Western to play in new event

Kyle Hightower

So you thought Chris Marcus’ return was the only big news that was coming out of Western hoops this summer.

In another of the Western basketball brass’ efforts to bring increased visibility and attention to the Hilltoppers, Western accepted an invitation to participate in the inaugural Bracket Buster Saturday men’s basketball event in February, announced by ESPN Aug. 8.

The one-day, nine-game affair is designed to pair some of the nation’s top NCAA Tournament hopefuls with other non-conference teams late in the season as they compete for a place in March Madness. Bracket Buster Saturday is set for Feb. 22. ESPN and ESPN2 will televise five of the nine games live and the remaining four contests will be televised on a regional basis.

“Bracket Buster is a blockbuster idea,” Coach Dennis Felton said in an Aug. 8 press conference. “I’m excited for the opportunity to match our team against one of the other best teams in the country at a time when momentum is growing, heading toward March Madness. ESPN is showing the kind of vision that makes NCAA basketball so special, and we are extremely pleased to be a part of it.”

The field is set and includes four teams each from the Mid-American Conference (Ball State, Bowling Green State, Kent State and Marshall), the Missouri Valley Conference (Creighton, Illinois State, Northern Iowa and Southern Illinois) and the Western Athletic Conference (Fresno State, Hawaii, Louisiana Tech and Tulsa); three teams from the Horizon League (Detroit, Illinois-Chicago and Wisconsin-Milwaukee); plus Western Kentucky of the Sun Belt Conference, Cal-Santa Barbara out of the Big West Conference and Gonzaga from the West Coast Conference.

Only one match up – Tulsa at Gonzaga – has been determined. The remaining matchups will not be announced until Feb. 3. But decisions have been made on the nine schools playing at home. Western will serve as a host school.

The majority of the teams participating in the event could be placed in the “mid-major” category of college basketball, a label that has become popular when describing programs that play in conferences not in the top tier of athletic conferences. Most would say Western and the Sun Belt Conference are mid-majors.

Higher profile conferences such as the Atlantic Coast Conference and Southeastern Conference traditionally have gotten more television time and national media recognition. This event, though not eliminating the imbalance, will definitely help improve upon it.

“Bracket Buster Saturday is a great new event for sports fans across the nation,” Burke Magnus, ESPN’s director of programming and acquisitions said in a release. “We have the flexibility to create matchups in mid-season, which should generate additional interest in these conferences and programs leading up to the NCAA Tournament.”

In the past four years, the 18 teams slated for the event have combined to make 25 appearances in the NCAA Tournament, earning three trips to the Elite Eight (Gonzaga in ’99, Tulsa in ’00 and Kent State in ’02) and advancing to the Sweet Sixteen on six occasions. Overall, 21 of the 22 NCAA Tournament victories by this group in the past four seasons have come against higher-seeded teams in the field.

“This will be a monumental, made-for-ESPN, sporting event along the lines of Championship Week and Rivalry Week,” Western athletics director Wood Selig said. “I think fans across the country will anxiously tune in as we move closer to March Madness. The accolades of the participants – having four of the 50 Wooden Award candidates competing in the event – add to its credibility.”

And a good showing in the event would certainly add to Western’s notability.

BEGINITAL Kyle Hightower can be reached at [email protected]