Top Ten Countdown: Bracket Busters
1. Southern Illinois at Butler (Saturday, 4:00 PM, ESPN2): Easily the best game of the weekend. Both teams are in the running for a Top-4 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and could be the two best “mid-majors” in college basketball this season. Southern Illinois is the hotter team of the two, having won seven in a row. The Salukies lead the MVC at 12-3 in the conference. Ranked #9 in the RPI, SIU has solid non-conference wins over Virginia Tech, Saint Louis, and at Western Kentucky. They are led up front by the forward duo of Randal Falker, one of the favorites for Missouri Valley Player of the Year, and Matt Shaw, a very good inside-outside scorer. The guard tandem of Jamaal Tatum and Tony Young is excellent defensively, and also very solid on the other end. The Salukis are one of the best defensive teams in the country, and they are clutch offensively. Butler is one of the biggest surprise teams this season. Prior to their loss at Wright State this past weekend, the Bulldogs had won nine in a row. They are 22-3 overall, 11-2 in the Horizon. Ranked #31 in the RPI, Butler has wins over Tennessee, Gonzaga, Notre Dame, Indiana, and Purdue. A.J. Graves is one of the best guards in the country, and he combines with Mike Green to form an outstanding backcourt. Brandon Crone is a good all-around player up front, providing balance. Expect a low-scoring, defensive-minded battle in this one.
2. Winthrop at Missouri State (Friday, 7:00 PM, ESPN2): A battle between two teams that will make noise in the NCAA Tournament should they get there. Winthrop is undefeated in the Big South, and played North Carolina and Wisconsin very tightly in the non-conference season. Mike Jenkins and Torrell Martin are a very good scoring duo on the wing. Both can really shoot the lights out. Craig Bradshaw is a potential go-to-player in the paint, while Chris Gaynor is an underrated performer at the point guard spot. Missouri State started off the season very strong, knocking off Wisconsin at a neutral site. They struggled to open MVC play, but have won five in a row heading into the week. Blake Ahearn is one of the best shooters in the country, while wing Tyler Chaney and Spencer Laurie flank him in a very good perimeter group. Deven Mitchell is one of the best sixth men around.
3. Drexel at Creighton (Saturday, 10:00 PM, ESPN2): Both teams are in the mix for an at-large bid, and will be a tough out if they can get to the Big Dance. Drexel had a hot start to the season, knocking off Syracuse, Villanova, and St. Joseph’s—all on the road. They didn’t play well in the middle part of CAA play, but have bounced back. The Dragons have a very good perimeter group, led by guards Dominick Mejia and Bashir Mason. Frank Elegar is one of the best post players in the conference, and Chaz Crawford is an excellent defender, both with blocking shots and rebounding. Creighton went only 6-4 in non-conference play after being a preseason favorite to win the MVC. However, they have played well lately, and are in second place in the conference, at 11-4. Nate Funk and Anthony Tolliver form an excellent inside-outside combo. Dane Watts is a very good option offensive, who can also rebound. Nick Porter is a talented guard.
4. Appalachian State at Wichita State (Saturday, 1:00 PM, ESPNU): Two teams that are at-large contenders, but are on the outside looking in right now. Appalachian State had an outstanding non-conference campaign, knocking off Vanderbilt and Virginia in Puerto Rico, then going to VCU and defeating the Rams. However, they have some bad losses in Southern Conference play, which have put them on the wrong side of the bubble. D.J. Thompson is an underrated guard who can do a little of everything, while Nathan Cranford and Demetrius Scott are also solid perimeter players. Jeremy Clayton and Donte Minter are good up front. Wichita State, like Appalachian State, started hot, with victories over LSU and Syracuse, but the Shockers have struggled in MVC play, sitting at 8-7. Kyle Wilson is a very good inside-outside scorer, while P.J. Couisnard is a versatile wing. Sean Ogirri can shoot.
5. Bradley at VCU (Saturday, 8:00 PM, ESPN2): Another Colonial vs. Missouri Valley battle. Bradley is sitting on the bubble currently, although their grip on it is slipping. The Braves have wins over DePaul and Southern Illinois, but they are only 8-7 in the conference and are not consistent enough. Bradley has one of the best perimeter trios in the MVC, with Daniel Ruffin, a terrific passer; Jeremy Crouch, a very good scorer; and Will Franklin, who can do a little of everything. VCU is a real sleeper for March. The Rams are sitting atop the CAA at 13-2, but likely won’t get an at-large bid. However, they are tough. They play pressure defense, and have an outstanding guard group in B.A. Walker, Jesse Pellot-Rosa, and Eric Maynor. Wil Fameni is a solid big man with a nice touch.
