Creighton-Saint Mary's, Iona-ISU among final BracketBusters matchups
It's the final edition of BracketBusters, the event I love to hate. How could I not do a preview? The 2013 version is perfect in its "BracketEliminators" spirit: Maybe one game that can help the winner in terms of NCAA tournament hopes, but a platter of interesting games for the basketball junkies among us.
Here are some thoughts about the TV games coming Friday and Saturday on ESPN's networks:
North Dakota State at Akron (7 p.m. ET)
This matchup has less luster than it could have had before NDSU's Taylor Braun broke his foot last month. The Bison are just 5-4 since Braun's injury and according to North Dakota State's online preview of this game, the Bison have slowed their tempo significantly since Braun's injury, averaging only 56 possessions per game in the nine games he's missed. That's well below the season pace of Western Illinois, the nation's most deliberate team this season, per KenPom.com. That slowdown was aided by two league games against those Leathernecks, but it's clear NDSU's approach has changed, and they're not scoring nearly as well without Braun, either.
Akron has an outside shot at an at-large bid if it can keep winning. The Zips remain perfect in the MAC, although they lack true quality wins out of conference that would help them make a case, if needed. Seven-foot shot-blocker Zeke Marshall is averaging 3.5 swats per game, and the combination of him along with good rebounding forwards Demetrius Treadwell and Nick Harney may challenge the Bison, who are an excellent defensive rebounding team in their own right. Akron's a moderate-pace team, so expect a fairly slow slog as the visitors try to control tempo.
Stephen F. Austin at Long Beach State (9 p.m. ET)
If you follow Northwestern State radio man (and producer for the Tim Brando Show) Patrick Netherton on Twitter (and why wouldn't you??), you'd know that the Southland Conference features both the nation's highest-scoring team and also the stingiest. Perhaps unfortunately for the nation's viewing audience, the Lumberjacks are the latter, but it might create an interesting style contrast with the 49ers.
Stephen F. Austin currently leads Division I in both two-point field goal percentage defense and defensive effective field goal percentage. Long Beach State's overall offensive numbers don't look great, but the team is 13-2 (all in Big West play) since Keala King and Tony Freeland became eligible, and a much, much more potent offensive team since their arrival. Other than a three-game swoon around the turn of the month, the 49ers have been rolling offensively since New Year's. This will be a great test of that improvement. The Lumberjacks won at Oklahoma earlier this season.
Iona at Indiana State (11 a.m. ET)
A couple weeks ago, this looked like it could be a game Indiana State had to get to retain at-large hope out of the Missouri Valley. Now, after three straight losses in the Valley, those chances appear to be gone, so the contest morphs into an appealing appetizer for a full day of mid-major hoops.
Iona also is struggling, having lost five of its last six in the MAAC after an 8-2 league start. The Gaels are still a very uptempo team, and a huge percentage of their shots come from Momo Jones and Sean Armand. The Sycamores will counter with star Jake Odum.
Both teams have some statistical weaknesses but neither does well in the categories where the opponent can be exploited. It could come down to the free throw line. Indiana State gets to the line a lot and also concedes free throws by the bushel. Iona is a very good free throw shooting team -- especially Jones, who is above 87 percent on almost 200 chances, so keep an eye on whether ISU can defend him without fouling.
Eastern Kentucky at Valparaiso (1 p.m. ET)
Definitely not the name-recognition matchup of the day, but these are two pretty good teams that have a solid chance of playing for their conference's auto bids in a few weeks.
The Colonels were a story earlier this season as one of the nation's final unbeaten teams. Once they lost in a decent effort at Illinois, they fell out of the nation's spotlight, but they have quietly put together an 11-3 campaign in a much improved Ohio Valley conference, with two of those losses coming to league-leader Belmont.
Both teams are pretty good offensively. Only Valpo is even decent defensively, though, and that might put the Colonels in a bad spot on the road. Not that the Crusaders are great on the offensive glass, but EKU is the second-worst defensive rebounding team in Division I, per Pomeroy's stats. Kevin Van Wijk and Bobby Capobianco are ready to feast on any shots missed by star forward Ryan Broekhoff.
