BracketBusters: Does It Hurt More Participating Teams Than It Helps?

In case you’ve been too caught up in the Super Bowl hype machine this week, the BracketBusters matchups for this season were announced on Monday.  This marks the 10th year of the event, which now features a ridiculous 142 teams.

The Pros and Cons of BracketBusters

The biggest game in this year’s lineup pits undefeated Murray State against a solid Saint Mary’s squad, while the undercard features matchups like Long Beach State-Creighton, Nevada-Iona, and Wichita State-Davidson, all of which I previewed earlier this week.

As a college basketball fan, I fully support giving some of these teams their share of the national spotlight.  It’s a great chance for people to see a slew of really talented teams they might not otherwise pay attention to, and it also gives them the opportunity to see players like Doug McDermott, Matthew Dellavedova, Isaiah Canaan, and Casper Ware.


Creighton's Doug McDermott

However, the reality is that there is typically very little upside for the teams participating in the event when you consider the fact that a loss will come back to haunt them during conversations about at-large bids.

Proponents of the event would be quick to point out that George Mason’s selection to the 2006 NCAA Tournament was aided by a BracketBusters win at Wichita State.  That’s certainly a fair point, but the argument can still be made that it has harmed more teams than it has helped.

I looked back at the last three years of the event and took the five best matchups for each season.  Here’s a rundown of the results and the ultimate post-season fate of each team:

2011 BracketBusters

Utah State 75, Saint Mary’s 65

The Aggies finished the regular season 30-3 after winning the WAC Tournament, but despite this win, a gaudy record, and the 15th-ranked RPI, they received just a 12 seed.  Saint Mary’s went on to lose to Gonzaga twice in their final five games and finished 25-8, which landed them a spot in the NIT.  Interestingly, they ranked slightly higher in the RPI than VCU, who received an at-large bid.

VCU 68, Wichita State 67

After winning this game, the Rams lost their next two contests.  They also lost in the CAA Tournament Final but wound up with an 11 seed in a play-in game.  The rest is history, and you could potentially argue this helped VCU get into the tournament since it gave them a quality road win.  The Shockers, who were 22-5 heading into the BracketBusters, finished 14-4 in the MVC and lost in the conference tournament semis.  However, they were left out of the Big Dance and wound up winning the NIT.

George Mason 77, Northern Iowa 71

The Patriots came into this game at 23-5 and finished 16-2 in the CAA before losing to VCU in the conference semis.  They earned an eight seed, which would indicate they were comfortably in the tournament regardless of the outcome here.  The Panthers were already reeling after having lost Lucas O’Rear to injury, and they went on to lose three straight following this defeat before landing in the CBI.

Old Dominion 74, Cleveland State 63

ODU wound up winning the CAA Tournament and received the automatic bid, eventually losing to Butler as a nine seed in the first round.  The Monarchs finished the regular season at 27-6 (14-4 in league play), and again their seed (and 20th-ranked RPI) would indicate they were safely in the field.  The Vikings lost two of their final five regular season games, including a third loss to Butler in the Horizon semis.  They accepted a bid to the NIT, where they lost in the second round.

Valparaiso 80, Missouri State 67

This was a fairly surprising result as Valpo was just 19-8 entering the game.  The Crusaders lost their next two games and would up in the CIT. Missouri State was 21-6 heading into the game and finished alone atop the MVC at 15-3.  But after falling to Indiana State in the tournament final, they were left to play in the NIT.  Presumably this loss pushed them over the edge, because their RPI was better than both Saint Mary’s and VCU.

2010 BracketBusters

Northern Iowa 71, Old Dominion 62

The Panthers went on to finish 28-4 overall and 15-3 in the MVC.  A conference tournament championship solidified their strong profile, and they ended up a nine seed, eventually knocking off Kansas thanks to the heroics of Ali Farokhmanesh.  Again, they would have gone dancing anyway with their gaudy record and 12th-ranked RPI.  The Monarchs also won their conference tournament and finished 15-3 in the CAA.  They were an 11 seed in the Big Dance, but this game only served to hurt their seed in the long run.  ODU finished 27th in the RPI.

Butler 70, Siena 53

The Bulldogs were 24-4 coming into this game, and rolled through the remainder of their schedule on their way to a five seed and their first Final Four appearance.  Siena won the MAAC regular season with a 17-1 record and also won the conference tournament, finishing 27-6 in the regular season with the 31st-ranked RPI.  That earned them a 13 seed in the Big Dance.

Utah State 68, Wichita State 58

The Aggies were 21-6 heading into this game and wound up going 14-2 in the WAC.  They won 17 straight before losing in the conference tournament final, but that was enough to earn them a 12 seed as an at-large. Wichita State came in 22-6 but lost two of their final five games, including the MVC Championship against Northern Iowa.  They ended up in the NIT.

Iona 69, William & Mary 53

The fact that this was one of the better games doesn’t really speak well to the overall quality of the event a couple years ago.  However, the Gaels were 19-8 heading into this matchup, but they wound up not playing in the post-season after losing in the first round of the MAAC Tournament.  The Tribe was 19-7 coming in but went on to lose two more games, one of which was in the CAA Championship.  They wound up 22-10 in the regular season and faced North Carolina in the NIT.

Louisiana Tech 70, Northeastern 67

After winning this game, the Bulldogs were 21-6, but they collapsed down the stretch, losing four of their final six games and landing in the CIT.  Northeastern also went south after the game and lost two of their last four.  They lost to UConn in the first round of the NIT.  Yes, Carolina and UConn were both in the NIT that year.

