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Northwestern State is probably unfamiliar to most basketball fans in the north, just as most southerners are probably clueless about Niagara. But when the two meet at the Gallagher Center on Feb. 23 the entertainment value could rival that of any game in the ESPN BracketBuster series announced on Monday night.

The aptly nicknamed Demons of Northwestern State play a frenetic style in which 10 players see an average of at least 15 minutes a game. The result? Northwestern State is 14-6 overall, 8-2 in the Southland Conference and leads the nation in scoring at 83.9 points per game. Niagara (14-9, 10-2 in the MAAC) is 36th at 75.4 ppg. The game will be televised on ESPNU at 3 p.m. Feb. 23.

Canisius (15-8, 8-4) also drew a broadcast game and will play at Vermont at 1 p.m. on Feb. 23 (ESPN3). The Catamounts (14-7, 7-2) of America East dropped a 68-58 decision at Niagara back on Dec. 16.

UB (8-14, 3-5) will host a BracketBuster for the fourth time and is pitted against Manhattan (7-15, 5-7) of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference on Feb. 23. The defensively accomplished Jaspers fell to Canisius and Niagara by identical 64-60 scores in their mid-January trip to Western New York.

This is the final year of the BracketBuster event, which began in 2003. While it provided top mid-major teams with national television exposure, the name was misleading in that it had little if any impact on the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee.

One benefit was that the home team would agree to a road rematch the following season. But that became less of a sure thing and ADs and coaches began to question the value of the concept. One coach a few years ago began calling the event the “BudgetBuster” because hastily made travel plans became a financial burden for the road team.

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BN Big 4 Player of the Week: Billy Baron averaged 19.5 points, 6.5 assists, shot 50 percent from the floor and played 75 of a possible 80 minutes as Canisius shot back into the thick of the MAAC race with home-court victories over Loyola (Md.) and Iona.

The Griffs open the week Thursday at Manhattan (dangerous because of its defense) before heading to Monteagle Ridge for Sunday’s rematch with Niagara. The Eagles take their two-game MAAC lead to Rider on Thursday. The Broncs have lost three of four but haven’t lost to Niagara at home since Jan. 14, 2007.

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Go try and figure Northern Illinois. The Huskies bounced back from national embarrassment last week by ending an 11-game series losing streak against Kent State (67-65) and beating the Golden Flashes in DeKalb, Ill., for the first time since 1998. The victory came one game after NIU set an NCAA Division I record for futility by scoring four first-half points in a 42-25 loss to Eastern Michigan.

“What a difference from Saturday to Wednesday,” said NIU head coach Mark Montgomery. “I loved how our players came out and responded after a tough game at Eastern (Michigan). I thought the start really helped get us going and I thought that we outplayed them for 39 minutes and 30 seconds but somehow they found a way to tie it.”

The Huskies persevered when Abdul Nader nailed the tie-breaking jumper with 2.2 seconds left. He’s NIU’s top scorer at 14.5 points per game, although he’s shooting a sketchy 35 percent from the floor. NIU has a mid-week game against Bowling Green before visiting Alumni Arena at 1 p.m. Saturday for a Mid-American Conference crossover game with UB. The Bulls open the week with their second straight trip to Michigan. They play at EMU on Wednesday night.

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There’s been a lot of bold talk coming out of Akron this season and it grew all the stronger when the Zips throttled visiting Ohio, 86-72, Saturday in a showdown between the MAC’s last two unbeatens. The Zips saw the outcome as evidence the balance of power has shifted. Ohio U. beat Akron by a point in last year’s MAC title game and advanced to the NCAA Tournament Sweet Sixteen.

“We’ll be back this year and reclaim it,” Akron guard Alex Abreu said. “All I think about is a national championship. It might sound crazy, but I don’t think we have anything to envy from anybody in the country. We’re full at every position. We’re big. We’re strong. We have guard play. We have shooters. There is nothing we really lack, other than confidence.”

This may be coach Keith Dambrot’s deepest Akron team but the Zips have some issues to resolve. They fell behind UB by 20 at home before rallying to win and trailed Ohio in the first half by 13. But the Zips do have reason to crow some: Their 13-game winning streak is now the longest in the nation and they should have clear sailing until the Feb. 27 rematch against Ohio in Athens.

If Akron fails to win the MAC Tournament it could be this year’s Iona – a surprise at-large draw – although the conference’s No. 17 rating in the conference RPI won’t help.

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St. Bonaventure coach Mark Schmidt rarely if ever lets a postgame news conference slip by without mentioning the rigors of life in the Atlantic 10 (which, as we know, is really the A-16). It’s not an excuse. It’s a fact.

The A-10 has 10 teams ranked in the top 78 of the RPIs. Trouble is, because they’re doing such a good job beating up on each other and because the A-10 holds just a No. 7 ranking in the conference RPIs, its overall strength probably won’t be reflected in the number of NCAA Tournament spots.

Right now ESPN bracket master Joe Lunardi has Butler, VCU and La Salle in the field with Temple relegated to a play-in game (or, what the NCAA calls a first-round game). The leaves out 17-4 Charlotte and 16-5 Saint Louis.

Lunardi’s selection of Temple reflects his Philly roots.

Truth is, the Owls, at 14-7 overall and 3-4 conference, are a long shot. Their latest loss came Saturday, when Saint Joseph’s scored a 70-69 victory in the last A-10 meeting between the rivals (Temple is leaving for the Big East).

Saint Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli sounded like Schmidt after that Temple game. Nice win. Time to move on.

“They can have until Monday morning,” Martelli said. “Then we are on the road, at Dayton. And 13,000 people are going to show up at Dayton. They are going to come in a wounded team, having lost two in a row. That’s not a night off. There are no nights off in this league. You know what? The sky was falling because we beat Fordham by four the other night. It was on the road. No nights off, man. No nights off.”

Bona has its first meeting with A-10 newcomer Butler on Wednesday night in storied Hinkle Fieldhouse (Time Warner Cable) and then moves on to face Rhode Island on Saturday afternoon.

email: bdicesare@buffnews.com