In the seventh annual ESPNU BracketBusters, the strongest mid-major teams in the country do battle in thirteen televised games. This preview features the premier Saturday games that are televised on ESPN or ESPN2.
Northeastern @ Wright State, ESPN2
The first Saturday game of the event showcases a CAA team, Northeastern (11-5, 16-10) against a preseason Horizon League favorite, Wright State (10-6, 16-11). The Huskies of Northeastern are on a three game skid, and a road win out of conference will help build confidence to remain in contention for the CAA title. They are very inconsistent on the road, and which team shows up will be crucial in this game. Wright State dropped the first six games of the season, and in the process lost best player Vaughn Duggins for the remainder of the year. The Raiders have salvaged their year with an impressive league performance, considering the circumstances and their early struggles.
The visiting squad is led by Matt Janning, a versatile wingman who contributes in numerous ways. He stuffs the stat sheet in every major statistical category, disregarding blocks. The Northeastern frontcourt includes Manny Adako, Eugene Spates and Nkem Ojougboh. Chris Alvarez also gets some playing time due to his aggressive rebounding. None of these guys are particularly adept on the boards, and it shows. They are one of the worst rebounding teams in the country. Their leading rebounder is actually a guard, Chaisson Allen, who is also their third leading scorer.
Fortunately for Northeastern, the Raiders are atrocious on the boards as well. Slightly better than the Huskies, Wright State’s rebounding is spread out more evenly. Leading scorer Todd Brown is a tall guard who makes up for some of Wright State’s rebounding woes. Brown is a great shooter, but can score from close as well. Cory Cooperwood is the team’s only starting forward, and he only stands 6-7. N’Gai Evans, John David Gardner and Will Graham round out the starting five.
Winner: Wright State Margin 2-5 points
Butler @ Davidson, ESPN
In the marquee BracketBuster matchup, Horizon giant #15 Butler (13-3, 22-4) heads to North Carolina to grapple with Davidson (15-2, 22-5). Both teams aren’t playing well right now, Butler has dropped two straight conference games while Davidson has lost not one, but two home conference games this year, something they haven’t done in six years. The winner is nearly a lock for an at-large bid, while the loser has work left to do to feel safe on Selection Sunday.
The visiting Bulldogs have been one of the most consistent mid-majors over the last decade. This year, they were expected to suffer a rare down season. However, the young lineup, featuring zero seniors, has had Butler in the Top 25 for nearly the entire year. Matt Howard and Gordon Hayward lead the attack. Howard does damage inside, while Hayward is one of the most accurate shooters in the conference. At 6-8, he is a short teams worst nightmare, as their biggest player will be left with the shorter but more inside-oriented Howard, which gives Hayward a 3 inch height advantage over most of his defenders. Shelvin Mack, Willie Veasley and Ronald Nored are all good rebounding guards. Zach Hahn is a great shooter coming off the bench. Shawn Vanzant, a guard, and Avery Jukes, a forward, are also capable second stringers, which makes Butler one of the deepest and most dimensional mid-majors out there.
By now, everyone who goes on the internet or turns on their TV knows who Stephen Curry is. He is going to get his points. The question though is: will he even play? Odds are that he will, but he won’t be 100%. Assuming he at least laces them up, the key to beating Davidson is to contain him and play the perimeter tight. In the four losses he has been a part of, his best 3PT performance was 40% against Oklahoma. Two games he has been held under 20%. Andrew Lovedale is an athletic rebounder and scorer, but is prone to missing easy shots. Will Archambault has looked great at times, and he will need to have a big game against Butler. Bryant Barr and Brendan McKillop are on the court for one reason: to shoot the ball. Max Paulhus Gosselin and Steve Rossiter play for an entirely different reason, and that’s defense. Davidson needs to work Lovedale early on Howard, and see if he has luck there. That, coupled with a big game from Curry, should win it.
