by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Past experience tells us that the NCAA Selection Committee pays some attention to BracketBuster weekend, although just how much it does depends upon the selection group itself, which rotates in two new members each year. We can assume, however, that it was paying rapt attention twelve months ago as a handful of its eventual 2011 decisions (including what at the time seemed a very peculiar one about letting Virginia Commonwealth, a winner in last February’s Buster over Wichita State, into last year’s field of 68) seemed almost wholly based upon BracketBuster results. We’ll have to wait three weeks until Selection Sunday to find out just how much emphasis the 2012 committee will place upon results from this past weekend.

We can, however, probably draw some conclusions from the just-completed Buster results.

1) Wichita State is a serious contender for a protected (one thru four) seed. The Shockers’ NCAA status looked pretty secure even before Saturday’s Buster assignment at Davidson. But the dominating 91-74 win over the SoCon leader Wildcats was confirmation what many already knew about Wichita; this team is dangerous and looks to be entering March hot, winning six straight and 14 of its last 15, with plenty of shooters (including Joe Ragland, who hits 48% beyiond the arc, and slashig gwing Toure’ Murry), a legit big (7-0 Garrett Stutz) posting eye-opening numbers in recent weeks, and postseason experience after winning last year’s NIT. With some other protected seed contenders sliding in recent weeks, there’s room for a mid-major to crash the upper echelon, and right now Gregg Marshall’s Wichita looks the most-likely candidate.

2) Look out for the Colonial! Leagues can help their overall standing with the Committee if they perform well in the Buster, especially the top teams. To that end, the Colonial seemed to pass muster last weekend when each of its top four sides won (Virginia Commonwealth over Northern Iowa, Drexel over Cleveland State, George Mason over Lamar, and Old Dominion over Missouri State). In particular, the victories by VCU and ODU over solid Missouri Valley reps, plus Drexel’s dominating romp at Cleveland State, should increase the likelihood that the CAA becomes a multi-bid league again this March. The question now is which of the top three contenders looks best-positioned to gain an NCAA at-large bid if it doesn’t win the conference tourney, which begins late next week at Richmond. At the moment we give a measured vote to Drexel, as Bruiser Flint’s Dragons stretched their current win streak to fifteen in a row with their impressive 69-49 win over Gary Waters’ Vikings. But we also think the Committee could make room for three Colonial reps as it did quite surprisingly a year ago, although the league has yet to post a win over a Top 50 side this season. One extra bid, however, seems a good possibility.

3) Creighton and Murray State are safely into the field of 68. We didn’t have much doubt about the Bluejays making the final cut, and frankly we thought that the Racers were still in good shape no matter what happened in their Buster game vs. Saint Mary’s. But we suspect each side confirmed their Selection Sunday invitations, Creigton doing so in its dramatic 81-79 win over Long Beach State, and Murray State in its dominant 65-51 home win over Saint Mary’s. The Racers also have a new media cheerleader in none other than Dick Vitale, who was present for ESPN’s coverage of the matchup vs. the Gaels.

4) Keep an eye on Butler! The Selection Committee isn’t going to bother looking at the Bulldogs for an at-large slot, but that wasn’t the point about last Saturday’s game at Hinkle Fieldhouse vs. a representative Indiana State side. No, what this year’s Buster did was provide a nice tune-up for suddenly-hot Butler for the upcoming Horizon Tournament, which begins next week. And though no one is even dreaming about another Final Four appearance in North Indianapolis, Brad Stevens’ Bulldogs, suddenly getting significant contributions from a handful of freshmen, might have the “look” once more after trouncing the Sycamores, 75-54, netting their fourth straight win in the process. Horizon League contenders have been forewarned.

5) Watch out for Iona and Oral Roberts! If you believe ESPN’s Doug Gottlieb, neither should waste any time worrying about getting an at-large bid (although we’re not so sure). Iona and ORU are going to be favored in their respective upcoming conference tourneys, but they’re also not completely out of the at-large queue, either. Regardless, consider the Gaels’ 90-84 win over a dangerous Nevada side, and ORU’s 67-61 win over MAC East leader Akron, as warning shots to potential sub-regional foes. If, that is, one or both sides makes it to the Big Dance.

6) How about the bottom end of the BracketBusters? We are as much intrigued about games at the bottom of the BracketBuster pyramid as those at the top. Besides, what other event would go out of its way to match up teams with 0-25 (America East Binghamton) and 5-23 (Big South Radford) records? Binghamton backers cashed tickets at the Las Vegas sports books, losing 64-59 as an 11-point dog, although the Bearcats fell to 0-26 straight up in the process.

7) We decided to check out some Buster action for ourselves. Super Bowls, Rose Bowls, the World Series, the Olympics, Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont...but no BracketBusters? We decided to add the Buster to our list to “sports events” we’ve seen in person and also to see what all the fuss was about. Our closest choices were either a ride to Flagstaff, Arizona to watch Big Sky Northern Arizona battle Big West UC Davis, or driving 300 miles in the other direction to Southern California to watch one of the handful of Buster games involving Big West schools. Normally we would prefer the trip to Flagstaff, but with work continuing on NAU’s Skydome and Lumberjack games temporarily forced into the small, 1250-capacity Rolle Activity Center, we opted for another Big Sky-Big West battle in SoCal instead, as Eastern Washington tackled UC Irvine at the Bren Center. No ESPN cameras present, but a good game nonetheless won by the host Anteaters, 78-73. And while at the game we won a free cheeseburger at a local restaurant, which begs the question if I would have made the 600-mile round trip just for the free cheeseburger.

Maybe...it just depends upon the cheeseburger.

8) Finally, will the Buster results sway the Selection Committee? Again, we’ll find out in three weeks. But we did see a bit more respect for the mid-majors from the Committee a year ago and can only hope we see more of the same in March. And, as a note to all of the talking heads at ESPN who continue to wax about last year’s Big East and how it produced the eventual 2011 champion, UConn, do they also realize that nine of the record eleven Big Dance reps from the loop failed to make it out of sub-regional play last year, and that the Huskies were the only side that progressed beyond the Sweet 16?

A last reminder to the Committee; two mid-majors (Butler and VCU) made the Final Four last year. Don’t give some of these worthy entries the short end of the stick on Selection Sunday and reward the big “football” leagues at their exclusion. The Big Dance is a lot more fun when a few Cinderellas get invited to the ball.

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