ESPN BracketBusters: College Basketball Mid-Majors Look for Key Wins

Jesse Kramer@Jesse_KramerCorrespondent IApril 2, 2017

Any mid-major basketball fan has been waiting for this weekend since New Year's, if not the start of the season. 

For those who do not know about the BracketBusters, many of the mid-major schools in the nation enter at the beginning of the season to participate. The teams are split into two groups: visiting teams and home teams. Most of the teams participated last year, so if the team was home last year, it is away this year, and vice versa.

In the first week of February, the teams are matched up, mainly based on RPI. The following season, the two teams play a rematch on the other team's home floor.

Here are my previews and predictions for some of the matchups this weekend (all times are EST):


Old Dominion at Northern Iowa: Friday, Feb. 19, 7 p.m., ESPN2

This game opens up the weekend on ESPN2. Northern Iowa and Old Dominion are undoubtedly two of the top mid-majors in college basketball. Northern Iowa has already clinched first place in the MVC and Old Dominion is fighting for a conference championship.

A win for either of these teams would just about punch a ticket, if it has not already been punched, for the Big Dance in March in the event that either squad does not win its respective conference tournament.

Northern Iowa seems to have a clear edge. The Panthers are 13-0 at home this season, while Old Dominion is 7-7 away from home. However, this does not mean that the Monarchs can be counted out.

Both teams carry a balanced scoring attack with solid scorers inside and on the perimeter. 

Forward Gerald Lee is the key to the Old Dominion offense. Lee leads the Monarchs in scoring at 14 points per game. Lee goes to the line about seven times a game and shoots 74.4 percent. Unfortunately for Lee, the Northern Iowa big men do not foul too often, so it could be hard for Lee to get to the charity stripe. 

Old Dominion has six other players averaging more than five points per game. Ben Finney scored 9.3 points per game and shoots 32.3 percent from beyond the arc. Old Dominion will need Finney to have a big game along with Gerald Lee.

Northern Iowa has three players scoring in double digits, and Ali Farokhmanesh is not far behind at 9.5 points per game. 

The Panthers have multiple three-point shooters with three players shooting higher than 40 percent and two others shooting higher than 35 percent. Shooting is a large part of Northern Iowa's game, and Old Dominion only plays mediocre perimeter defense. It is hard to think that with all of Northern Iowa's shooters, all of them will not be able to hit.


Old Dominion Player to Watch For: Ben Finney

At 6'5", Ben Finney is able to play like both a forward and a guard. Finney also has talent from beyond the arc at 33 percent.


Northern Iowa Player to Watch For: Adam Koch

Adam Koch has carried the Panthers in close games this season. Koch leads the Panthers at 12.5 points per game.


My Prediction: Northern Iowa 68, Old Dominion 63


William & Mary at Iona: Friday, Feb. 19, 9 p.m., ESPNU

These are both teams looking for a bid to the NIT, and a win for William & Mary could possibly even put them back on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament. 

Iona has played well at home (10-3), but not well enough that it can be guaranteed a victory almost every time at home. Also, William & Mary is 9-5 on the road.

William & Mary (19-7, 11-5 CAA), who was once a top mid-major and one of the hottest teams in college basketball, cooled off in conference play and got hit hard with a three-game losing streak in mid-January. Now, the Tribe have won four straight and five of their last six, with the loss coming at Old Dominion. This winning streak includes wins over Northeastern and George Mason.

Iona (19-8, 11-5 MAAC) had an eight-game winning streak snapped at Siena. The Gaels then had what appeared to be an easy three-game stretch before this game, but the Manhattan Jaspers surprised Iona with a 66-60 win. 

Iona is mainly a defensive team and rarely lets players explode for huge games. The weakness is Iona's defense is on the perimeter. Often, the Gaels' opponents shoot very well from beyond the arc. And unfortunately for them, William & Mary has many threats from beyond the arc.

The Gaels have a balanced offensive attack with eight different players scoring more than four points per game. Scott Machado leads the team with 12.4 points per game. Alejo Rodriguez is a strong presence in the post with 8.9 points per game. 

