In the seventh annual ESPNU BracketBusters, the country's strongest mid-majors do battle in thirteen televised games. Although most of these games are played on ESPNU, a few get big-time exposure on ESPN and ESPN2, a rarity for these publicity starved teams. For some, it might be their only remaining shot to impress America, and have basketball fans keeping them in the back of their mind in March. Here's a complete rundown of the televised games. Keep in mind that 38 games will not be on TV; however these matchups feature teams less likely to go dancing (or even NIT'ing or CBI'ing) than the "premier" televised games. All non-televised games take place on February 21.
Illinois State @ Niagara, ESPN2
BracketBusters commences with a battle between MVC tourney hopeful Illinois State (11-5, 22-5) traveling to upstate New York to square off with MAAC giant Niagara (12-4, 21-7). Both teams are fighting for conference supremacy. The Redbirds are one game out of first in the Valley. They were one of the last remaining undefeated teams in college basketball and still maintain a good record, but a weak SOS may keep them out of the Tournament without a conference championship. Niagara is well behind Siena in the MAAC, but still has one more showdown with the Saints. A win at South Florida won't hurt, but trumping Illinois State looks a lot nicer on a Tournament resume.
The Redbirds backcourt is the obvious strong-point with four guards averaging double digits. The unit is led by Champ Oguchi, a senior who did not play last year after transferring from Oregon, and preseason favorite for Conference Player of the Year, Osiris Eldridge. Both are taller guards who make up for the lack of true forwards in the Redbird starting attack. Lloyd Phillips and Emmanuel Holloway round out the Redbirds four-guard attack. All four can absolutely light it up from three and pick your pocket on the other end (each averages over 1 spg, and shoots over 35% from three). Dinma Odiakosa leads the conference in offensive rebounds; in the height-deprived Valley, Odiakosa has his way. Brandon Sampay is another guy who can rebound. Bottom line, Illinois State is home to some of the coolest names in the country (Champ Oguchi, Dinma Odiakosa, Osiris?), but they are also a very dangerous shooting team. When hot, they can play with just about anyone.
Niagara is a much more balanced team in terms of point distribution. Guard Tyrone Lewis heads the attack, but the next two high scorers are forwards. Lewis is a short guard, but can haul down rebounds as well as hit from deep. Bilal Benn, a forward, hauls down 8.9 rebounds a game and has good range on his jumper, extending past three point range. Benson Egemonye stands 6-10 and is a good bet for a double double against the short Redbirds. Rob Garrison and Demetrius Williamson throw up a bunch of threes. Both are guards, and both may have trouble getting involved. They rely a lot on their three point shot. In a four guard lineup, they may not get the same looks. Williamson is not a starter, rounding out the unit is do it all guard Anthony Nelson. Nelson is a good rebounder, good passer and adequate scorer, Niagara's answer to Illinois' Chester Frazier. He needs to play well and penetrate the lane for the Purple Eagles to win.
Winner: Illinois State Margin: 4-7 points
VCU @ Nevada, ESPN
The second Friday night game features the first place CAA team against the second best the WAC has to offer. VCU (12-4, 19-8) travels west to take on Nevada (8-4, 15-10). The Rams gained mid-major notoriety in 2007 when the bested Duke in the first round. A solid road win would be an excellent cushion in the case of a CAA Tournament flop. Nevada is out unless they win the WAC Tournament, but this game would be a huge win in terms of seeding.
VCU's star guard, Eric Maynor, is one of the nation's best players. He throws up 23 a game to accompany his 6.1 assists per. His game features, but does not revolve around the three ball. 1.8 steals on the other end prove he's a complete player. His backcourt mates include defensive ace Joey Rodriguez, who is also one of the conference's top shooters. Bradford Burgess, a 6-4 guard, uses his lanky frame to snag rebounds and shoot over shorter defenders, but he also has a quickness advantage over many of his defenders, who are occupied with Maynor (6-2) and Rodriguez (5-10). Also getting minutes at the guard slots are Brandon Rozell and Ed Nixon. At forward, 6-9 Larry Sanders hauls in 8 rebounds a game and swats 2.6 shots per contest. Kirill Pishchalnikov joins him in the starting lineup, where he is utilized primarily for his height. TJ Gwynn will also see time.
The Wolfpack is led by big frosh Luke Babbitt, whose game is all about versatility. He has deep range, hitting 43% from three, which makes him a matchup nightmare. Guard Armon Johnson scores, rebounds, passes and steals. On a weak passing team, Johnson accounts for over a third of the team's assists. Malik Cooke joins Babbitt in the frontcourt. He leads the team in steals and is second in rebounds. Joey Shaw and Dario Hunt rack up minutes in the forward slots as well. Hunt doesn't score often, but rebounds at a much higher clip. Brandon Fields joins Armon Johnson in the "Nevada guards who can't shoot" category. Neither hits 23% of their threes, but rely on other facets of their games to get baskets, which is why Johnson is one of two players under 6-2 in the WAC's FTA leaders.
Winner: VCU Margin: 6-10 points
3 Players to Watch on Friday
F Dinma Odiakosa, Illinois State - Odiakosa is the Redbird's leading rebounder, as well as a monster on the offensive end. Standing only 6-8, he won't have a height advantage over most big centers from bigger schools. If he can have his way against Niagara, a solid rebounding team, it may foreshadow a potential Tournament performance. He will have to play well for Illinois State to advance in the Big Dance.
G Anthony Nelson, Niagara - As mentioned above, Nelson is the Chester Frazier of the CAA. Both players don't score often, but are players who do everything well. Watch for the ways he helps his team that don't include scoring. Adam Emmenecker was the MVC Player of the Year last year despite not even scoring in double digits. Nelson impacts the Purple Eagles in a similar way; he's the catalyst of the team.
G Eric Maynor, VCU - Easily one of the best players in any mid-major conference, perhaps the best, Eric Maynor and his team went down in NCAA Tournament history when they knocked off Duke. Maynor had 22 points, including the game winner with 1.8 seconds left. The lightning-quick guard is one of the NCAA's most electrifying players. If you're not familiar with him, watch this game.