ESPN BracketBuster Preview: MAAC Outlook

Siena vs. Butler. Old Dominion vs. Northern Iowa. Marist vs. Cal Irvine? OK, so the name of ESPN’s event — BracketBusters — might be misleading. After all, Marist and Cal Irvine are both last place teams and won’t be appearing in, yet alone busting, any brackets this postseason. But the purpose of the event — to match up schools from outside the power conferences — is fun and meaningful.

Mid-major schools like Siena and Butler that have proven they can beat power conference teams have trouble scheduling home games. The BracketBuster event allows these schools to get an extra home game to boost their resumes. Plus, 22 lucky schools get to play on national television. As I alluded to before, most of the 38 non-televised match-ups won’t live up to the event’s name, but it’s still fun to see the conference compete against each other.

All 10 MAAC schools will be competing in this year’s event; five at home and five on the road. It’s very difficult to project how these games will shake out since these conferences don’t often face each other. But after my success predicting the outcome of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge, I will attempt to do just that for the MAAC’s BracketBuster games.

Friday, Feb.19
9:00 pm, ESPNU: William & Mary at Iona
This is clearly the second-best match-up involving a MAAC team and probably the third best of the entire event. William & Mary has already made noise in their non-conferenceschedule, beating top-tier ACC schools Wake Forest and Maryland on the road. The Tribe sit at third in the Colonial Athletic Association.

Iona, meanwhile, has been a pleasant surprise in the MAAC. The Gaels are also 11-5 in conference and will also be looking for their 20th win. Iona and W&M have three common opponents this season. Both beat Hampton. Both lost at Connecticut — W&M by nine and Iona by 19. The Tribe won by five at Manhattan, a team Iona beat by three on the road but lost to at home.

These results of those games don’t tell us much. One thing is for sure: W&M has proven it can win on the road, even in tough environments. The Hynes Athletic Center should be just that, as fans from smaller schools always get rowdy for televised games.

This is a tough one, and I’m admittedly biased, but playing at home gives the Gaels the slight edge in my book. Also, it’s Senior Night, and although I don’t have any numbers to back this up, I imagine teams have a pretty good winning percentage on Senior Night. Iona wins.

Saturday, Feb. 20
11:00 am, ESPN2: Siena at No. 13 Butler
This is the marquee match-up of the event. When the pairings were announced, it looked like we might have the two longest winning streaks in the nation going head-to-head. Siena’s 15-game winning streak was snapped last week, however. The Saints bounced back against Canisius though, and now head to historic Hinkle Fieldhouse to face Butler and its nation’s best 16-game win streak.

Both of these teams are dominating their respective conference. The Bulldogs are a perfect 17-0 in the Horizon and have lost only four games all season. While the Saints have stars in Alex Franklin, Ronald Moore, and Edwin Ubiles, Butler counters with Matt Howard, Shelvin Mack, and Gordon Hayward. The latter Bulldogs are sophomores, while the aforementioned Saints are all seniors. Siena has the edge in experience, but Butler is no stranger to big games.

Butler has lost its last two home BracketBuster games, but is 12-0 at Hinkle this season and is 41-3 at home over the past three seasons. The Bulldogs haven’t been seriously challenged in a while, but you could say the same thing about Siena. This is a great measuring-stick game for both teams. Once again, I’ll give the edge to the home team. Butler wins a very close game.

1:00 pm: New Hampshire at Loyola (MD)
These teams have some common opponents but that’s not going to help us here, as they both beat Vermont, Marist, and UMBC, all by similar amounts. Their records, both in conference and overall, are also very similar. Both have lost two in a row. So…who knows? I’m going with the home team. Loyola wins a low-scoring affair.

2:00 pm: Fairfield at Vermont
Another MAAC vs. America East match-up. Vermont lost by 13 at Loyola (MD), a team Fairfield beat twice. Vermont won at Marist by 10, while Fairfield won there by 20. So this is a small sample size of a formula that doesn’t tell you much to begin with, but the Stags have a slight edge here. The MAAC and the America East are similar, so I’m tempted to give the edge to the home team, but I like this Fairfield team. The Stags have overcome adversity this year, and I expect them to pull off the small upset in this one.

2:00 pm: Towson at Manhattan
Both teams are struggling, each winning only four games in conference so far and sitting well below .500. Towon was blown out by fellow CAA member Hofstra twice, while Manhattan only lost by five in a really ugly game. The Jaspers also hung with William & Mary; although the Tigers haven’t faced the Tribe yet, I imagine they’ll lose handily. Manhattan’s record is a bit misleading because of all the tough, close losses. I don’t think this will be that close. Manhattan wins by at least eight.

2:00 pm: Buffalo at Saint Peter’s
MAC vs. MAAC. Buffalo took on two MAAC schools this year, dropping a close game to Canisius and winning at Niagara. But Saint Peter’s has beaten both those teams twice. Again, it’s so hard to compare these seemingly equal teams from different conferences, but I saw St. Pete’s in person and liked what I saw. The Peacocks will prevail.

4:00 pm: Rider at Hofstra
Rider has been disappointing this season. I keep waiting for the Broncs to break out, and although Ryan Thompson is on fire in his last six games, Rider is only 8-8 in the MAAC. Thompson is handful, but Hofstra already beat a better MAAC team in Fairfield. I can’t pick every MAAC team. I’m going with Hofstra.

7:00 pm: James Madison at Canisius
Another CAA vs. MAAC contest, and like Manhattan, I’m going with the MAAC in this one. James Madison is 4-12 in conference and 2-12 overall on the road. Canisius, with its strong guard play, should win fairly easily.

7:00 pm: Marist at Cal Irvine
I’m sorry, Marist fans, but I won’t spend much time on this one. Both teams are pretty bad, so I’ll go with the home team — the one that doesn’t have to travel across the country. Cal Irvine wins.

7:00 pm: Niagara at Milwaukee
I don’t want to give excuses before the games are even played, but it’s hard to compare these teams. Like the Siena-Butler match-up, this is MAAC vs. Horizon. Niagara has been impressive lately, winning four of its last five, including a victory over Siena. Milwaukee played earlier tonight, which doesn’t help their chances on Saturday. However, I smell a minor upset here. When in doubt, go with the home team. Milwaukee wins a very close game.

To recap, I predict the MAAC to post an impressive 6-4 record in its BracketBuster games. I like Iona, Loyola, Fairfield, Manhattan, Saint Peter’s, and Canisius to earn victories for the MAAC, though I’m more confident in my overall record prediction being correct than in my game-by-game picks. We’ll find out how I did by the end of Saturday. Please feel free to post your predictions in the comments section.

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