- Myron Medcalf, ESPN Staff Writer
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The 11th and final BracketBusters event began Friday night and continues over the weekend all around the country. Here's my take (along with some predictions) on what I think are the seven best matchups:
Iona at Indiana State, 11 a.m. ET, ESPNU: Remember when Indiana State was the sexy bubble team? That's no longer the case. ISU has lost three in a row and four of its last six. The Sycamores are in a can't-lose situation in this matchup with Iona. They have wins over Miami, Ole Miss and Wichita State, which helps. But they also have losses to the four teams in the bottom of the conference (Bradley, Drake, Missouri State and Southern Illinois). Figure that one out. Iona boasts one of the nation's most potent offenses (19th in adjusted offensive efficiency) but has lost five of six. Few teams have caught as many bad breaks as Iona. Three of those losses were sealed after regulation (one in overtime, two in double-overtime). The other two defeats were by three points or fewer. Iona is one or two stops away from being the MAAC's best team.
Prediction: Iona 76, Indiana State 74
Montana at Davidson, 3 p.m. ET, ESPNU: Montana had won 14 consecutive games prior to a 24-point loss at Weber State on Valentine’s Day. Turnovers (14) were an issue in that game, and they’ve been a problem for the program all year (turnovers on 19.1 percent of their possessions, 117th in the nation per KenPom). In the Southern Conference, Davidson has held opponents to 58.5 PPG. The Wildcats took some blows in the nonconference slate, but they’ve won 11 in a row, and Jake Cohen (14.6 PPG) and De'Mon Brooks (13.1 PPG) comprise one of the most talented duos in the mid-major ranks. Both squads will be equipped to seal a tight game at the charity stripe. Montana (76.3 percent) and Davidson (81.3 percent, first in the nation) are top-10 nationally from the free throw line.
Prediction: Davidson 73, Montana 69
Detroit at Wichita State, 4 p.m. ET, ESPN2: The Titans have soared toward the top of the Horizon League with an offense that's averaging 79 PPG, sixth in the nation. They're 20th in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted offensive efficiency rankings, as Ray McCallum Jr. (18.7 PPG) leads a unit that possesses high-major athleticism at every position. But they'll have to decipher a Shockers squad that's found its groove again after a rocky three-game losing stretch that threatened its position in the Missouri Valley Conference. Gregg Marshall's team is back on top of the league with a feisty defense that's allowed only 59.7 PPG in MVC play (second in the conference). Six-foot-8 forward Cleanthony Early is a matchup dilemma due to his versatility (6-for-12 from the 3-point line in his last two games) and fellow 6-8 forward Carl Hall uses his brawn inside to make an impact. This is a matchup between a fluid offense and a stingy defense. Something has to give.
Prediction: Detroit 73, Wichita State 71
Creighton at Saint Mary’s, 6 p.m. ET, ESPN: Doug McDermott (22.5 PPG) is still one of the best players in the country, but the buzz surrounding the preseason All-American is not as high as it was even a month ago due to the Bluejays' recent struggles. They're still 47th in the RPI and they have top-100 RPI wins over Wisconsin, Arizona State, Indiana State and Cal. They're in a much safer spot than a Saint Mary's team that's banking on RPI alone (51) after failing to earn any meaningful nonconference wins. The Gaels will face BYU before this matchup against the Bluejays, but a win over the Cougars wouldn't carry the same weight as a victory over Creighton. McDermott and Saint Mary's guard Matthew Dellavedova are two of the most exciting players in the country, and this game means plenty to both squads. You don't want to miss it.
Prediction: Creighton 75, Saint Mary’s 70
South Dakota State at Murray State, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN2: South Dakota State struggled in its first three Summit League games. The team lost two of those matchups after a brutal nonconference travel stretch that seemed to tire the Jackrabbits. But they’ve won 10 of their last 12 games. Still, much like Murray State, their only ticket to the Big Dance is through the conference tournament. Can the Jackrabbits get there, however, through Nate Wolters (22.8 PPG) and the powerful offense he pilots (32nd in adjusted offensive efficiency)? Or will their defense cost them down the stretch (213th in adjusted defensive efficiency)? Murray State has been up and down all season. The Racers beat Belmont, one of the best mid-majors in the country. But they’ve lost two of their last three games. Isaiah Canaan (20.6 PPG) is a very talented player but he needs help (the Racers are shooting 31.4 percent on 3s, 11th in the conference). It’s tough to predict this matchup because both squads have been so unpredictable. But South Dakota State has overcome better teams on the road (namely New Mexico).
Prediction: SDSU 80, Murray State 74
Ohio at Belmont, 10 p.m. ET, ESPN2: For a time this season, Belmont was certainly one of the best mid-major teams in the country. But a 2-2 record during a four-game road stretch has humbled the Bruins. They're the OVC's top scoring offense and defense, but they're committing turnovers on 19.9 percent of their possessions, 157th in the country per Ken Pomeroy. They'll face a team that can keep up with them on offense (Ohio averages a MAC-best 74.4 PPG). Belmont is likely still a bubble team with that high RPI (30), but the Bruins certainly haven't played like an NCAA tourney team in recent weeks. Both teams probably need conference tournament titles to guarantee slots. Yet they're also aware of the value of late-season momentum as they prepare for those league tourneys. A victory in this game would help achieve that. This contest also features a must-see guard matchup: Belmont's Ian Clark (18.9 PPG) versus Ohio's D.J. Cooper (13.6 PPG, 7.7 APG, 2.1 SPG). That alone is worth staying up late for.
Prediction: Ohio 79, Belmont 69
Akron possesses the nation's top winning streak at 17 in a row. That run has placed the Zips on the soft NCAA tournament bubble. Zeke Marshall, who is fifth in the nation with 3.48 blocks per game, leads a group that's ranked 50th in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy. North Dakota State was rising in the Summit League before Taylor Braun, their leading scorer at 15.2 PPG, suffered a foot injury last month. The Bison have lost four of their last eight games and are third in the league. The good news is that Braun will probably return soon. The bad news is that he'll probably miss the trip to Akron.
Prediction: Akron 76, NDSU 65