William & Mary plays good perimeter defense, which could eliminate players like Kyle Smyth who rely on the three-pointer, shooting 41.6 percent from beyond the arc. However, Smyth can sometimes get into a groove where the defense does not matter.

The Tribe will probably struggle with the quick drive of Scott Machado and the post play of Alejo Rodriguez. Alejo Rodriguez does foul a lot with 3.6 fouls per game. He will end up being the biggest factor; if he gets into foul trouble, William & Mary will run away. If Rodriguez stays out of foul trouble, this could be a game that goes down to the wire.

William & Mary Player to Watch For: David Schneider

David Schneider leads William & Mary in scoring with 15.6 points per game. Schneider has the ability to explode for big games, scoring 20 or more points on five different occasions. When Schneider has big games, he lights up from beyond the arc.

Iona Player to Watch For: Scott Machado

Scott Machado is only in his sophomore year at Iona, and he is the leader of a team that could very well be NIT bound. Machado leads Iona in scoring and assists with 12.4 points and 3.9 assists.


My Prediction: William & Mary 69, Iona 61


Siena at Butler: Saturday, Feb. 20, 11 a.m., ESPN2

This could be the best game of the weekend. 

After Siena lost the nation's longest win streak at Niagara, Butler took over. The Bulldogs have now won 15 games in a row. These two are undoubtedly two of the better mid-majors this season, and I suggest not sleeping as late as you might want on a Saturday morning in order to see these two battle on the hardwood.

Butler (24-4, 17-0 Horizon) is already a lock for the NCAA Tournament at No. 18 in the AP Poll. The Bulldogs will likely finish conference play without a loss. Butler has OOC wins over Northwestern, Ohio State, and Xavier. 

On the other hand, Siena (22-5, 15-1 MAAC) does not have any signature wins. The Saints' best OOC win was over Northeastern. A win for the Saints would possibly put them into the NCAA Tournament in case they lost the MAAC Tournament, and if they win the the conference tournament and this game, I think they could be as high as a six seed. 

This game is harder to predict based on stats. The Saints are notoriously slow starters and then start to gel later in the season. Last year, the Saints could not beat their good competition in non-conference play and then blew out Northern Iowa in the BracketBusters. 

Siena has the bodies to put up with Hayward and Howard and the Saints' perimeter defense is good enough Shelvin Mack and Willie Veasley will not have huge games. 

The key factor in this game will be Siena's rebounding—mainly its offensive rebounding. Siena averages 13 offensive rebounds a game. Butler is not a great rebounding team at 32.5 rebounds per game. This will give Siena many second chance points and lead them to an upset.

Siena Player to Watch For: Ronald Moore

Ronald Moore leads the nation with 7.7 assists per game. Moore has outstanding court vision and never misses the open man. He is also fast and quick. After a made basket, the opponent can never walk back to defense because by the time they turn around, Ronald Moore will have put the ball through the hoop, or found someone else to do the job for him.


Butler Player to Watch For: Gordon Hayward

Gordon Hayward has scored in double digits 24 times this year. He has recorded nine double-doubles, grabbing as many as 17 rebounds in a single game. Hayward is by far the best player in the Horizon League, and he is only a sophomore.


My Prediction: Siena 77, Butler 74


Morgan State at Murray State: Saturday, Feb. 20, noon, ESPNU

Murray State (25-3, 16-0 OVC) is tied for the longest win streak in the nation with Butler at 16. Morgan State (20-8, 11-1 MEAC) was competing for one of the top win streaks in the nation, but a loss to South Carolina State snapped it and handed the Bears their first MEAC loss.

Murray State is yet to lose at home (14-0). Morgan State has been solid, but not great, on the road at 11-6. 

I am giving Murray State the edge in this game because it is good at containing players. Morgan State's Reggie Holmes is one of the leading scorers in the nation, but he has been relatively slumping recently. With Murray State's containing defense, Holmes will probably be limited to no more than 18 points. 

