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Monday, January 31, 2011
Katz's top-5 games for BracketBusters

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com



Gonzaga has long since graduated from BracketBusters and Butler wanted out this season so it could lure higher-profile games.

But with both teams performing below expectations, you could make the argument that each school could have used another pop to its power rating by playing in this event -- maybe even from playing against each other.

Oakland isn’t in the field because the Summit League chose Oral Roberts instead for its one representative. Belmont isn’t in the event because the Atlantic Sun didn’t participate. That’s a shame. I would’ve liked to have seen both on national TV.

The individual matchup I wanted to see -- Hofstra’s Charles Jenkins against Charleston’s Andrew Goudelock -- didn’t occur. Not having Maine in the televised portion (Vermont got the nod, while Maine will play at Siena) was also a miss in my opinion. But those are minor quibbles. There is still plenty to watch during the Feb. 18-20 weekend.

Here are the five games I’m most looking forward to:

1. Utah State at Saint Mary’s, Feb. 19, 9 p.m. ET (ESPN2): The Aggies and Gaels will end up playing each other for four-straight seasons. They played the past two seasons in the home-and-home BracketBusters that was set up two seasons ago. Now they’re locked for this season and next. This is by far the headline game of the event. Both teams have a strong chance to earn at-large berths, even if they don’t win the respective conference tournaments. Utah State challenged itself with games against BYU and Georgetown, although it did lose both. Picking up a quality road win at Saint Mary’s would certainly help its case, especially since there are no more opportunities for quality wins in the WAC. SMC has challenged itself in the nonconference, but it could also use a top-50 RPI win to help its cause. This will be a quality shooter’s game and a good watch.

2. VCU at Wichita State, Feb. 18, 7 p.m. ET (ESPN2): The Rams had the look of a tournament team in November when they pushed Tennessee to the end and beat UCLA in the NIT Season Tip-Off at Madison Square Garden. VCU is now atop the CAA at 10-1, but the Rams could still use a quality road win and possibly follow the same path as George Mason did in 2006. Mason won at Wichita State in BracketBusters that season to help propel it to an at-large berth. Meanwhile, WSU is nestled in a tie atop the Missouri Valley and could use another quality win after missing out on key nonconference games in the Maui Invitational and against San Diego State. Expect both teams to run in this fun matchup and what will undoubtedly be a rocking Koch Arena.

3. George Mason at Northern Iowa, Feb. 19, 7 p.m. ET (ESPN2): GMU assistant coach Chris Caputo called me out for not having Mason in my original televised game list. Since then, the Patriots have come on strong and look like a real challenger for the CAA title. They also have a top-35 RPI. Northern Iowa has also been on a tear of late, winning seven in a row (including at Missouri State) to make it clear the Panthers are not going away in the Valley race. This matches two Cinderella teams from the past few tournaments with the Panthers having beaten top-ranked Kansas in the second round during the previous season and Mason reaching the 2006 Final Four. This game should be a headline affair because both teams have created solid name recognition lately.

4. Cleveland State at Old Dominion, Feb. 20, 1 p.m. ET (ESPN or ESPN2): The Vikings got off to a hot start by winning 12 in a row before losing at West Virginia. Cleveland State also lost at Butler and at Valparaiso, but the Vikings are in position to compete for the Horizon League title. Like ODU, Cleveland State is a defensive-minded club. Old Dominion played a strong nonconference slate, beating Clemson and going 3-0 against the A-10 (Xavier, Richmond, Dayton), while falling just short against Georgetown and getting blown out at Missouri. Both are in contention for at-large berths, but each could use another power-rating boost.

5. Missouri State at Valparaiso, Feb. 19, 5 p.m. ET (ESPN2): Neither Missouri State (MVC) nor Valpo (Horizon) were expected to win their respective leagues, yet both sit in first place as of the BracketBusters announcement. This should be a grinder of a game with the winner gaining more confidence for the stretch run of its conference race. The Crusaders have proven to be a tough out at home (Butler found that out this weekend), but Missouri State has won plenty of key road games in the Valley this season, including at Wichita State, at Northern Iowa and at Creighton. This might end up being one of the closest games of any on the weekend slate.

Other TV games (all times ET):

Friday, Feb. 18
9 p.m. - Kent State at Drexel (ESPNU)

Saturday, Feb. 19
11 a.m. -- Hofstra at Wright State (ESPNU)
1 p.m. -- Austin Peay at Fairfield (ESPNU)
3 p.m. –- Iona at Liberty (ESPNU)
5 p.m. –- Vermont at Charleston (ESPNU)
11 p.m. –- Montana at Long Beach State (ESPN2/ESPN3.com)

For a complete list of the non-televised games, click here.