For Niagara and Illinois State, tonight's ESPN BracketBuster at the Gallagher Center could live up to its oft-times overhyped name. A victory might carry clout in the selection process if the winner fails to capture its conference title and instead finds itself bucking for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. And for the loser? An at-large candidacy just might be rendered a bust.
The sold-out clash between the Purple Eagles (21-7) and the Redbirds (22-5) is one of the more intriguing and meaningful contests in the annual made-for-TV matchups between "mid-major" conferences. Illinois State of the Missouri Valley Conference is ranked 58th in the ratings percentage index after running its win streak to three games with Wednesday's 74-59 win over Wichita State. Niagara slipped to 67th in the RPI with Wednesday's 90-87 loss at Rider that broke the Purple Eagles' seven-game win streak.
The BracketBuster games Saturday involving the University at Buffalo and Canisius fail to provide comparable impact within the at-large picture. UB (17-7) is down to 97th in the RPI after Bowling Green handed the Bulls their second straight loss Wednesday at Alumni Arena. UB's BracketBuster opponent, 105th-ranked Vermont (21-7) of America East, hardly qualifies as an RPI springboard.
Meanwhile, Canisius (8-18, No. 226) travels to Bowling Green for a game against the resurgent Falcons (13-10, No. 171), who made it seven wins in eight games with their victory at UB. Canisius had been stuck at the other end of the see-saw, losing six in a row before Monday's 69-67 win at Loyola.
For the most part, the BracketBuster is a misnomer, a series of games that have little if any bearing on the at-large selection process. In 2005, UB traveled to Fresno and won, captured nine of its last 10 before losing to Ohio in overtime at the buzzer in the Mid-American Conference title game and, at 23-10, still was left on the outside looking in on Selection Sunday.
"We went to Fresno and won, but I don't have to get into the rest of that," said UB coach Reggie Witherspoon. "At the same time, people say it helped George Mason get in the year (2005-06) they went to the Final Four." George Mason won at Wichita State of the Missouri Valley Conference that season.
The main controversies on Selection Sunday tend to be stirred by the perception that a mid-major has been snubbed at the expense of a bubble team in a major conference. With that in mind, a true "BracketBuster" would create a platform of comparison by pitting mid-major at-large contenders against teams in the middle of the pack in the major conferences.
"There you go," Witherspoon said. "Now you're cooking with oil."
Will that ever happen? Highly unlikely. But the BracketBuster lives because it offers the mid-major elite national television exposure and serves a scheduling purpose, guaranteeing the road teams a regular-season rematch the following season on their home floors.
"It's a great opportunity. It's just a great, great opportunity," said Niagara coach Joe Mihalich. "There's 51 BracketBuster games and there's about 10 of them that are really special and they're the ones that are on TV. So we're really proud that we earned our way onto national TV. We get a national TV game, ESPN2, Friday night, prime time, against a really good team who can help us get ready for Siena and the MAAC Tournament. Nothing but positives.
"That's the only way to approach this. There's a lot of people saying, 'Ah, we got a tough trip,' or 'I wish we weren't playing a nonleague game now.' Why even talk about those things? Nothing but positives."
Perception often sways the Selection Committee and this is a chance for Niagara to lobby hard in the event it's in need of an at-large bid. Illinois State is third in the MVC, a game behind co-leaders Creighton and Northern Iowa. The MVC ranks 10th in the conference RPIs, three spots ahead of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. And the Missouri Valley has cultivated a strong reputation, having placed 23 teams in the NCAAs over the last 10 years.
"I think that if you're playing against a team that's done well in that conference and it's a conference that may get multiple teams, you get a chance to load up some credibility more than anything else," Witherspoon said.
Illinois State at Niagara, 7:00 (ESPN2)
UB at Vermont, 1:00 (ESPN2)
Canisius at Bowling Green, 2:00