Posted: Wednesday March 9, 2005 6:53PM; Updated: Wednesday March 9, 2005 6:53PM
Andrew Bogut and the Utes are NCAA tounament locks.
If you're a loyal 'Bag reader, you probably know that while we love March and the NCAA tournament, we absolutely detest cheap TV drama week (a.k.a. "Championship" Week), when teams that dogged it during the regular season have a chance to get hot and "earn" NCAA bids.
Accepting we can't change the system, the 'Bag herewith presents our candidates to become this year's real bracket busters, the surprise teams that win their conference tournaments, steal an automatic NCAA bid (from worthy team) and upset all of those projections we hoopheads follow like daily stock reports this time of year.
Understand, we're not talking about upset tourney winners in one-bid conferences. All they do is swipe their league's lone NCAA berth from the regular-season champ -- which is idiotic and unfair, but at least that's up to the respective leagues. (We refer you to 12-18 Oakland taking Oral Roberts' rightful bid in the Mid-Continent and the NCAA-bound Chattanooga Mocs making a mockery of the Southern Conference regular season, in which Davidson went undefeated but lost in the league tournament.)
Nope, the real bracket-busters come from leagues that can get two to four bids -- i.e., conferences with enough quality to earn an at-large berth or two (see: Big West, WAC, Mountain West), but not so much quality that a losing league record can still get you an NCAA invite (see: ACC, Big East).
By stealing automatic bids, real bracket busters force the NCAA tournament committee to use precious at-large spots on teams they weren't planning to bestow them on (like Southern Illinois and Air Force/BYU, to use last year's examples). If you're a bubble team -- usually a mid-major bubble team -- each instance means one less dance card for you.
Here are the real bracket busters from recent years:
2004: Northern Iowa, Utah (ensured three Mountain West bids). 2003: Colorado State, San Diego, Wisconsin-Milwaukee. 2002: San Diego State. 2001: Charlotte, Hawaii, Indiana State, Iowa.
Which teams suddenly could return from tournament exile this year and reigger all those bracket projections? We know not every team below will upset the conference king, but I wouldn't be surprised if at least two real bracket busters turn up in the field of 65.
Here are a few realistic (and a couple of not-so-realistic) possibilities:
BIG WEST NCAA At-Large Locks: Pacific. Bubble Teams: None. Tournament Venue: Anaheim, Calif. 'Bag's Real Bracket Buster: Utah State. Besides improving its NCAA tournament seed, Pacific (which ran the Big West table) doesn't have much incentive to win the conference tournament -- although we all know the NCAA tournament committee has jobbed the Big West regular-season champ before. Speaking of which, wouldn't it be a triumph for justice if 22-7 Utah State got the automatic bid after being shafted for an at-large last year despite a 25-3 record?
WAC NCAA At-Large Locks: Nevada. Bubble Team: UTEP. Tournament Venue: Reno, Nev. 'Bag's Real Bracket Buster: UTEP. We're guessing the Miners need to win the WAC tourney to get into the NCAAs, but beating Nevada on its home court would be nothing new for UTEP, which accomplished the feat in a wild OT game Jan. 12. (Nevada won another thriller at UTEP on Feb. 12.) If the final is Miners-Wolf Pack, be sure to tune in. These two teams always play great games against each other.
MOUNTAIN WEST NCAA At-Large Locks: Utah. Bubble Team: New Mexico. Tournament Venue: Denver. 'Bag's Real Bracket Buster: Air Force. Utah ruled this league all season, but No. 3-seed Air Force has NCAA tournament experience from last year and won't get rattled. If New Mexico can get to the final, the Lobos probably should be dancing.
Grant Wahl will periodically answer questions from SI.com users in his mailbag.
PAC-10 NCAA At-Large Locks: Arizona, Washington, Stanford, UCLA. Bubble Teams: None. Tournament Venue: Los Angeles. 'Bag's Real Bracket Buster: Washington State. Don't laugh. Dick Bennett's Cougars have become a nightmare to play against, as evidenced by their wins against Arizona and Stanford on the road this season. Stranger things have happened.
BIG TEN NCAA At-Large Locks: Illinois, Michigan State, Wisconsin. Bubble Teams: Minnesota, Indiana. Tournament Venue: Chicago. 'Bag's Real Bracket Buster: Iowa. The schizophrenic Hawkeyes have been way up and way down this season, but they've had enough "way-ups" to prove they're capable of stringing together a big week in Chicago.
CONFERENCE-USA NCAA At-Large Locks: Louisville, Cincinnati, Charlotte. Bubble Teams: DePaul, UAB. Tournament Venue: Memphis. 'Bag's Real Bracket Buster: Memphis. Yes, I know the Tigers are on a four-game losing streak. Yes, this season has been a circus for Memphis. But it wouldn't surprise me if the Tigers could pull this off in front of their home crowd. Remember, they won big at Louisville last month.
MID-AMERICAN NCAA At-Large Locks: None. Bubble Teams: Miami-Ohio, Kent State, Buffalo. Tournament Venue: Cleveland. 'Bag's Real Bracket Buster: Buffalo. I think Miami-Ohio should get an NCAA bid if it makes the MAC final, and I also think Buffalo can ride Turner Battle's coattails to the tourney title. This week will be a wild one in Cleveland.
AMERICA EAST NCAA At-Large Locks: None. Bubble Team: Vermont. Tournament Final Venue: Burlington, Vt. 'Bag's Real Bracket Buster: Northeastern. I guess it's possible Vermont could get an at-large bid if it doesn't hold serve at home. Still, Northeastern and its electric guard Josť Juan Barea face a tough challenge. The Taylor Coppenrath-led Catamounts swept the season series.
ATLANTIC-10 NCAA At-Large Locks: None. Bubble Teams: George Washington, Saint Joseph's. Tournament Venue: Cincinnati. 'Bag's Real Bracket Buster: Saint Joseph's. If Phil Martelli's crew can win the tourney by beating George Washington in the final, then expect two Atlantic-10 teams to make the NCAAs.
BIG 12 NCAA At-Large Locks: Oklahoma, Kansas, Oklahoma State, Texas, Texas Tech. Bubble Team: Iowa State. Tournament Venue: Kansas City. 'Bag's Real Bracket Buster: Missouri. Under Quin Snyder, the Tigers never have been good in conference play, but often are excellent in knockout situations like this. While I could have put Texas A&M here, if I had to go with a stunning winner, I'd pick Mizzou (which comes off a confidence-building home win against Kansas).
ATLANTIC COAST NCAA At-Large Locks: North Carolina, Wake Forest, Duke. Bubble Teams: Maryland, N.C. State, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech. Tournament Venue: Washington D.C. 'Bag's Real Bracket Buster: Miami (Fla.). Before you decide I'm certifiably nuts, remember that Maryland came out of nowhere to win the ACC tournament last year. As one of three teams that finished 7-9 in conference (along with N.C. State and Maryland), the Hurricanes probably would get in with a run to the title game.
SOUTHEASTERN NCAA At-Large Locks: Kentucky, Alabama, Florida, LSU, Mississippi State. Bubble Teams: Vanderbilt. Tournament Venue: Atlanta. 'Bag's Real Bracket Buster: South Carolina. The Gamecocks are generally awful away from home, but they did beat Kentucky in Columbia.
BIG EAST NCAA At-Large Locks: UConn, Boston College, Syracuse, Villanova, Pittsburgh. Bubble Teams: Notre Dame, West Virginia, Georgetown. Tournament Venue: New York City. 'Bag's Real Bracket Buster: Seton Hall. Who are we kidding? None of the Big East also-rans have a chance in this tournament.