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College basketball

Salukis, mid-majors get rare day in sun

The Bracket Buster allows teams such as SIU to impress the selection committee.

By BRUCE LOWITT, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 22, 2003

It's called the Bracket Buster. Bubble Buster -- or Dream Catcher -- might be more appropriate and equally accurate.

ESPN and ESPN2 air five of nine games today, including Wisconsin-Milwaukee at Southern Illinois, featuring mid-major basketball teams with designs on a berth in the men's NCAA Tournament.

These are not the North Carolina States, Missouris and Michigan States, big-name teams near the middle of the standings of their big-name conferences yet likely to be invited to the Big Dance.

These are the Kent States, Tulsas and SIUs, teams whose hopes of an invite hinge on winning their conference tournament or, by the good graces of the NCAA selection committee, the offer of an at-large berth.

They are teams whose one incandescent moment, 22 days before Selection Sunday, can help turn them into a nova or burn them to a cinder.

"The bubble is very thin for a team like us," SIU coach Bruce Weber said. "Every game is important. That's the tough thing about being a mid-major. It's a blessing to be considered a bubble team, but it could be a hex because you lose one game and it could put you out of the mix."

The Salukis are 18-5 overall, 13-2 and tied with Creighton atop the Missouri Valley. UWM is 21-5 and first in the Horizon Conference at 12-2. UWM is 62nd and SIU 78th in the Rating Percentage Index, based on Division I winning percentage, strength of schedule and opponent's schedule strength. The RPI is used by the NCAA to help pick and seed teams.

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To SIU athletic director Paul Kowalczyk, playing in the inaugural Bracket Buster is a double-edged sword, one advantage bigger than the disadvantages.

"It provides greater visibility at a critical time of the year," he said. "The tournament selection time is not too far down the road. This provides people the opportunity to see us later in the season, which is more of a factor if you look at the committee's selection process.

"They always talk about teams who are hot toward the end of the year. So this is a great opportunity to showcase yourself when you're heading down the homestretch."

Being part of this one-day marathon of games is "a risk you're willing to take," Kowalczyk said, "because the upside potential is greater than the downside loss. Part of the reason is you still have the opportunity of your conference tournament to play yourself in (to the NCAA Tournament)."

The Bracket Buster evolved out of conversations Burke Magnus, director of ESPN's college basketball programing, had with the seven conferences represented: the Big West, West Coast, Sun Belt, Horizon, Missouri Valley, Western Athletic and Mid-American.

"We tossed it around shortly after last year's Final Four as a way to do something more creative with games we're under contract to put on with those leagues," Magnus said. "They get only a few cracks at national television each year. They were interested in trying to capitalize on some of the (fame) they earned in last year's (NCAA) tournament."

Examples: Kent State, seeded 10th in the South, beat seventh-seeded Oklahoma State, No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 Pittsburgh before losing in overtime to Indiana one step shy of the Final Four. And Southern Illinois, 11th in the East, beat No. 6 Texas Tech and No. 3 Georgia to reach the Sweet 16, losing to No. 2 Connecticut.

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"I really wish we were in a situation where an event like (the Bracket Buster) didn't need to occur," Kowalczyk said. "I wish the selection process was more sympathetic toward mid-majors and otherwise bubble schools. A major reason a lot of people watch the tournament is because of the underdogs and unknowns, not because they can see the seventh team in the SEC or the sixth in the ACC."

Magnus said ESPN plans to include other conferences in a larger field next year. "People say, 'What about Manhattan this year?' and 'Wilmington beat Southern Cal last year,' and 'Penn's been good,' " Magnus said. "There are tons of teams out there. If we'd had the time to fully build (the Bracket Buster), we'd have included everybody we wanted to have in."

Most teams probably wanted in. Television has an enormous impact on the perception of teams. Most fans know of Kentucky, UCLA and Duke. Most also know many other teams because they're a constant on television.

But how many know about Detroit Mercy, Illinois-Chicago and California-Santa Barbara? You rarely, if ever, will hear Jay Bilas or Jim Nantz singing their praises during a national broadcast.

ESPN's Bracket Buster games, technically, mean no more than others. But there's the potential perception that these teams must be worth watching. Otherwise, why would they be on TV?

"There's no doubt that television is controlling college basketball," Weber said. "That's one of our problems as a mid-major, that we don't get to be on. It's a tough thing. When you get on TV, people see highlights. Every night, highlights are going to be on, and everybody gets to see you. And even if you lose, they still think you're a pretty good team."

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