For more than a decade, the BracketBusters event represented a well-intentioned attempt to separate some mid-major bubble teams from others in late February.
The idea was — and still is — excellent. If any sport must select a given number of teams for its postseason event, it is necessary for that sport to provide an ample amount of bases for comparison — the more the better. BracketBusters was college basketball’s (and ESPN’s) way of aiding that basic process.
However, ESPN — not wrongly — discontinued the event after the 2012-2013 season. It just wasn’t moving the needle — or serving its purpose — to the extent it needed to. BracketBusters didn’t generate enough pop or buzz for ESPN, but it also didn’t provide its central function of weeding out teams on or near the bubble.
What happened with BracketBusters is that while three or four games might have possessed real value in terms of offering bubble clarity, the vast majority of contests matched mid-majors which had slim-to-none at-large hopes. Who wants to see NIT- or CIT-bound teams on national television in late February, beyond the local audiences? This is why BracketBusters died in its old form.
The key point to make here, however, is that the BracketBusters concept remains sound. Implementation of the idea proved to be the hard part.
As we pivot to a discussion of the current college basketball season, then, it’s clear that it’s time to revive BracketBusters… but to remake the contours of the competition. BracketBusters can become an infinitely more significant and compelling event. College basketball and its power conferences simply need to be willing partners in this resurrection.
You’ll see a number of mid-major teams that are not only in first place in their respective leagues, but are dominating on a larger level. Arkansas-Little Rock is 22-3. Chattanooga is 23-4. UNC-Wilmington is 20-5. Hawaii is 20-3. Saint Mary’s isn’t in first place in the WCC, but the Gaels are 20-4.
These teams are not likely to be at-large selections. They must all win out until the conference tournament championship game in order to have a particularly realistic shot at an at-large. There’s so much distance between that possibility and the present moment that it’s not worth getting too excited about a stealth at-large candidacy just yet. (Wait two weeks, and if these teams have all avoided a loss, we can revisit the matter.)
The question springs to the forefront of the human mind: Wouldn’t it be great if these teams — the high-achievers in their small corners of the college basketball world — received an opportunity to test themselves against the other typical kind of “classic” bubble team, the .500 team in a power conference with an 18-12 or 17-13 record?
Having these teams play each other in late February would create an extension of the First Four… only a few weeks in advance. The animating purpose of the BracketBusters event would be genuinely realized and enfleshed.
Oregon State versus Hawaii.
Chattanooga versus Alabama.
Little Rock versus Florida State.
Saint Mary’s versus Washington.
UNC-Wilmington versus Cincinnati.
And on and on and on.
There’s no need for a grand explanation or a stump speech to drive the point home — not with those matchups lingering in the mind’s eye.
Play these games — that’s how BracketBusters can rise from the dead, bigger and better than it ever was in its previous — and inadequate — iteration.