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Interpretive Dance: Mid-major madness

Brad Evans
Yahoo Sports

Still recuperating from your midweek bar crawl? Are you nostril deep in term paper research? Have no fear, fellow bracketeers. The I.D. is here to highlight all the college hardwood action from the week that was and preview the most pivotal matchups of the weekend. Unlike Fogell's Hawaiian driver's license, there's nothing fake about this I.D. …

Birthed by the four-letter network and obsessively craved by bracketeers everywhere, the mid-major madness that is Bracket Buster weekend has finally arrived.

Highlighted by marquee matchups, Drake at Butler, Kent St. at St. Mary's and George Mason at Ohio, the small conference showcase gives frenzied fans a taste of March.

Well, a handful of games do.

The gargantuan volume of irrelevant contests – the excitement for UT-Martin-Elon must be utterly palpable – has dampened the now six-year old event. When it was originally conceived, only 18 teams from seven conferences participated, now that number has ballooned to an absurd 100 teams from 18 conferences. More degrading, the Sun Belt, which has two of the best mid-major teams in the nation this season, Western Kentucky and South Alabama, isn't involved. The Sun Belt felt after participating in Bracket Busters from 2003-2006 that extravagant travel costs outweighed the event's meaningfulness.

For people with an insatiable appetite for hoops, not allowing the country to see Hilltoppers magician Courtney Lee and Jaguars rainmaker Demetric Bennett in a tournament-like atmosphere is a complete travesty.

It's time for the event's coordinators to trim the fat so mid-major teams that actually have a chance to be a "Bracket Buster" come March can perform on a national stage.

Rehearse your choreographed moves one last time. Get into costume. And press "play" on your boombox. It's time for an Interpretive Dance …

Here are this week's bracket bulls and bears:
Team Conf W-L RPI SOS
Indiana Hoosiers
Big Ten 22-4 18 60
Comment: Through the Kelvin Sampson smog of controversy, Indiana has found its identity. After spanking Sparty by 19 in an emotionally charged Assembly Hall on Feb. 16, the Hoosiers notched another critical Top 50 win, upending Big Ten titans Purdue 77-68 on Feb. 19. Despite playing with a tender knee, Wooden Award candidate D.J. White patrolled the paint fiercely against the baby Boilers, totaling 19 points and 15 rebounds, his 16th double-double of the season. The Hoosiers' recent success can be broken down to two crucial factors: 1) Zone defense and 2) Free-throw conversions. For much of the season, IU had stubbornly played man-to-man, but the 2-3 zone installed by Sampson proved perplexing for the Spartans and Boilers. Meanwhile, IU has canned 40 of 45 (88.8%) from the charity stripe in its past two contests. The 30 made free throws against Purdue were IU's most since Jan. 5, 2002. With freshman phenom Eric Gordon making headier decisions, D.J. White's health no longer in doubt and key complimentary players Jordan Crawford (12 pts, 5 asts vs. MSU) and Armon Bassett (16 pts, 8 rebs, 4 threes vs. PU) stepping up at crucial times, Indiana is a team congealing at the right time. Even without Sampson on the sidelines, the Hoosiers have the focus, determination and defense to overcome adversity. Indiana has officially earned a top four seed.
Team Conf W-L RPI SOS
Oklahoma Sooners
Big 12 17-8 29 13
Comment: With their tournament aspirations at stake, the Sooners outlasted Baylor in a memorable, yet exhaustive, 45 minutes of hoops hysteria on Feb. 19. Capped by Curtis Jerrells' two missed free-throws in overtime, the one-point victory in Norman pushed the Sooners back over .500 in conference and notched them their fifth RPI top 50 win – national powerhouses Kansas, Georgetown, Wisconsin and Washington St. couldn't boast such a claim. The miraculous quick-healing powers of forward Longar Longar, who returned to the lineup Feb. 13 after missing two games with a broken bone in his right leg, has given the Sooners a vital psychological boost. Since his return, they've tallied three straight triumphs, racking an eye-catching 114 offensive rating in the process. Freshman force Blake Griffin has been an unstoppable panther in the paint, averaging 17.0 points and 13.3 boards per game during the winning streak. If Longar can remain healthy and guard Tony Crocker continues to knock down treys (50.0 3-PT% in his past three), this OU team will not only dance, they'll scare the bejesus out of a Final Four contender in the second round of the tournament. With three of its next four on the road (at Texas, at Nebraska, Texas A&M, at Oklahoma St.) OU has plenty of work left to do. But if the Sooners finish 8-8 in the Big 12, they will assuredly be at least a 10 seed in the NCAAs.
Team Conf W-L RPI SOS
Wake Forest Demon Deacons
ACC 16-8 64 91
Comment: Dino madness has invaded Winston-Salem. On Feb. 17, the Demon Deacons shocked the college hoops world by handing Duke its first loss in ACC action. Wake's 13-point thumping of the Dookies highlighted a three-game stretch in which the Deacons embarrassed opponents defensively; limiting foes to an average offensive rating of 91.6 (anything under 100 is atrocious) and 0.92 points per possession. Dino Guadio's pestering pressure defense has been relentless, which has helped Wake generate abundant turnovers (25.0 TO% – 20th nationally) and score easy buckets in transition. Standout freshman guard Jeff Teague has discovered his long-distance stroke, drilling five of eight three-point attempts in his past three. Teague, and freshman forward James Johnson, have averaged a combined 34.0 points per game during the Deacs current three-game upswing. Now with its head above water in the ACC mediocrity pool, Wake is quickly becoming a tournament-caliber team. The Deacons pivotal non-conference win versus BYU back on Jan. 8 is growing more meaningful with every Cougars victory. Given their 3-3 record versus the RPI top 50, the Deacons will be dancing if they can go 3-2 down the stretch.

