How vital has ESPN's BracketBusters promotion become to the mid-major set?
Last year, George Mason lost in the semifinals of the Colonial Athletic Association tournament, normally a ticket to the National Invitation Tournament, but the Patriots essentially parlayed a BracketBusters win at Wichita State into a controversial at-large NCAA invitation and a historic berth in the Final Four.
On the flip side, how big a pain has BracketBusters become to the 74 participants that have no shot at an at-large bid and thus won't get exposure in one of the 14 games that ESPN will carry this weekend?
A dehydrated Gerald Brown spent Sunday night in a hospital. He's the lead player on an ailing Loyola team reeling from stretches of a winter spent in snowy New York, and only coach Jimmy Patsos knows how many players the Greyhounds will take to Tennessee State for Saturday's 8:30 p.m. BracketBusters afterthought.
The other BracketBusters game involving a state team will send Towson to Bucknell at 2 p.m. Saturday. This could be a fun chess match, as the home team checks Gary Neal and the Tigers have to recognize all the Bison shooters, but it, too, won't be televised.
The five CAA teams above Towson in the Rating Percentage Index will play on one of the ESPN networks. Bucknell has gone to the second round of the NCAA tournament each of the past two years, so it's also ticked about the exclusion.
"The purpose behind BracketBusters is good," Bucknell coach Pat Flannery said, "but when you get six Missouri Valley teams and five from the CAA on TV, you begin to question it."
BracketBusters has grown from a select few pairings designed to spread the word about lower-profile conferences in 2003 to a 51-game, 102-team behemoth. Before ESPN made its pairings in late January, the guys in Loyola's league knew what was coming.
"All 10 of our teams are playing BracketBusters games, but none of them are on TV," said Rich Ensor, commissioner of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. "In order to get there, you have to perform in December, and we didn't get it done.
"We're in the second year of a five-year deal with ESPNU, and none of this was forced on us. BracketBusters provides a unique opportunity for teams trying to get into the NCAA and NIT. You want to be associated with the ESPN brand. It's important for recruiting, alumni, our fans."
Return games are a major dividend for programs that traditionally struggle to get nonconference home dates.
Next season, Tennessee State will play at Loyola. It is an unfamiliar member of the Ohio Valley Conference, but coach Cy Alexander knows his way around Baltimore, as he took South Carolina State of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference to five NCAA tournaments between 1989 and 2003.
Bucknell has a substantial alumni base in Baltimore and plenty of good memories of the Towson Center. That's where it earned its first two NCAA berths, in 1987 and '89.
With three new starters, George Mason has struggled, slipping to a 7-8 league record and a fifth-place tie with Towson, Northeastern and William and Mary in the CAA. If you think Patriots fans are disappointed, check what happened to the other team that lost in last year's NCAA semifinals.
Despite the return of Southeastern Conference Player of the Year Glen "Big Baby" Davis and two other starters, LSU has tumbled from the preseason top 10 to the bottom of its division. The Tigers had lost six in a row before beating Arkansas and still have to go to Kentucky and play No. 1 Florida.
The highlight of Saturday's local schedule is Army-Navy at Alumni Hall. In a game that will be telecast regionally by CBS, Greg Sprink and the Midshipmen will try to avenge last month's loss at West Point, the highlight in a 13-12 record that is the best for the Black Knights in decades.
On Saturday night, Mount St. Mary's concludes its home Northeast Conference schedule against Monmouth.
Like last season, Randallstown native John Bunch is listed at 7 feet 2 and 320 pounds, but after offseason knee surgery, he's lighter, more mobile and possesses 70 of Monmouth's 116 blocks.
Despite being part of the crew that blew the Clemson-Duke finish last month, Mike Kitts is a respected official who doesn't showboat, reasons he has worked so many big games through the years.
What in the world of Charley Eckman, however, was Kitts doing last weekend? He worked a 9 p.m. start at Loyola on Friday. Fourteen hours later, he had UCLA-West Virginia, which began Saturday at 1 p.m. in Morgantown.
Either Kitts has the stamina of Lance Armstrong, or assigners need to cross-check their workers' schedules.
Paul McMullen's top seeds by region if the NCAA tournament were to begin today:
East Rutherford, N.J. San Antonio
1. Ohio State 1. Wisconsin
2. North Carolina 2. Pittsburgh
3. Georgetown 3. Wash. State
4. S. Illinois 4. Kentucky
St. Louis San Jose, Calif.
1. Florida 1. UCLA
2. Texas A&M; 2. Memphis
3. Boston Col. 3. Kansas
4. Arizona 4. Virginia Tech