ESPN Bracket Buster includes Horn’s Toppers

The term mid-major is practically a curse word around Western’s athletics department. While Athletic Director Wood Selig and basketball coach Darrin Horn may not like the label, Western suffers from exactly what mid-major schools tend to suffer from – lack of schedule strength.

With the help of ESPN Bracket Buster Saturday on Feb. 21, Selig appears to be making some ground in the battle.

The Hilltoppers will be appearing in the second annual event, but will not know their opponent until Feb. 1.

After beating Ball State in Diddle Arena during last year’s Bracket Buster, Western will be on the road this year.

The Bracket Buster is designed to help teams from smaller conferences play a quality non-conference opponent. Teams that are not in the power conferences struggle to receive at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament because of their low schedule strengths. The Bracket Buster should help those teams.

“Last year we witnessed firsthand what a game like this in late February can mean,” Selig said. “Everybody is trying to move off that bubble and into a NCAA Tournament berth.”

Western has not released its schedule yet, but Selig said the strength of the schedule will be better than last year. Selig is trying to add one more game and expects the schedule to be released in the next week.

The Toppers will play Louisville, Mississippi State and Auburn, which should be an upgrade from last year’s schedule.

This season’s Bracket Buster is much larger than last year’s. The field has been expanded from 18 teams to 46 teams, and their games haven’t been predetermined, as was the case last year.

ESPN will carry five of the games on either ESPN or ESPN2, and another five on the ESPN Full Court package.

The decision will be made Feb. 1 so that the 10 nationally televised games can be between teams fighting for tournament bids, adding to the excitement.

“The commitment from our conference partners to expand the field to 46 teams, providing the opportunity for additional programs to show a national audience why they belong in the NCAA Tournament, gives a tremendous boost to an event that was a spectacular success in its inaugural year,” said Burke Magnus, director of ESPN programming and acquisitions in a press release.

There are 18 teams the Toppers could potentially play: Butler, Cleveland State, Illinois-Chicago, Wisconsin-Green Bay, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Akron, Bowling Green State, Central Michigan, Kent State, Marshall, Miami (Ohio), Bradley, Southern Illinois, Indiana State, Fresno State, Nevada, Rice or Tulsa.

Western will play Ball State as a return game for last year’s Bracket Buster, and whoever the Toppers play this year will have to do the same next season.

The Toppers were the only Sun Belt Conference team invited last season, but Louisiana-Lafayette and New Mexico State will be involved and receiving a home game this year.

The field should be strong, as 12 of the 46 teams made it to the NCAA Tournament last year, combining for a 5-12 record. The teams earned nine berths in 2002, eight in 2001, nine in 2000 and 10 in 1999.

Reach Danny Schoenbaechler at [email protected]