MVC's Creighton Bluejays on Nov. 22) and bolster an at-large resumé, in case they don't survive the CAA tourney in Richmond.
Wichita (21-6, 12-4 MVC) has been the ultimate lunch-pail squad. The Shockers will go into the weekend leading Creighton, SIU and Northern Iowa by a game in the standings, and they've done it with no big stars and no eye-popping stats. Their four leading scorers all average between 11 and 13 points per contest. And when a team with a No. 15 RPI isn't nationally ranked in the Top 25, it's compelling evidence that the polls are nothing more than a popularity contest and a travesty.
Samford at Ohio
Saturday, 8 p.m. ET (ESPN360)
Aesthetics have a lot to do with who gets on regular TV, I'm sure, and Samford's style of play definitely is an acquired taste. The slowest team in all of Division I (just 55.1 possessions per 40 minutes) will play against Ohio on 360, which might seem like the number of days that go by while the Bulldogs are running their offense. But Samford (16-8, 12-5 OVC) has found success with its slow-down, smoothed-out O, as it doesn't turn it over (1.4 assist-turnover ratio) and shoots a very good 48.7 percent when the ball finally does go up.
Defending Mid-American champ Ohio (14-8, 8-6 MAC) has had trouble assuming the preseason mantle of "it" team, and now the Bobcats are managing personnel changes: With point guard Jeremy Fears out for the season, the education of eccentric sophomore Tony Chatman will continue. With all the tics and quirks in his game, you'll swear he's the African-American Napoleon Dynamite.
Northwestern State at Utah State
Saturday, 10 p.m. ET (ESPNU)
Utah State's (17-6, 8-4 WAC) aura of home invincibility was recently shattered by New Mexico State in an 83-77 loss at Logan last Saturday. The Aggies took out their frustrations at lowly Idaho on Wednesday, 80-42, and Northwestern State (17-6, 10-1 Southland) is hoping that they've used up all their aggression. Indeed, the Demons have a tall order in stopping inside-outside combo Nate Harris ( 17.0 ppg, 7.0 rpg) and Jaycee Carroll (17.0 ppg), a quality twosome they won't find in the Southland Conference. But NSU is no stranger to playing loose on the road (witness their wins at Oklahoma State and Mississippi State and their near-miss at Wichita). With Mike McConathy's mass-substitution system, they'll always have a fresh five out on the floor.
Fresno State at Creighton
Saturday, Midnight ET (ESPN)
The single game on The Mother Ship concludes BracketBusters IV, a midnight matchup between the Valley's most intimidating team and the WAC's most star-crossed. The Bluejays (17-7, 11-5 MVC) have lost two in a row, but those losses have been to fellow MVC elites SIU and Wichita. What's most compelling about Creighton is how the Bluejays have reinvented themselves over the course of the last six weeks. When faced with the season-ending loss of All-World guard Nate Funk, the Bluejays cranked up their defense and have become the Valley's toughest squad, rotating a six-deep front line of 6-7 to 6-9 studs who could hold certainly their own in the Big East or ACC.
You'd think that Fresno State (13-10, 6-6 WAC) has nothing to play for, as it's under a self-imposed postseason ban for recruiting violations, but Fresno certainly hasn't played like it. The Bulldogs beat both Nevada and Utah State at home, then pushed Louisiana Tech to within two points of its life on Jan. 28. They won't outshoot or outrebound you; strengths are lightning-fast play ( 74.3 possessions per 40 minutes) and their ability to steal the ball (8.7 per game). The Bulldogs will try to steal one at the Qwest Center and put a chink in Creighton's at-large resumé.
And with that, the big TV day of hot hoops excitement ends. You might end up seeing a few of these teams and players during the montage at the end of the NCAA Tournament, but when it comes down to it, BracketBusters is mid-majordom's One Shining Moment ... when it's all on the line, frozen in time.
Kyle Whelliston is the founder of midmajority.com and is a daily contributor to ESPN.com.