Team Conf W-L RPI SOS
Duke Blue Devils
ACC 22-3 3 4
Comment: Blame the lunar eclipse, Duke fans. Or better yet, blame your team's defensive inefficiencies. For the second time in less than a week, Duke's previously masqueraded defensive flaws were visible. Similar to Wake Forest on Feb. 17, Miami was able to penetrate and slash almost uncontested to the iron. The Hurricanes netted an astonishing 57.4 percent from the field and compiled an offensive rating of 114.5, both highs allowed by Duke this season. Without a formidable post presence, the Blue Devils have had to play an up-tempo Phoenix-styled offense to combat its interior weaknesses. When dialing up from long-distance, the diminutive Devils are difficult to cage. But, when ice cold from the arc – they've converted just 35.3 percent from three in their past two – they are vulnerable. Duke certainly has the talent to advance deep into the tournament, but once it faces a superb perimeter defensive team, it will be the Devils' demise. Duke's monstrous rematch with North Carolina Mar. 8 will decide whether or not it deserves a No.1 seed.
Team Conf W-L RPI SOS
Drake Bulldogs
Missouri Valley 23-3 15 87
Comment: On the left side of the ledger in several tight games earlier this season, the Bulldogs recently found themselves in familiar territory in back-to-back clashes with Lincoln Land foes Southern Illinois and Bradley. However, there was nothing ordinary about the end results. Losing by a combined four points in those two contests, the bite of the Bulldogs doesn't appear so fearsome anymore. Offensively, Drake is a juggernaut. Led by efficient playmakers Josh Young, Jonathan Cox and Adam Emmenecker, Keno Davis' club ranks eighth nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, and 12th in free throw percentage. As excellent as they are offensively, they're as awful defensively. In six of their 14 Valley games, opponents have racked an offensive rating of 109.0-plus against the Bulldogs. Overall, Drake's adjusted defensive efficiency mark ranks 86th in the country. With the Valley down this season, Drake has yet to notch an RPI top 50 win. But, that could change this weekend when it tussles with Butler to resolve, once and for all, which collegiate Bulldog is more ferocious. If they emerge the victors, a top five seed is a foregone conclusion. However, if they lose, a six or possibly a seven seed is in their tournament future.
Team Conf W-L RPI SOS
St. Joseph Hawks
Atlantic 10 16-8 54 93
Comment: The Hawks' tournament wings are no longer flapping. Although still sporting a healthy 7-4 record in the RPI's seventh-strongest conference, St. Joe's dancing aspirations are in peril. After dropping two key road games at Duquesne and at Xavier earlier this month, the Hawks suffered a resume-crushing one-point defeat to La Salle (RPI 185) on Feb. 18. Phil Martelli's club is a frenetic offensive club, ranked 16th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency. Defensive headaches Pat Calathes, Rob Ferguson and Ahmad Nivins have lit up scoreboards, but, defensively, they've left a lot to be desired. St. Joe's inexcusable 185th ranked defensive efficiency rating and 287th ranked 3-PT field-goal percentage defense are the paramount reasons why its fighting for its tournament life. In the Hawks' three recent losses, they've allowed opponents to average an abhorrent 130.9 offensive rating. Despite their downswing, they're still firmly planted on the bubble and with wins at Rhode Island (Feb. 24), Xavier (Mar. 6) and at Dayton (Mar. 8) they'll leap back into the bracket picture.

