If you watch a lot of college basketball then you've heard of Bobby Gonzalez, the white-hot coach who has Manhattan in the midst of its third consecutive 20-win season. Dick Vitale only plugs him for the St. John's job about once a half.
You also know Kent State, at least the name. You remember the Elite Eight run in 2002 and you've seen the gaudy record this season – 19-3, 13-1 in the underrated Mid-American Conference.
Saturday, you get to see what the hype is all about with both. Not to mention Southern Illinois and Tulsa and Western Michigan and a host of others.
It is time for one of my favorite recent sports inventions: Bracket Buster Saturday. It's the day that the very best mid-major programs and out-of-the-way players get a bit of national spotlight courtesy of a slate of games on ESPN.
In a sport with 327 Division I teams, there is no way anyone can stay on top of everything. Saturday is like a Cliff's Notes of the season, a cheat sheet on the schools that are going to wreck havoc on office pools in March and take over big programs in April.
"Everybody's searching for Cinderellas," said Gonzalez, whose team visits UW-Milwaukee.
But it is more than that, too. There are all sorts of side dramas. First and foremost is the chance for excellent mid-major teams to make the statement that they should receive, if necessary, an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.
This brings into focus the annual battle between major and mid-major conferences over the NCAA selection process (the latter always claiming they are unfairly snubbed) while providing a rare soapbox for David to ridicule Goliath.
"People are saying we have to win the MAC Tournament to get in," said Kent State coach Jim Christian, whose team hosts Creighton. "If we win out we'd be 24-3. And we still have to win the MAC tournament? That's crazy.
"All I ask is people look at what a conference does when it gets into the NCAA tournament," Christian said. "The MAC has won seven of its last nine first-round games and we've never been seeded higher than ninth. But we still can't get a second bid to the NCAAs."
The MAC hasn't received multiple bids since 1999.
"Then I hear about all the major conferences' teams that should get in with a 6-10 conference record," Christian said. "If you play 16 league games and finish four games below .500 you don't deserve to get in. Half your games are at home. That is not what college basketball is about."
See, great stuff. Saturday you can, with your own eyes, determine if Kent State is better than, say, Maryland. And the Flashes just might be.
Then, of course, there is the opportunity for disgruntled alumni of losing teams to hunt for a new coach. The Bracket Buster has become the ultimate job fair for the upwardly mobile.
Whether it is Gonzalez in the East, Christian and UWM's Bruce Pearl in the Midwest or College of Charleston's Tom Herrion in the South, there are future coaching stars everywhere.
"I'd rather the focus is on our players," Gonzalez said of all the attention he is receiving. "But hey, it's a fickle business so I'd rather be talked about for being a hot coach than the alternative."
Gonzalez is correct. This is still about the players. Getting on national television is blasé at this point of the year for the kids at Duke, Michigan State and Arizona, but not for these players.
Take Manhattan. Five years ago Gonzalez inherited a bottomed-out program coming off a 5-22 season. He is now aiming for a second consecutive NCAA appearance. But when his current seniors signed on to rebuild the place, a game on national TV was a pipe dream.
"For our seniors, Luis Flores, Jason Benton and David Holmes, to get national exposure which we don't get but maybe once a year is unbelievable. I told them, we are the only Eastern team selected for this because of everything we accomplished the last few years. This is the reward."
"This, this is like playing with house money," Gonzalez continued. "There is no pressure for us. Let's just roll out and have some fun."
Imagine that, fun in February, usually crunch time for college basketball. Little guys trying to back up big statements. The coaching stars of tomorrow, the heroes of March, all playing today.
Or if you only like "high-major basketball" you can always watch the Penn State game. I think Florida is on again, too.
- Bobby Gonzalez
- college basketball