Winner: Butler Margin 5-9 points
Buffalo @ Vermont, ESPN2
The last time Buffalo (9-3, 17-7) was on national TV, they were a last second panic away from knocking off UConn. Now they get another shot against America East leading Vermont (12-3, 21-7). Buffalo had tore off nine straight before dropping two in a row to Ball State and Bowling Green. The Catamounts have won 12 of their last 13, and despite being swept by Binghamton, lead the America East by 0.5 games.
The MAC leading Bills are led by Rodney Pierce, the guy who will be forever plagued for freezing against UConn. However, Pierce has had a great year. He can score from all over the floor. Calvin Betts is the team’s primary rebounding force, even though he only stands 6-3. Greg Gamble is a do-it-all guard; even though he is the team’s second tallest starter, he is the primary ball handler, leading the Bills in assists. Andy Robinson is another guard in the starting lineup, who, along with the aforementioned, do not rely solely on the long J for their points. Vadim Fedotov is a very pedestrian rebounder for a 6-9 power forward. After the starting lineup, the Bills don’t drop off much, as they have six bench players averaging 9.7 minutes a game and above.
Vermont is led by a dynamic duo of two of America East’s best. Marqus Blakely is second on the team in scoring and leads the conference in rebounding. He is the only player in the country averaging at least 15 PPG, 8 RPG, 3 APG, 2.5 BPG and 2 SPG, which just showcases his tremendous value to the team. Mike Trimboli leads the team in scoring and assists and is also a dangerous 3 point shooter. Colin McIntosh adds some height to the lineup, as Blakely is only 6-5. McIntosh stands 6-8 and dumps in 12.6 a game. Nick Vier and Garvey Young provide some solid guard play as well. Vermont goes 8 deep, bringing Maurice Joseph, Evan Fjeld and Joey Accaoui off the bench. Joseph in particular is a potent scorer.
Winner: Vermont Margin 8-12 points
Northern Iowa @ Siena, ESPN2
This matchup features the high-flying Siena (15-1, 21-6) offense against the balanced Northern Iowa (12-4, 18-9) attack. The Saints of Siena started off slow, but are back on track and have not lost on their home floor yet this year. UNI has lost two in a row, and are looking to regain their footing heading into two games that could dictate the MVC regular season title.
The visiting Panthers are a balanced squad. They have five players averaging between 9 and 12 points a game. The four starters in that group are Adam Koch, Kwadzo Ahelegbe, Ali Farokmanesh and Jonny Moran. Koch and Moran account for a lot of rebounds, but Moran does a lot of his scoring from the outside. Ahelegbe and Farokmanesh, along with being a mouthful for the unlucky announcer of this game, are two guards with completely different styles. Ahelegbe is a passing guard who can score. Farokmanesh is a shooting guard who scores the bulk of his points from deep. Lucas O’Rear is a good rebounding fifth starter. Northern Iowa brings monster Jordan Eglseder off the bench. At 7-1, he is the tallest player featured in BracketBusters. Travis Brown and Kerwin Durham are viable options on the bench as well.
Siena is led by Kenny Hasbrouck, Edwin Ubiles and Alex Franklin. All three are capable of leading the team in scoring on any given night. Hasbrouck is a perimeter player who scores off penetration and jump shots. Ubiles is a hybrid; at 6-6 he’s taller than most of his teammates, but has a nice inside-outside game. Franklin scores exclusively inside the arc. Point guard Ronald Moore leads the MAAC in assists and A/TO. He is the catalyst of the team despite ranking sixth in scoring. Ryan Rossiter is one of the MAAC’s leading rebounders, and averages 1.3 steals and 1.9 blocks to complement his rebounding prowess. Sophomore guard Clarence Jackson is the most efficient scorer on the team, dumping in 8.4 points a game in just 14.6 minutes.