Kevin Thompson provides a big body, and he has been able to come through for Morgan State when Holmes has very bad games. However, Thompson plays in the MEAC where a dominant big man is rare. Thompson will have to put up with Tony Easley, who is 6'9" and averages 2.7 blocks per game. 

Murray State has thrived from a balanced scoring attack. The Racers have four players averaging in double digits, with two more right behind at 9.8 points per game. 

Also, Murray State is a good free throw shooting team at 70.4 percent. Morgan State fouls close to 22 times per game.

Thompson and Holmes will have trouble having big games. Morgan State does not have the same depth as Murray State, so it will have trouble finding other scoring sources.


Morgan State Player to Watch For: Reggie Holmes

Despite going through a relatively cold stretch, Reggie Holmes is still one of the best scorers in college basketball.


Murray State Player to Watch For: Isaiah Canaan

Isaiah Canaan hit a halfcourt shot while sitting on his backside as the shot clock wound down against Southeast Missouri State on Tuesday. Clearly, this kid has some range.


My Prediction: Murray State 83, Morgan State 71


Louisiana Tech at Northeastern: Saturday, Feb. 20, 1 p.m., ESPN2

Louisiana Tech (20-6, 8-4 WAC) was once looking like the hottest mid-major with a 17-2 record. Over the seven games since, the Bulldogs are 3-4. Louisiana Tech has dropped into third place in the WAC, and it could really use an OOC wins to get itself back on track.

Northeastern (18-9, 13-3 CAA) struggled in non-conference play and could really use an OOC win to boost its resume for the NIT or for seeding in the NCAA Tournament if the Huskies win the CAA. 

Louisiana Tech has a huge advantage in rebounding. The Bulldogs average 38.3 rebounds to Northeastern's 30.6. The Bulldogs have five different players averaging four or more rebounds per game. 

Louisiana Tech also has a balanced scoring attack. Five players score in double digits, with Kyle Gibson leading the way with 21 points per game. The Bulldogs have a few different players that can score in the post and also have a couple of shooters. 

Jamel Guyton shoots 39.7 percent to lead the team. Gibson shoots 35.7 percent. Olu Ashaolu shoots 30 percent in addition to being able to score inside. 

Northeastern has four players scoring more than nine points per game. Matt Janning leads the team with 15 points per game. Chaisson Allen scores 14.5 points per game, Manny Adako tallies 11.1, and Nkem Ojougboh chimes in with 9.1. 

The Huskies shoot 36.2 percent as a team from beyond the arc. Louisiana Tech's opponents almost always shoot well from three-point range. 

Louisiana Tech's balanced scoring attack will give Northeastern a good fight, but the Huskies' ability to control the tempo to a slow game will limit rebounds and help them partially eliminate that disadvantage. 

The Bulldogs' poor perimeter defense will help Northeastern immensely, and this will lead Northeastern to a close BracketBusters win.


Louisiana Tech Player to Watch For: Kyle Gibson

Kyle Gibson can score from anywhere on the floor. He can drive, he can shoot three-pointers, and he makes 86.1 percent of his free throws.

Northeastern Player to Watch For: Chaisson Allen

Chaisson Allen is the Huskies' best three-point shooter at 45.8 percent. With the Bulldogs' poor perimeter defense, he will likely have a good game.


My Prediction: Northeastern 68, Louisiana Tech 65

Fairfield at Vermont: Saturday, Feb. 20, 2 p.m., Not Televised

Vermont (20-8, 11-3 Am. East) and Fairfield (18-8, 11-5 MAAC) both have a chance at being a lower seed in the NIT, or at least in the CBI.

Vermont is led by Marqus Blakely, one of the best mid-major big men. Blakely scores 17.7 points per game, averages 9.1 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 2.6 steals, and two blocks. A 6'5", Blakely is still able to put up with men bigger than him.

Blakely will need to do well on the defensive glass. His main task on defense and on the boards will be not letting Anthony Johnson explode for a big game.

Johnson averages more than 4.5 offensive rebounds per game. His body is big enough that once he gets the ball down low it can be hard to keep him from putting the ball in the basket.