2009 BracketBusters

Butler 75, Davidson 63

Butler was 22-4 heading into this game despite having lost two in a row.  They finished 15-3 in the Horizon League and lost to Cleveland State in the tournament final, but they ended up 24th in RPI.  The Bulldogs still received an at-large bid as a nine seed, so I don’t think this game was the difference between that seed and not making it at all.  Even Stephen Curry wasn’t enough for Davidson in this one, but they still finished 18-2 in the SoCon and lost in the conference semis.  Still, they were left out of the NCAA Tournament and settled for the NIT.

Saint Mary’s 75, Utah State 64

This was a huge game for the Gaels, who had struggled after losing Patty Mills to an injury.  They wound up getting blown out by Gonzaga in the WCC Final even though Mills returned but was visibly rusty.  The Gaels finished 26-6 with the 45th-ranked RPI but were snubbed from the tournament and made it to the NIT Quarterfinals.  Utah State was ranked 23rd heading into the game and finished 30-4 after winning the WAC title.  Their season ended as an 11 seed when they lost by a point to Marquette.

Siena 81, Northern Iowa 75

The Saints were 22-6 following this victory and finished an impressive 16-2 in the MAAC.  They also won the conference tournament and eventually knocked off Ohio State in double overtime in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.  UNI responded well to the loss and won their final five games, including the MVC Championship.  They lost to Purdue as a 12 seed in the tournament.

Creighton 76, George Mason 63

The Bluejays were 22-6 heading into this game and finished 14-4 in the MVC.  However, a loss in the tournament semifinals landed them in the NIT despite the 46th-ranked RPI.  George Mason ended up with a similar fate, as they went 13-5 in the CAA but were left out of the Big Dance after losing in the tournament finals.

Nevada 71, VCU 70

Nevada wound up 11-5 in the WAC, but a loss to Utah State in the tournament final left them with a 21-12 record.  They were forced to settle for the CBI and lost in their first game against UTEP.  The Rams fell to 19-9 with this loss but won their final five games to finish 14-4 in the CAA and earn the automatic bid.  They lost a one-point game to UCLA as an 11 seed.

So Does BracketBusters Help Or Hurt?

A number of the winners and losers of these games ended up making the NCAA Tournament by virtue of winning their conference tournaments, but you certainly can’t credit the BracketBusters for that.  In the end, only two of the teams above (VCU in 2011 and Utah State in 2010) could even think of crediting their at-large bid to their success in the event.

However, more damning than that is the fact that no team that lost in the event wound up receiving an at-large bid.  Even Saint Mary’s, who beat a ranked Utah State team in 2009 and lost many of their games without one of their top players, ended up getting snubbed by the selection committee.  BracketBusters did nothing to help these teams.

The other thing I found interesting is how many teams, both winners and losers, suffered a loss or series of losses following their BracketBusters matchup.  Perhaps it’s the fact that it interrupts the rhythm of conference play or causes lengthier travel for some teams, but for whatever reason a number of participants finished the season poorly.

Does that mean I don’t think Murray State will make the tournament if they lose to Saint Mary’s?  Not necessarily, but I also think the Racers will plow through the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament.  It most certainly would impact their seeding though, definitely moreso than if a major conference team suffered one loss to an opponent of similar caliber.

Again, I like the event as a basketball junkie, but anyone who tries to pass it off as some kind of benevolent act that allows more mid-major teams to play their way into the NCAA Tournament is vastly overstating the impact of the event.

The results would suggest there is as much – if not more – to lose for BracketBusters participants.


Follow me on Twitter (@andybottoms) for more thoughts on college hoops, and check out the latest edition of the Bottoms Line podcast.

About Andy Bottoms

While Andy was born and raised in Indiana, he would like to point out that he grew up shooting hoops in his driveway and not against the side of a barn like you see in all the March Madness promos or in the middle of a field like Jimmy Chitwood. Andy ranks among the top bracketologists according to the Bracket Matrix and has provided his projections to Fox Sports for the past three seasons. When not compiling excuses for missing work during the NCAA Tournament, Andy enjoys spending time with his wife and two daughters. He is a proud IU graduate and co-hosts The Assembly Call postgame show following every IU game. Twitter: @AndyBottoms


  1. GREAT to read credible, factual analysis. Solid points, Mr. B.

    As a "mid major" (term should not exists, as evidenced every March, especially the past two) fan, I personally think it hurts. And this year the loser of the LBST-CU game as well as Murray-St Mary's will probably drop two seeds for a non conference loss in late February, which is silly. Like the inane conference tourneys, which KILL mid majors, the BBs are also unnecessary here in 2012.


    Mid major interest and attendance, especially in places like Omaha and Wichita, are through the roof, so no need for additional hype. And these "mid majors" play such brutal non conference schedules — unlike major teams such as Syracuse, Duke & others — that they need not ad additional tough matchups. In a given year, The MVC, MWC, WCC, Horizon and others, for example, are every bit as good or better than the Pac 10, SEC and ACC nowadays.

    I will say that two of the best college hoops matchups I've ever attended were when Butler hosted SIU in 2007 and Drake in the 2008 — both Bracketbusters at historic Hinkle Fieldhouse, which cost BU seeds, and perhaps a chance to increase deep into the tourney as they did in 2010 and 2011.

    So in the end, these games, while fun, only hurt hard-working, intrepid mid majors and reward fatuous "major" teams who continue to roll along to undeserved higher seeds before bowing out "earlier than expected" in March.

    Good read during a five minute work break. Thanks, Andy.

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