Two of the more intriguing, and competitive, games of the weekend took place out on the west coast.
Each game featured two unranked teams, but had the feel and urgency of a first round National College Athletic Association tournament game.
In the first game, UCLA held on to beat St. John’s in a close, and at times ugly, affair. The second game saw Memphis win by two over Gonzaga, in Spokane.
For UCLA, the win was a huge boost to their NCAA tournament resume. At 16-7 overall, and 7-3 in the Pac-10, the Bruins now appear to have the inside track to returning to the NCAA tournament after missing out last year. Their win over Steve Lavin’s Red Storm, combined with a win over BYU in December gives them a strong overall profile.
For Memphis, the win in Spokane keeps their tournament at-large hopes alive. This game may have been an at large elimination game, with both teams struggling (by their standards) at 5-3 in conference play.
These two games make up half of the number of non-conference tilts played this February involving teams from high major conferences.
One of the others will be played on Tuesday, when Xavier plays at Georgia. That game could wind up being crucial for Georgia in particular, who has been around .500 in the South East Conference East. The other game is on February 23, when Temple will take on Duke in Durham.
That’s it—four high-profile, non-Bracket Buster, non-conference games the entire month of February.
Should more power conference and high-major (Atlantic 10, Mountain West, etc) teams attempt to schedule non-conference games in February?
The success of the annual Bracket Busters event and the now annual meetings between Memphis and Gonzaga provide strong evidence that there should be.
Bracket Busters debuted in 2003, featuring inter-conference matchups between mid-major teams around the country. Butler, Gonzaga, Southern Illinois and many others were given the opportunity to showcase themselves and against comparably successful teams from other mid-major conferences.
That same year, both Butler and Southern Illinois won their Bracket Buster contests, and went on to earn at-large bids to the NCAA tournament. Butler, who made it in as a No. 12 seed, ultimately went on to the Sweet Sixteen.
Three years later, George Mason won a tough Bracket Buster matchup at Wichita State. Both team s earned at-large bids to the NCAA tournament. Wichita State went to the Sweet Sixteen. George Mason, of course, made their historical run all the way to the Final Four in Indianapolis.
It is tough to dispute that the Bracket Busters event has been very important to quality mid-major conferences and teams. This year will be its ninth, and there will be several games which will draw the eyes of the NCAA tournament selection committee.
If quality mid-major teams can be matched up against each other, and used by the tournament committee as a point of reference for at-large selection, or for seeding, why can’t the same be applied to the high-major and power conferences?
Here are five various examples to think about.
Richmond vs. Virginia Tech
Both are heading straight for the bubble come March. This game would be a great opportunity for both, considering the ACC is not as strong as previous years. Also, this particular matchup would be less travel than a normal conference game.
Marquette vs. Michigan State
A Big Ten-Big East matchup would give the winner a nice leg up on the other bubble teams in the conference. It may also provide a refreshing change of pace from their respective challenging Big Ten and Big East schedules.
Washington vs. Missouri
How much fun would this be to watch? Two teams flying up and down the court, maybe scoring close to 100 points each. It would resemble a 4-5 second round matchup. The winner could see a significant boost in seeding.
Temple vs. BYU
How about a matchup between two of the best teams from the top two non-BCS conferences? This game could also enhance tournament seeding for the winner.
UTEP vs. UNLV
Each could really use a quality non-conference win to improve their NCAA at-large hopes. UTEP in particular won’t get too many chances for a key win in Conference USA.
How could these types of matchups become a reality?
Perhaps conferences could agree to earmark one particular weekend in February where all its teams have an open date. They would then be free to schedule, either before the season or in January (like Bracket Busters) against teams from other conferences who also have open dates.
Another possibility is to have the conference challenges—the Big Ten-ACC challenge and Big 12-Pac 10 Hardwood Series—moved from late November/early December, to February. The matchups could then be determined in mid-season, based on where the teams are situated in the standings.
The trick to getting these matchups would be convincing power conference schools such games in February would be beneficial to them. They may not want to schedule these games a year or more in advance, but they may want to in December or January if they suddenly realize their teams may really need a quality win against a solid out-of-conference opponent.
Hopefully we will begin to see more schools follow the examples of St. John’s, Temple and Xavier in the near future. They’ve been willing to travel outside of their conference and challenge themselves later in the season, when the rigors of conference play are starting to take its toll.
If these teams do well in March, more teams just may follow.