Named after a Clash classic, this segment sifts through the bountiful weekend slate to highlight seven titanic games that will bear the greatest impact on a team's "Bracket Big Board" seeding.

1. Tennessee (24-2) at Memphis (26-0)
Graceland will be rocking on Saturday night. The highly-anticipated FedEx fracas will be decided by the performance of the Tigers' 3-Ds – Douglas-Roberts, Dozier and Dorsey. Tennessee has played porously on the interior, ranking 268th nationally in two-point field-goal percentage defense. If the 3-Ds have their way inside the arc and the Vols have trouble creating transition points off turnovers, Memphis will continue its campaign to become the first team since UNLV in 1991-1992 to go unblemished into the NCAA tournament.
Prediction: Memphis 86 Tennessee 81

Mid-Major Maverick
Josh Young
Sophomore, SG
Drake Bulldogs

Skinny: Just call Young the "Lawmaker." That is, in the court of hoops. Along with paint-pounder Jonathan Cox, the svelte 6-foot-1, 170-pound guard from Lawton, Oklahoma has fostered a roundball frenzy that hasn't enveloped Des Moines in 37 years. Growing up, Young idolized Michael Jordan and, based on his state-leading 35.2 points per game his high school senior year, he also played like Mike. The sophomore guard's prolific productivity has translated well to Division I. Seven times Young has eclipsed 20 points in a game this year. His pronounced court confidence and unbounded range have made the Young gun one of the nation's best long-distance threats. Young ranks fifth nationally in three-point field-goal percentage, swishing an incredible 46.9 percent of his attempts. Equally as impressive, he's splashed four threes or more in a game eight times this season. Similar in style and substance as Texas' A.J. Abrams, the two-time Valley Player of the Week is a super efficient shooter (121.8 offensive rating) who is one of the main reasons why the Bulldogs will wear dancing shoes for the first time since 1971.

2. Xavier (22-4) at Dayton (17-8)
The Flyers are on the verge of becoming the fourth team this century (also, Air Force in '07, Missouri St. and Hofstra in '06) to finish in the RPI top 35 and not qualify for the tournament. After suffering a catastrophic overtime loss to La Salle on Thursday, Dayton desperately needs to swashbuckle the Musketeers to build its NCAA resume. Without athletic forward Chris Wright, who likely won't return until sometime next week, Flyers guard Brian Roberts continues to pile up the points fighting through double-teams. In his past four games, the two-time A-10 Player of the Week has averaged 23.8 points and 4.3 made threes per game. Xavier dominated the glass against UD, out-rebounding it 38-22 in a 26-point victory on Jan. 24. Again, the Musketeers interior brawn will be too overwhelming for the Flyers.
Prediction: Xavier 69 Dayton 64

3. Kansas St. (18-6) at Baylor (17-8)
Away from the friendly confines of Bramlage Coliseum, Michael Beasley and company have been exploitable. The Wildcats have dropped three straight on the road (at Missouri, Texas Tech and Nebraska) to significantly less talented competition. In those pitfalls, K-State opponents have compiled an average offensive rating of 112.7. Baylor's lack of a premiere post player – it ranks 113th in defensive rebound percentage – has plagued it all season and will again be a troublesome concern facing Beasley. If K-State, which ranks eighth nationally in defensive efficiency, can cage Baylor guards Curtis Jerrells and LaceDarius Dunn on the perimeter, its three-game road slide will end. As for Baylor, its NCAA dreams hinge upon this game.
Prediction: Baylor 80 Kansas State 78