Blakely will keep Johnson from having a huge game, but he will need help with double teams coming from Vermont's guards. If Johnson is double teamed, he will be able to find the open man beyond the arc. If he is not double teamed, he should be able to take Blakely one-on-one.

Fairfield has multiple three-point shooters if they get open looks due to double teams. Derek Needham leads Fairfield in scoring and shoots well from beyond the arc. Mike Evanovich shoots 46.5 percent from three-point range. Sean Crawford shoots 41.3 percent, Ryan Olander shoots 34.5 percent, and Lyndon Jordan shoots 31.8 percent.

No matter what Vermont does with Johnson, it will eliminate one big factor, but leave the other wide open.


Fairfield Player to Watch For: Derek Needham

Despite only being a freshman, Derek Needham is sixth in the MAAC in scoring. Needham is also second in assists. Needham still makes some freshman mistakes, but he is the reason that Fairfield is competing for second place in the MAAC.


Vermont Player to Watch For: Marqus Blakely

Marqus Blakely has been outstanding for Vermont this year. Blakely has recorded 14 double-doubles this year. He has scored as many as 32 points against Quinnipiac. Blakely's balanced approach to basketball makes him a threat wherever he is on the floor.


My Prediction: Fairfield 74, Vermont 65


Akron at VCU: Saturday, Feb. 20, 4 p.m., ESPNU

Akron (20-7, 10-3 MAC) has won five straight games entering its BracketBusters matchup with Virginia Commonwealth (18-7, 10-6 CAA). Virginia Commonwealth could use a win over Akron to help boost its resume for the NIT, CBI, or CIT. 

VCU should be able to beat Akron on Saturday.

Why? Because Akron does not have a big man that can put up with Larry Sanders. Akron's Zeke Marshall is 7'0" and is a solid defender with 1.7 blocks per game, but he does not add to the Zips' offense. Larry Sanders can prepare for a career day on national television. 

Akron's only hope to cancel out the damage that Sanders will do is to make shots from three-point range. VCU is not great defending the three-pointer, but it is not horrible. 

The trouble for VCU will come because Akron has so many threats from beyond the arc. The Zips have six players shooting 32 percent or better from three-point range. 

The three-pointers by the Zips will be enough to keep the game close and exciting, but not enough the give Akron the win.


Akron Player to Watch For: Chris McKnight

Chris McKnight only scores 8.9 points per game, but two games ago, McKnight scored 25 points.

VCU Player to Watch For: Larry Sanders

I am sure that most already know of Larry Sanders. He might be the best big man at the mid-major level. Sanders scores 15.5 points per game, grabs 9.1 rebounds, 


My Prediction: VCU 77, Akron 65


Morehead State at Illinois State: Saturday, Feb. 20, 5:05 p.m., Not Televised

Morehead State (19-8, 13-3 OVC) is being robbed of the attention it deserves due to Murray State being undefeated in the Ohio Valley Conference. The Eagles' three conference losses have all come on the road. The Eagles got blown out at Murray State, but the other two losses have come by one point to the two teams right behind them in the standings, Austin Peay and Eastern Illinois. 

Illinois State (19-8, 10-6 MVC) has rebounded from a rough stretch with four straight wins to put it back in contention for second place in the MVC. 

Both teams carry a balanced scoring attack, each with three players averaging in double digits. 

Kenneth Faried leads Morehead State with 17.2 points and 13.5 rebounds. Faried has put up 20 double-doubles this season. Another double-double will be needed from Faried on Saturday.

Maze Stallworth and Demonte Harper score 12.7 points and 12.4 points, respectively. These two support Faried well. Faried, Stallworth, and Harper are the main cast for the Eagles, and they all need to put up at least their averages for Morehead State.

Osiris Eldridge leads Illinois State with 15.7 points. Eldridge is a 36.1 percent three-point shooter.

Dinma Odiakosa is next in line with 12.4 points and 8.6 rebounds. Odiakosa's 6'8", 255-pound frame should be enough to give Faried a good battle. However, Odiakosa does not play great defense and opposing big men usually have fairly good games against him. The Illinois State guards play much better defense.

