While there are still plenty of BCS conference clashes that will command attention in college basketball this weekend, take some time to check out a few of the Bracket Busters matchups on ESPN.
Last year Butler crashed the Final Four, while several other so-called mid-majors gave powerhouses fits in the tourney. If this year’s Final Four, to be contested in Houston in April, features one of the upstarts, you can look back to this weekend and say you knew them when.
TEAM OF THE WEEK: PURDUE
Most people wrote them off when Robbie Hummel was lost for the year with a preseason injury. But Purdue still features an All-American big man in JaJuan Johnson and a deadly shooter in E’Twaun Moore, both seniors who’ve been through the Big Ten wars. In Wednesday’s win over Wisconsin, unheralded point guard Lewis Jackson outplayed Badger star Jordan Taylor. It was the Boilermakers’ third straight win and put them at 10-3 in conference play.
Next up: First place Ohio State, who pounded Purdue last month in Columbus, arrives for a nationally-televised showdown Sunday afternoon in West Lafayette, Ind. That game could determine whether a Hummel-less team has the stuff to make a national title run.
PITTSBURGH: The Panthers kept right on rolling even without top scorer Ashton Gibbs. Last weekend, they went into one of the toughest road environments in the sport and knocked off Villanova, and a win over South Florida Wednesday puts them at 12-1 in the Big East, 24-2 overall. It’s hard to imagine the Panthers getting dislodged from a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament at this point.
Will this be the year they get over the hump and make the Final Four?
VANDERBILT: A great week for the Commodores should give a nice boost to their seeding prospects come March. They handled the young guns of Kentucky, then came right back to get a huge, come-from-behind road win over Georgia on Wednesday. Vandy is led by John Jenkins, a sophomore sharpshooter who scored 53 points in the two wins and is looking more and more like a shoo-in for the SEC Player of the Year.
MARYLAND: Road losses to fellow bubble teams Boston College and Virginia Tech did real damage to the Terps’ hopes. They already have 10 losses and are under .500 in the conference, with an RPI that's plummeted to 86.
That’s because Gary Williams’ bunch are a hideous 0-8 against RPI Top 100 teams. The Terps schedule gives them a legitimate chance to win their last five games before the ACC tourney. That may be their only hope.
MARQUETTE: At some point, the unforgiving Big East had to start to cannibalize itself, and Marquette looks like the victim. With losses in seven of 11, including two straight, the Golden Eagles have seen their RPI drop to 66. Six of those seven recent losses have come to teams in the Top 25, but the committee likely won’t have much sympathy.
A date with UConn on Feb. 24 gives them one more chance at another signature win after previous conquests of Syracuse and Notre Dame.
UNDER THE RADAR: GEORGE MASON
Before there was Butler, there was George Mason, taking an unlikely jaunt to the Final Four under coach Jim Larranaga back in 2006. The Patriots have been relatively quiet since, but they’re currently tearing through the Colonial, with 12 straight wins, the last eight of which coming with winning margins of at least 14 points each.
Led by guard Cam Long and forward Ryan Pearson, George Mason has clinched a tie for the league title and, with an RPI of 22, could still get an at-large bid if it slips in the conference tourney.
GAME OF THE WEEK: UTAH STATE @ ST.MARY’S (Calif.) 8 p.m. Saturday
Let’s give some love to the Bracket Busters; This is the marquee matchup of the series this season. St. Mary’s has to be angry after coughing up a lead to lowly San Diego on Wednesday, blowing a chance to clinch a tie for the West Coast Conference title. Mickey McConnell and Co. will look to get well against Utah State, which is riding high atop the WAC.
One of these teams will get a nice resume win, while the other may have to start worrying about its at-large credentials.