4. Drake (23-3) at Butler (24-2)
Bracket Buster's marquee matchup will be a hotly contested battle between the Midwest's fiercest Bulldogs. Historically, Butler has not performed well in Bracket Busters competition, posting a 1-3 record. If Brad Stevens' club has desires of cementing a top four seed, it must contain Drake's plethora of outside gunners. Butler ranks a lowly 92nd nationally in three-point field-goal percentage defense. Meanwhile, Drake's post weaknesses defensively (199th in 2-pt FG% defense) will be challenged by floppy-haired freshman Matt Howard. Execution from the perimeter will be the deciding factor between these two half-court oriented teams.
Prediction: Butler 63 Drake 62

5. Wisconsin (21-4) at Ohio St. (17-9)
Brutus' exterior shell is starting to crack. The Buckeyes' horrific road loss to Big Ten bottom-feeder Michigan on Feb 17 has temporarily dashed their tournament hopes. With a 1-7 record versus the RPI top 50 and all eight of its conference victories against teams ranked in the bottom half of the league, Ohio State desperately needs to pull the upset. The key for OSU is the arc play of senior guard Jamar Butler. In games in which Butler has splashed three or more treys, the Buckeyes are 12-2. If Ohio State can shackle Wisky's host of interior bruisers and snap out of its recent 13-for-60 three-point funk, it'll notch a much needed victory.
Prediction: Wisconsin 61 Ohio State 58

6. Kent St. (22-5) at St. Mary's (21-6)
Kent St. postmen Haminn Quaintance and Mike Scott better bring a hardhat and a lunch pail for their cross-country journey. Sizable Gaels – Omar Samhan (6-11), Diamon Simpson (6-7), Ian O' Leary (6-7), Yusef Smith (6-8) and Lucas Walker (6-8) – will pose problems for a Golden Flashes team that possesses minimal frontcourt depth and ranks 278th nationally in defensive rebound percentage. The battle between guards Patty Mills and Al Fisher will be engrossing, but the paint power of St. Mary's will be the difference in this Bracket Buster showdown.
Prediction: St. Mary's 74 Kent St. 68

7. Arkansas (17-7) at Kentucky (14-10)
As its fight song boasts, if Kentucky is "right for the fight today" it better be prepared for a war of attrition. The Razorbacks' Patrick Beverly, Sonny Weems and Gary Ervin are defensive wizards on the perimeter. On the season, opponents have registered just 30.5 percent from three against them. With an 8-3 mark in the SEC and an RPI of 72, Kentucky is clinging to its at-large hopes. If Patrick Patterson can outwork shot swatter Darian Townes inside, the Wildcats will be one step closer to pulling off the unthinkable.
Prediction: Kentucky 65 Arkansas 63

Other Notable Games: Connecticut (21-5) at Villanova (16-9), Maryland (17-9) at Miami (Fla.) (18-7), Oklahoma (18-8) at Texas (22-4), Oregon (15-11) at UCLA (23-3), Arizona (16-10) at Washington St. (21-5), Louisville (21-6) at Pittsburgh (19-7), Syracuse (17-10) at Notre Dame (20-5), St. Joe's (16-8) at Rhode Island (20-7), Wake Forest (16-8) at North Carolina (24-2), Wagner (20-6) at Robert Morris (22-6)

Last week's results: 7-0
YTD: 28-7 (80%)

Off-the-cuff thoughts, observations and blather from the "Big Noise."

Written off by hardwood pundits weeks ago, Southern Illinois is quietly creeping back into tournament contention. The Salukis won't be considered for an at-large birth, but they might be the hottest and most dangerous team to enter the Missouri Valley Conference tournament. Remember, this was a team pegged by most publications to not only win its conference, but also remain a fixture on the national rankings scene. SIU has been abysmal offensively for much of the season, but with a respectable offensive rating of 112.7 in its past four victories, its basket-scoring misfortune has reversed. Because Chris Lowery's kids play tenacious man-to-man defense, SIU will have excellent odds of upending Drake in Arch Madness. Bubble teams Dayton, Oregon, Arizona St. and Miami (Fla.) better hope that doesn't happen.

