BracketBusters: A Double-Edged Sword

When Virginia Commonwealth beat Wichita State in a BracketBusters game last February, its significance was greatly underappreciated. It was heralded as an impressive road win, sure, but who could have predicted it would propel the Rams to the Final Four? Without that victory, VCU likely would not have been selected for the Tournament and never could have made that improbable run.

That is an example of the upside of the ESPN-created BracketBusters, now in its 10th season. According to the official BracketBusters website, the purpose of the three-day event is to “provide programs with an opportunity to play top non-conference opponents roughly three weeks before Selection Sunday.”

This year, the general consensus is that two pairings will have NCAA Tournament implications: No. 16 Saint Mary’s at No. 14 Murray State and Long Beach State at Creighton. In most years, no more than a few teams benefit from their BracketBusters match-up.

Consider Wichita State. The Shockers are in first in the Missouri Valley Conference and ranked in the AP poll. For their BracketBuster game, they’ll travel to Davidson, where a win won’t help nearly as much as a loss will hurt. That is the downside of picking the match-ups close to three weeks before the games. Wichita has not lost since the pairings were announced, but at the time did not look as strong as fellow MWC member Creighton, losers of three of its last four.

At least Wichita can take solace in appearing in one of 13 nationally televised games (show on ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU and ESPN3). There are 116 teams competing in non-televised BracketBuster games, which is how we get Saturday’s game between 0-25 Binghamton and 5-23 Radford. If these teams had any ideas of busting brackets they were shot down a long time ago.

Another problem is travel. Teams playing home games in this event must return the game within two seasons. That means Iona, which hosts Nevada tomorrow, must make the 2,700-mile trip from New Rochelle to Reno in the near future. Experts don’t believe either team will receive an at-large bid to the Big Dance, so the upside to the match-up is minimal.

For every VCU and George Mason (which followed a path similar to VCU’s to the 2006 Final Four), there are dozens of schools shut out by television and burdened by travel costs.

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