Faried will most likely end up with a big game, but he will not get enough support. Morehead State's struggles on the road (7-5) and Illinois State's recent hot streak will keep them short of a win.


Morehead State Player to Watch For: Kenneth Faried

Kenneth Faried leads the nation is rebounding (13.5). Faried is also a beast in the post, scoring most of his points in the paint. 


Illinois State Player to Watch For: Osiris Eldridge

Osiris Eldridge leads the MVC in scoring. He has the ability to be explosive, scoring as many as 28 points and hitting as many as six three-pointers in one game.


My Prediction: Illinois State 73, Morehead State 66


Charleston at George Mason: Saturday, Feb. 20, 8 p.m., ESPN2

George Mason (16-11, 11-5 CAA) has slumped, losing four of its last five games with the one win coming in overtime. The Patriots desperately need a win to get back into their groove for the end of the season and the conference tournament.

Charleston (18-9, 13-3 SoCon) holds a half-game lead on Wofford in the SoCon. With a win over George Mason, Charleston would pretty much lock a bid to at least the NIT if they were to lose the conference tournament. 

Many of you might remember Andrew Goudelock for his 24 point performance against UNC. It will be hard for George Mason to stop Goudelock, who averages 19.4 points per game and shoots 39.8 percent from beyond the arc. 

Charleston as a team shoots very well from beyond the arc at 37.2 percent. Andrew Goudelock, Donovan Monroe, and Tony White Jr. all shoot better than 38 percent from three-point range. Andrew Lawrence shoots 34.8 percent and Willis Hall shoots 31.8 percent.

George Mason is not too good at defending the perimeter, and Charleston should be able to have at least its typical day from three-point range.

George Mason does not have the players needed to compete with and beat Charleston. The Patriots do not play an up-tempo game, and Charleston can usually control the tempo.


Charleston Player to Watch For: Andrew Goudelock

Andrew Goudelock scored 24 points in Charleston's upset over UNC. Goudelock has the ability to be very explosive.


George Mason Player to Watch For: Cam Long

Cam Long has scored has many as 27 points this season. Long has reached 20 points six different times this year. However, Long is not a consistent scorer. When Long has not scored 20 points, he has scored in double digits only seven other times.


My Prediction: Charleston 76, George Mason 70


Wichita State at Utah State: Sunday, Feb. 21, midnight, ESPN2

Wichita State (22-6, 11-5 MVC) is in danger of dropping into third place in the MVC after looking like a potential NCAA Tournament team. Wichita State has won its last two games by an average of 1.5 points. 

Utah State (21-6, 11-2 WAC) picked up its 11th straight win in a 67-61 victory of Louisiana Tech. 

Utah State is an outstanding three-point shooting team. The Aggies shoot 42.6 percent from beyond the arc. Brian Green leads the team at 51.4 percent. Jared Quayle shoots 43 percent. Pooh Williams and Tyler Newbold each shoot 41 percent. Preston Medlin shoots 39.5 percent. 

Wichita State is not great at defending the three-pointer, although it is not horrible. Most likely, Utah State will still be able to make a bunch of three-pointers. 

Both teams are good free throw shooting teams. Utah State shoots 77.4 percent and Wichita State shoots 74.2 percent. 

Utah State's outstanding shooting will be too much for Wichita State's defense.


Wichita State Player to Watch For: Clevin Hannah

Clevin Hannah is second on Wichita State in scoring at 12.3 points per game. Hannah shoots 43.5 percent from three-point range and makes 89.6 percent of his free throws.

Utah State Player to Watch For: Jared Quayle

Jared Quayle can hit jump shots from anywhere on the floor. Quayle is also a balanced player with 5.8 rebounds and and 4.2 assists in addition to his 12.1 points per game. Quayle is eighth in the nation in free throw shooting at 90.3 percent. 


My Prediction: Utah State 83, Wichita State 73

For more college basketball, follow Jesse Kramer on Twitter by clicking here.


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