Rider's Jason Thompson could be the first first-round NBA draft pick to emerge from the tiny Metro conference since Randy Woods of La Salle in 1991. Standing at 6-foot-11, 250-pounds, the monster of the MAAC has totaled a remarkable 17 double-doubles – three of those 20-20 games – this season, four behind pace-setter Michael Beasley. Even more eye-popping, he completely outplayed Beasley when Rider clashed with K-State on Nov. 25, totaling 24 points, seven rebounds and four blocks. The tamed "Beast" collected 10 boards and scored 13 points in that game, his second-lowest output of the season.

Attention obsessed "Anchorman" fans: Ron Burgandy apparently has Spartan roots. For those unaware, the glib broadcaster interviewed Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo in East Lansing two weeks ago. Burgandy's probing questions finally resolved the age-old question: Is Izzo the Gimli of college basketball coaches?

The sissy verbal sparring between Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski should only be decided one "dadgum" way: Jell-O wrestling. Fill a kiddy pool with Berry Blue Jell-O cubes. Hire Will Ferrell to officiate. And let the two of them "Duke" it out at center court of Cameron Indoor in full coat-and-tie on Mar. 8. There's no better way to settle a wimpy dispute than writhing around in processed collagen.

For the dozens of Butler fans that have filled my inbox with vitriolic messages lambasting the Noise for "unfairly" ranking your beloved Bulldogs as a five seed, I'll be in attendance at Hinkle for the Butler/Drake brawl on Saturday. If you see me, feel free to openly ridicule my receding hairline and numerous disturbing man-crushes.

Each week, per your emails, the Noise compares two closely matched resumes in an attempt to get inside the mind of Selection Committee chairman Thomas J. O'Connor. All statistical information is courtesy of Margin of victory/defeat is noted in parentheses. BBR stands for last week's "Bracket Big Board" rank.

W-L 17-8 20-7
RPI 33 57
SOS 31 114
Top 50 3-3 1-5
Key Ws at Louisville (5)
Pittsburgh (25)
Rhode Island (9)
Vanderbilt (22)
Ugly Ls at Richmond (17)
at G. Washington (3)
Duquesne (2)
at La Salle (3)
Florida St. (14)
at Arkansas (19)
LSU (12)
BBR NR 41 (11 seed)
No way a team like Florida deserves an at-large bid over Dayton. Check out Dayton's RPI and SOS. I know UD has struggled of late, but its been without its most athletic player for about a month. The Gators' non-conference schedule was a joke. If UD can finish strong, they should get in. – Troy, Springfield, OH

Noise: The reason why Florida gets into the tournament: the committee is intoxicated by the ravishing beauty of Gator grad and four-letter network personality Erin Andrews. Who isn't?

All jokes aside, if the committee is faced with the challenge of selecting Dayton or Florida as the last at-large team, it will be a complex dilemma to resolve. Ultimately, what the bracket war room will have to decide is whether conference record (Florida: 7-5, Dayton: 5-7) and recent tournament history trumps strength of schedule and RPI. Despite having a substantially weaker non-conference RPI (108) and SOS (298), my inner O'Connor tells me the committee will lean toward the conference/history side of the ledger and select Florida.

Yes, historically, the committee has taken crippling injuries into account when reviewing resumes. Since Flyers forward Chris Wright went out with a fractured ankle in late December, Dayton has posted a disappointing 6-7 record. The devastating setback to Wright has vexed the Flyers and will be taken into consideration. However, because they're two games below .500 in A-10 action, and because the league ranks two spots behind the SEC in conference RPI, Dayton doesn't make the cut. Also, keep in mind that since 1999, no A-10 team with less than 10 league wins has earned an at-large nomination.

Ultimately, if UD wants to convince the committee its tournament worthy, it will have to go undefeated over the rest of the regular season (Xavier, at Fordham, at St. Bonnie's, St. Joe's) and perform decently in the A-10 tournament.