Montana at Davidson (3 p.m. ET)
This game had a lot of potential until news came on Thursday that Grizzlies' leading scorer Mathias Ward was out indefinitely with a foot injury. Going to Davidson, with its high-impact frontcourt of Jake Cohen and De'Mon Brooks is a really bad time to be losing your 6-7 forward.
The Grizzlies will have to go smaller now and try to ride their egalitarian three-point shooting attack. Even without Ward, Montana has a bunch of guys who can rake from the arc. Six other Grizzlies have taken at least 40 shots from deep and all but one have made at least 36 percent of them. The one poor shooter from there is erstwhile star guard Will Cherry, who missed a chunk of the season with a foot injury.
Unless the Grizzlies make a big number of jump shots on the road, it's hard to see them handling the Wildcats.
Detroit at Wichita State (4 p.m. ET)
A classic BracketEliminators matchup where the Shockers can only be hurt by a home loss to a very capable Detroit team out of the Horizon League. The Titans have had a week to prepare after a furious late rally helped them down league leader Valparaiso on the road.
Detroit plays a very uptempo style which is also extremely low in turnovers. The Titans are fourth-best in the nation in offensive turnover rate despite playing at over 70 possessions a game. They might not always get good shots, but Ray McCallum (who's easily having his best season as a collegian) and Co. get a lot of them. That should set an interesting contrast against the stingy Shockers, who are built more to grind away at you in the halfcourt.
The Shockers get a good amount of work done on the offensive glass, but the Titans are one of the nation's stingiest teams in that category. Whoever wins that battle, along with the tempo war, likely will grab the win. Wichita State looks in good shape for an at large, but they want to take care of this one.
Creighton at Saint Mary's (6 p.m. ET)
The clear headline game of the final edition of the event, and the only game where a win helps either team. Creighton has been skidding in the Missouri Valley and could use a nice road win like this to ease any doubts about its NCAA tournament credentials regardless of the Missouri Valley stretch run. Saint Mary's came from behind to beat BYU on Thursday night, setting the table for what appears to be a must-win game for their at-large hopes. Any need for an at-large comes from a loss in the WCC tournament, which means the Gaels won't have a win over Gonzaga on their resume. As weak as the bubble may be, two wins over BYU and a squeaker over Harvard might very well not be enough.
It should be a blast to watch Doug McDermott and Matthew Dellavedova on the same court. If you (somehow) haven't seen both guys this season, tune in. You won't be disappointed. There are other players who will play a sizable role in the result, but those two are easily worth the price of admission. If you need some additional flavor, Creighton is a ridiculously good shooting team from both inside and outside the arc. If the Gaels' D can't hold up, you could see a lot of shots ripping the twine.
South Dakota State at Murray State (8 p.m. ET)
Nate Wolters vs. Isaiah Canaan. It's a mid-major point guard showdown of epic proportions, with two high-usage, high-efficiency players going head to head. If you need something else, Ed Daniel is a fun watch with even more fun hair.
This should be a really competitive game. The Jackrabbits won at New Mexico earlier this season, so a trip to Murray is not even close to being too much for them to handle. Murray comes in off a wild 106-100 win over Morehead State while South Dakota State somehow a) scheduled a nonleague game with Cal State Bakersfield at this stage of the season, b) agreed to play it on the road, and c) lost in double OT. Weird.
Ohio at Belmont (10 p.m. ET)
If you're one whose eyes start to glaze over after a full day of basketball, this is a great nightcap. Both teams are above 68 possessions a game and can score really effectively. This should be a perfect piece of eye candy to top off the day, with lots of running, lots of points and lots of really fun guard play. If Wolters-Canaan is the headline point guard matchup, Kerron Johnson vs. D.J. Cooper is a tremendous undercard (or, in this case, aftercard). Cooper is leading the nation in assist rate, per KenPom.com.
This is an interesting week for the Bobcats, who at 11-1 are a game behind Akron in the MAC race and they host the Zips on Wednesday after this road contest. Coming off their Sweet 16 appearance last season, they're looking like a dangerous proposition again if they can win the MAC's auto bid. Same goes for the Bruins, who will have to get past Murray State, Tennessee State and Eastern Kentucky in the Ohio Valley.