Monday, February 25, 2013

BracketBusters Ends, Despite Benefits For MAAC

The annual BracketBusters series of games, which bring together non-league opponents for a late February meeting originally designed to help teams on the proverbial "bubble" for national post-season tournament appearances to spruce up a resume.

The series, for the past several years, has involved all 10 MAAC men's teams, and five or six of them every season have already had their at-large post-season invitations dashed by sub .500 records.

Of late it has become fashionable for coaches to bemoan having to play in the BracketBusters series (which is being discontinued by its sponsor, ESPN, after this season). They almost universally would prefer not to play a late-February non-league game barely two weeks removed from the start of their own conference's post-season event.

The theory is time off at this juncture of the season would serve teams better by allowing a little extra rest for injured players, and more time for teams to actually prepare for the own league tournament. And, an extra game at this late stage in the season creates fear that more injuries could occur. Sentiment these days is that the BracketBuster, for most, is a very meaningless game.

But, is it?

First, the MAAC has done very well in the series. A 7-3 record by conference teams in the games this past weekend is admirable. Last year's series saw the MAAC go 5-5 in BracketBuster games while the league had a 9-1 ledger two years ago.

And, many of the games are hardly meaningless.

Of late ... would Iona have gotten an at-large invitation to last season's NCAA tournament without a BracketBusters victory over a very good Nevada team?

Even this year's results will be beneficial for some teams. Niagara's win over a good Northwestern State opponent pushes its overall record to 17-11 and significantly increases its chance for an invitation to, likely, the NIT (the second-best of national post-season events) should it fail to make it to the NCAA's.

Same for Loyola (a winner over Tennessee State) and Rider (a winner over Charleston Southern). Loyola is now 20-9, marking the first time that program has had back-to-back 20-victory seasons on the Division I level. And, Canisius is now 16-13.

Historically, the series has also allowed for some big-name opponents to match up against MAAC teams. In 2009-10 Siena played against eventual NCAA championship-game participant Butler at the historical Hinkle Fieldhouse. The following season, as per BracketBusters rules that require a return game the following year, Butler came to Albany, N.Y., to play Siena at the Times Union Center.

Do match-ups like that occur without the BracketBusters' parings? Obviously not.

OK, the games for the bottom half of the league standings are indeed of little meaning. There wasn't anything to be gained, say, in Siena's meeting with Radford, a contest of two sub-.500 teams, for instance. Except that Siena rallied from an eight-point deficit with under a minute remaining and earned a 65-57 victory in overtime. It was a much-needed confidence boost for the Saints, if nothing else.

And, we can similarly guess that Marist, which has been playing well late in the season, is feeling even better about itself after a 112-74 victory over VMI on Saturday.

Maybe the solution is to involve fewer teams. But, that decision would have to be made prior to the season, creating a scheduling inequity as teams not receiving a mid-season invite would wind up a game short on their non-league schedules.

But there is surely some way to resurrect BracketBusters, which began in 2003 with 18 participating teams and grew to its current field of 122 teams.

ESPN, though, has announced that it will discontinue the series ... for now. Network officials have agreed that BracketBuster games could come back at some pint, possibly in a different format with fewer teams involved.

The feeling here is that the event has been beneficial to MAAC teams, and the hope is that the series returns in some form the very near future.

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