Star-Bulletin Sports



WAC gets chance
to shine in February

Hawaii is among 4 conference
teams that will participate
in "Bracket Busters"

By Cindy Luis

Members of the Western Athletic Conference argue that the WAC is not a mid-major league when it comes to men's basketball -- that it deserves to be recognized right along with the "Big Six" -- the SEC, Pac-10, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Big East.

"Now we've got to prove it," said Hawaii coach Riley Wallace.

The WAC will have four chances on Feb. 22 as part of ESPN's "Bracket Busters Saturday," nine games between so-called mid-major programs that don't normally get national exposure. Hawaii, Tulsa, Fresno State and Louisiana Tech -- the league's top four teams -- are among 18 schools that will participate in the inaugural made-for-TV event.

Burke Magnus, director of ESPN's college basketball programming, said the field will be announced Feb. 3. This is a multi-year deal that Magnus said he hopes will grow to a two-day event with an expanded field.

"We're pleased that we are finally able to put a bow on this idea," Magnus said during a national teleconference this morning. "It's really ground-breaking in the world of college basketball scheduling. We believe it will take some vastly underexposed programs and give them exposure they've earned."

Although WAC Commissioner Karl Benson said yesterday that the Rainbows' opponent won't be determined until Feb. 3, Wallace said he's been told, based on rankings and RPI, that the Rainbows will travel to play UC Santa Barbara, the defending Big West champion. Hawaii was originally scheduled to host Fresno State on Feb. 22, but that game will be moved to December, likely to Dec. 9.

"The only predetermined game that I know of is Tulsa at Gonzaga," said Benson. "It worked out nicely with our schedule because our four teams were playing each other, Fresno at Hawaii and Tulsa at Louisiana Tech.

"I think it's unique, creative and that it has potential to bring a lot of exposure during the time of the season when there may be a lot of meaningless games. These games will be meaningful. It's a day that basketball fans will tune in to."

ESPN and ESPN2 will televise five games, with the other four expected to be picked up on regional TV. Among the other 18 teams are four from the Mid-American (Ball State, Bowling Green, Kent State and Marshall), four from the Missouri Valley (Creighton, Southern Illinois, Illinois State and Northern Iowa), three from the Horizon League (Illinois-Chicago, Detroit and Wisconsin-Milwaukee) and Western Kentucky of the Sun Belt Conference.

"The NCAA Tournament success of these teams is phenomenal," said Benson. "When you look at the Tulsa-Gonzaga game, both have made it to the Elite Eight. The 'mid-major' label has been cast upon these conferences, but they are successful against the big-name conferences.

"We don't think of ourselves as mid-major. Of the conferences involved in this event, the WAC has traditionally been the highest rated. We've always been ranked in the top 10. One problem is we've had difficulty getting higher-profile opponents to play WAC teams."

Although the idea behind "Bracket Busters" is to enhance the RPI and visibility of mid-major teams prior to the NCAA Tournament, Wallace said he questions whether this will help the WAC.

"As far as I can see, we're the No. 1 league in this," said Wallace, who is in Los Angeles at the Double Pump coaches retreat. "We'll try it and see what happens."

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