6. Northern Iowa at Nevada (Saturday, 6:00 PM, ESPN2): A couple of weeks ago, this would be one of the best games of the weekend. At that time, Northern Iowa was 6-2 in conference play and 14-4 overall. Since then, though, they have lost 6 of 7, and are fading fast. The Panthers are led by their big man duo of Eric Coleman and Grant Stout. Both are excellent rebounders, and have the ability to take over a game with their offense. Brooks McKowen is one of the best distributors in the country. Nevada is a legit Top 20 team, and has one of the best players in the country in big man Nick Fazekas. The Wolf Pack are a lock to go dancing in March. In addition to Fazekas, Nevada has a much underrated guard duo in point guard Ramon Sessions and wing Marcelus Kemp. Sessions is playing like he did as a freshman (that’s a good thing), while Kemp can fill it up.
7. Cal State Fullerton at Wright State (Saturday, 8:00 PM, ESPN360): Don’t sleep on this game. Cal State Fullerton is second in the Big West with an 8-2 record, and an 18-5 mark overall. The Titans have one of the best players in the country in point guard Bobby Brown. He is a legit NBA prospect. Balancing him out on the interior is forward Scott Cutley, who is a threat to go for 17 and 10 every night out. CS Fullerton has five guys averaging double figures. Wright State is coming off of a win over Butler, their seventh in a row. Matching up with Brown will be another outstanding guard in Dashaun Wood. He can do-it-all on the court, and is an excellent scorer. Vaughn Diggins and Todd Brown flank him on the perimeter. Drew Burleson is tough down low.
8. Holy Cross at Hofstra (Saturday, 3:00 PM, ESPNU): Last week, this would have been a battle between an undefeated Patriot team and a CAA team primed to jump into first-place. However, Holy Cross lost at Bucknell and Hofstra loss at home to Drexel last week. The Crusaders are still tied for first place in the Patriot at 10-1. Prior to the loss, they had won 12 in a row. Keith Simmons is the best player in the conference, while point guard Torey Thomas is a very good distributor and defender. Tim Clifford anchors the interior. Hofstra is one-game back of VCU in the CAA standings, but that home loss will likely cost them a share of the conference title. The Pride have one of the best backcourts in the country in wings Loren Stokes, the CAA Player of the Year favorite; Antoine Agudio, an unbelievable shooter; and Carlos Rivera, a solid point guard.
9. Old Dominion at Toledo (Saturday, ESPN360): A very interesting game between the CAA and the MAC. Old Dominion has won seven in a row in the Colonial to move within one game of league-leader VCU and right into the at-large discussion. Valdas Vasylius and Arnaud Dahi form one of the better forward duos in the conference, while Drew Williamson can score and distribute well at the point guard spot. Brandon Johnson can do a little of everything. Toledo has won eight of their last ten, including a victory over Akron this past weekend. The Rockets are tied for first in the MAC at 9-2. They own one of the best mid-major backcourts in the country in Keonta Howell and Justin Ingram. Both can score very well, and are also decent rebounders. Florentino Valencia is somewhat undersized at 6-5, but he gets points and rebounds on the interior.
10. Austin Peay at Akron (Saturday, 5:00 PM, ESPNU): Two of the hotter teams in the mid-major world go head-to-head. Austin Peay has won 15 of their last 16, and is the surprise leader of the Ohio Valley at 15-2 in league play. The Governors have a very good forward tandem in Drake Reed and Fernandez Lockett, who both can score and rebound well. Landon Shipley, Todd Babington, and 5-9 point guard Derek Wright form a solid perimeter group. Akron, prior to their loss over the weekend at Toledo, had won nine in a row. They are 9-2 in the MAC, tied with Toledo for the overall conference lead. Romeo Travis is a dominant big man at times, and can carry the Zips. 6-0 guards Cedrick Middleton and Dru Joyce are small but talented in the backcourt. Nick Dials can really shoot the ball.
Best of the Rest
Utah State at Oral Roberts (Saturday, 7:00 PM, ESPNU): Two teams that reached the NCAA Tournament last season go at it. Utah State was expected to be down somewhat this year, but the Aggies are in third-place in the WAC, and have won eight of their last eleven. Jaycee Carroll is one of the best guards you’ve never heard of—he can really shoot the ball. Chaz Spicer and Stephen DuCharme form a solid frontcourt duo. Oral Roberts is a deep sleeper in March, as shown by their road win at Kansas this season. The Mid-Continent leaders are led by Caleb Green, one of the best big men in the country. Ken Tutt provides balance on the perimeter with his scoring, and Marchello Vealy is a versatile wing.
Ohio at New Mexico State (Saturday, Midnight, ESPN2): Two teams coming off of disappointing weeks. Ohio had one of the more surprising losses of the season, at home to Northern Illinois, a team who had 4 wins prior to that. The Bobcats, 7-4 in the MAC, have five guys averaging in double-figures, led by the post duo of Leon Williams and Jerome Tillman. They combine for over 30 points and 18 rebounds per game. Bubba Walther and Sonny Troutman are the main perimeter threats. New Mexico State was in the mix for an at-large bid heading into last week, but they went 0-2 on the road, and are falling. Justin Hawkins can do-it-all for the Aggies, while Tyrone Nelson is a dominating big man, at times. Fred Peete can shoot the ball well, while center Hatila Passos is solid down low.