Brackets already busted

Matt Goul

Bracket Buster helps give smaller conferences attention, but conference title is the only sure route into the NCAA tournament

Forward Scott Cutley forces his way through two of Buffalo’s players on Jan. 19. Kent State plays Southern Illinois on Saturday at 6 p.m. in the M.A.C. Center as a part of ESPN’s Bracket Buster game as well as David Holmes Day.

Credit: Matt Goul

ESPN’s Bracket Buster Saturday is supposed to give smaller schools, like those in the Mid-American Conference, more national exposure leading up to the NCAA Tournament.

Exposure may not be enough.

Winning the MAC tournament is quickly becoming the only viable way to get a MAC team into the field of 65. As teams beat each other up in conference, their attractiveness for at-large bids fade. Every potential tournament team in the MAC has fallen victim to the parity, including Kent State (16-9, 8-6 MAC), which finds itself in the unfamiliar spot of fifth place in the East Division. That does not seem so bad when Miami is the only team with less than five conference losses.

The MAC hasn’t received an at-large bid since 1999 when Miami was selected after the Flashes won the conference tournament.

Whether the MAC’s tough play is tough on a nationwide scale is up for debate. Tomorrow’s Bracket Buster Saturday can help determine it. Twelve MAC teams will take part in ESPN’s Bracket Buster Saturday.

Buffalo coach Reggie Witherspoon will argue the MAC’s toughness is for real. Try finding a coach who would not defend his conference.

Cross Jim Christian off your list.

“This is probably the most balanced league in the country,” Christian said. “It’s a tough league to coach in because we beat the heck out of each other every single year. There’s nine teams that can win the league, and we’re one of them. If we lament for one second on being disappointed, we’re kidding ourselves.”

Witherspoon recalled watching the MAC tournament final last year and ESPN analyst Jay Bilas’ analogy that the MAC is as tough to get a win in as the Atlantic Coast Conference, home to North Carolina, Duke and all that is college basketball.

“It’s hard for the masses of people to gain appreciation for a conference they don’t see that often,” Witherspoon said.

Getting more national exposure is the goal.

“I think people begin to appreciate what they see a lot of,” he said. “They hear about it, but if they only know.”

For the parity victims, Bracket Buster Saturday offers some vindication against other top smaller conference schools. Kent State’s chance comes with Southern Illinois (21-6, 12-3 Missouri Valley Conference) at 6 p.m. in a game ESPN2 will televise.

The Salukis are led by their backcourt tandem of Darren Brooks and Jamaal Tatum. Brooks, a 6-foot-3 junior, is their leading scorer, averaging 14.3 points per game. Tatum, a 6-2 sophomore, is the starting point guard. They have a common opponent with Kent State in Creighton, which Southern Illinois beat twice. The Flashes won at Creighton earlier this season.

The Salukis are tied with Wichita State, which plays at Miami tomorrow, for the MVC lead.

Contact men’s basketball reporter Matt Goul at [email protected].