Winner: Siena Margin: 12-16 points
Utah State @ St. Mary’s, ESPN2
The final BracketBusters matchup puts two West Coast teams on display. Utah State (12-1, 25-2) travels to Moraga to face off with WCC foe St. Mary’s (8-4, 21-5), who is 3-4 without star guard Patrick Mills. That means the Gaels will continue to rely heavily on Omar Samhan and Diamon Simpson to carry the load. Utah State leans on big man Gary Wilkinson for the bulk of their scoring. The winner of this battle will receive a huge boost in their case for an at-large bid.
The Aggies of Utah State won 19 in a row before dropping one to Boise State. St. Mary’s will be the stoutest road test they have faced all year, Mills or no Mills. Wilkinson drops around 17 and 8 a game, making him one of the best double-double threats in the WAC. Jared Quayle and Tai Wesley are great accompaniments to the low post monster Wilkinson. Quayle is a great shooting guard, but he can pound inside and grab rebounds as well. He leads the time in dimes as well. Wesley is another reliable scorer down low that makes it impossible for teams to concentrate too many players on Wilkinson. He dumps in 12.2 a game, and leads the Aggies in blocks and steals. Tyler Newbold is more or less another Quayle; a good rebounder, good passer and good shooter, however he doesn’t score as much and banks more on his long ball. Pooh Williams is the final starter. Coming off the bench, Stavon Williams is utilized primarily for his three point prowess. Jaxon Myaer and Matt Formisano provide further depth off the bench.
St. Mary’s will counter Wilkinson and Wesley with Simpson and Samhan, a duo of double-double guys. Both swat shots regularly, and Simpson also tallies 1.6 steals per contest. While Samhan scores more, it’s Simpson who is the team’s best player with Mills out. He can be counted on to give his all every time he steps on the court. Carlin Hughes fills in at the point while Mills is out. Hughes isn’t a bad player, but the Gaels suffer a significant dropoff without the WCC’s best at the helm. Hughes can still pass and has handles, but is not the versatile scorer Mills was. Wayne Hunter and Mickey O’Connell accentuate the backcourt for Saint Mary’s. Ian O’Leary is a solid rebounder off the bench as well. In order for the Gaels to win, they need Samhan to play better. In the losses tallied since Mills’ injury, Samhan has scored under his average three of the four times. They need a consistent performance from him to win.
Winner: St. Mary’s Margin: 5-7 points
5 Players to Watch
F Marqus Blakely, Vermont- Blakely is one of the most versatile players in the country. At 6-5, he is a monster on the boards, and his tremendous athleticism gives him the ability to block a lot of shots and rack up steals. If Vermont makes the Tournament, Blakely is going to give hell to a big name team. He should have a big game.
G Rodney Pierce, Buffalo- Against UConn, Pierce poured in 28, his best scoring performance of the year. If he can duplicate those numbers again in primetime, the Vermont-Buffalo game may be closer than projected. Pierce is certainly a guy who will have a target on his back if Buffalo makes the Big Dance as a giant killer. His team wasn’t able to pull it out against UConn, but don’t expect Pierce to miss out on a chance like that again.
G-F Matt Janning, Northeastern- This versatile forward scores, steals, rebounds and dishes. The junior has had some big performances this year, including 24 at Providence. His team will look for him to lead by example, and if the Huskies want to stop the skid, they will need to best Wright State. For them to accomplish that, Janning will have to take over.
F Omar Samhan, St. Mary’s- Samhan is almost as well known for his comments before the first Gonzaga game than he is for his play on the court. With Mills out, Samhan has to emerge as a guy who can win the game for this team. Diamon Simpson is a great player, and for Samhan to ascend to that plateau, he has to find some consistency and prove he can be the team’s top scorer while Mills is out.
G Stephen Curry, Davidson- Curry has gotten more media attention than perhaps every other player playing in BracketBusters combined. That being said, he is the nation’s leading scorer, and even on a down night, or if he’s only 75%, he has that killer instinct that makes Davidson a tough win even if you’re up 7 with 50 seconds left. When he gets hot, watch out. Davidson can hang with just about anyone when that happens.