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The Dagger: College Basketball Blog

Ranking the seven best BracketBusters matchups

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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Sophomore Mason Henry performs with the Murray State band (AP)

If surging Saint Mary's can stay on its roll and unbeaten Murray State can avoid suffering its first loss, BracketBusters weekend will feature one of the most appealing matchups of the season.

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Rob Jones (AP)

The 18th-ranked Gaels and 10th-ranked Racers will meet Feb. 18 in a game that should pose the biggest test of the season for a Murray State team that has previously notched solid wins over Memphis, Dayton and Southern Mississippi.

None of the other matchups announced Monday evening will move the needle like Saint Mary's-Murray State, but there will be a handful of other BracketBusters games that are worth watching. Here's a look at the top seven games, why they matter and the ramifications of a win or a loss for the teams that are involved.

1. Saint Mary's (21-2) at Murray State (21-0), Feb. 18: Murray State's bid to go unbeaten is the marquee storyline of Bracketbusters weekend, so organizers found the most challenging opponent possible to face the Racers. No. 18 Saint Mary's has won 11 straight and boasts home wins over Gonzaga and Northern Iowa and a home-road sweep of BYU. Both teams are likely to make the NCAA tournament barring late collapses, but the stakes are especially high for the Racers. Win and they survive their biggest obstacle for an undefeated season. Lose and their NCAA tournament seed could drop from the 5-6 range to 7 or 8.

2. Long Beach State (16-6) at Creighton (20-2), Feb. 18: Considering Long Beach State likely needs one more marquee victory to truly have a realistic shot at an at-large bid, the 49ers could not have asked for a better matchup than this. They'll travel to Omaha to face a Creighton team that leads the Missouri Valley, has a top 20 RPI and features national player of the year candidate Doug McDermott. Beating the Bluejays on the road will not be easy, but it's safe to say Long Beach State will not be intimidated by the environment. They played the nation's most difficult non-league schedule this season, beating Pittsburgh and Xavier and falling to the likes of Louisville,  North Carolina, Kansas and San Diego State.

3. Nevada (18-3) at Iona (17-5), Feb. 18: It's a shame Iona didn't draw Wichita State here because the Gaels desperately need another RPI-boosting victory to improve a resume largely devoid of marquee wins. Instead Iona drew Nevada, a team that has won 15 straight but also needs another quality non-league victory to go with a home win over Washington. The result is a high-octane matchup that will be fun to watch but may not do either side any good. The loser almost certainly will have to win its conference tournament to make the NCAA tournament and the winner still won't be able to feel secure about its at-large chances. At least the point guard matchup between Iona's Scott Machado and Nevada's Deonte Burton will be fun.

4. Wichita State (18-4) at Davidson (15-5), Feb. 18: The team with the most to complain about after the pairings were released is Wichita State, which could have easily been sent to Murray State had organizers opted to send Saint Mary's to Creighton. Instead the Shockers will travel to face Southern Conference-leading Davidson in a game that will hurt them far more if they lose than it helps them if they win. Wichita State's 9-2 conference record and non-league win over UNLV has it safely in the field of 68 as of today, but its seeding would take a hit with a road loss to Davidson. Conversely, even pairing its huge win over Kansas with one over Wichita State probably won't be enough to vault Davidson (No. 69 RPI) into at-large contention.

5. Drexel (17-5) at Cleveland State (18-4), Feb. 18: Drexel's slightly superior RPI (No. 88) vaulted it ahead of first-place George Mason (No. 103) for the Colonial Athletic Association's most attractive Bracketbusters game. The Dragons' reward is a trip to Cleveland State to face a Vikings team with faint at-large hopes thanks to its season-opening road win at Vanderbilt and its Horizon League-leading 8-2 conference record. Both Drexel and Cleveland State give up less than 60 points per game and less than 0.91 points per possession, so this doesn't figure to be as aesthetically pleasing as, say, Iona-Nevada. Still, it's a must-win for the Vikings if they don't want to have to win the Horizon League tournament.

6. Akron (14-7) at Oral Roberts (20-4), Feb. 18: Oral Roberts has torn through the Summit League, but the Golden Eagles needed a resume-boosting matchup against a Long Beach State or Wichita State to enhance its at-large resume. Instead they drew an Akron team that leads the MAC West but won't do much to help Oral Roberts catch the selection committee's attention.

7. Northern Iowa (14-9) at VCU (18-5), Feb. 17: Despite losing the core of last year's Final Four team and getting erratic shooting from top returner Bradford Burgess, VCU still sits just a game behind first-place George Mason in the CAA race. This matchup with slumping Northern Iowa provides a chance to show that the Rams have what it takes to make a run at the league title in both the regular season and conference tournament.

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