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March 18, 2008

SCS.comWhile the whole world turns its eyes onto the madness of the NCAA Tournament this time of year, the season has not ended for many of the teams just left out of the Big Dance. With such a soft bubble this season, the difference between the top 10 teams in the NIT tournament and the bottom 10 teams in the NCAA is really negligible. While some of these teams may have to deal with the disappointment of being left out of the NCAA, most of the competitors are just happy to keep playing basketball. If you like competitive basketball from teams loaded with young talent as well as regular season champions of smaller conferences who lost in their conference tournaments, the NIT should be part of your March basketball schedule. Plus, most of the games are on different days than NCAA games, so this is your early-basketball fix.

The NIT is much improved from where the tournament was a few years ago. Now they have their own independent selection committee which brackets the field and clears up the path to New York City for the final four. Thirty-two teams will duke it out in the NIT, and this year a third postseason tournament makes its debut to compete with the NIT. That tournament is the CBI tournament, which will feature 16 teams. These two tournaments give good college basketball teams another title to play for, so I'm here to preview them. My main focus will be on the established NIT (previewing each region today and the final four in a separate article in two weeks), but at the end of this article there will be a brief overview of the CBI as well. Let's get right into the action!

NIT Tournament

The tournament is bracketed into four regions, and the champions of each will meet for the title at Madison Square Garden on April 1 and 3. I have named the regions for the home city of the number one seed in each bracket, since the higher seed hosts each game of the first three rounds. I will introduce a couple contenders and sleepers in each region, and then break down how the region will play out.


(8) Robert Morris (26-7) at (1) Syracuse (19-13)
(5) Maryland (18-14) at (4) Minnesota (20-12)
(6) Akron (23-9) at (3) Florida State (19-14)
(7) Stephen F. Austin (26-6) at (2) Massachusetts (21-10)


(1) Syracuse – Just like the preseason version of the NIT, Syracuse will not need to leave the state of New York at all during the tournament. Syracuse was the third-place team in the preseason version, losing only to Ohio State in that span. Syracuse was 9-9 and the ninth-best team in the Big East, which placed 8 teams into the NCAA tournament. Syracuse had a lot of trouble against strong defensive teams, but could run with the schools that score 80+ points a night. The Orange are a young bunch of talented kids, but Jim Boeheim has them playing well together with all five starters averaging between 12 and 18 points per game. The key to success will be keying off the home crowd and forcing a lot of fastbreak action. A tricky second round game could trip this favorite up.

(2) Massachusetts – UMass gets the honor of opening the tournament at 6 PM Tuesday evening, and the Minutemen dropped to the NIT thanks mostly to a A-10 conference tournament quarterfinal loss to Charlotte where a 17-point halftime lead was blown in a terrible second half. UMass knows what it will take to compete against the big boys thanks to finishing third in the grueling A-10 this season behind only Xavier and Temple. In addition to that, UMass defeated Syracuse on the road already this season in a wild 107-100 game. Similar to Syracuse, the Minutemen need to avoid strong defensive teams to do well, but thankfully there is not much defense in the Syracuse Region. The dual attack of guards Gary Forbes and Ricky Harris will light up the scoreboard. UMass is a strong candidate for the final four.


(4) Minnesota – The Golden Gophers were definitely not the class of a weak Big Ten conference this season, but they were a formidable opponent in The Barn (the unique home court). Maryland is a tough first round, but the home court advantage is huge in this game. Minnesota is getting hot at the right time of the season after a rough start, and everybody knows how dangerous Blake Hoffarber is with time running out. Lawrence McKenzie can fire three-pointers at will, and Dan Coleman is a strong inside presence. What makes this team a real sleeper is their battle-tested coach Tubby Smith and his defensive mentality. The Golden Gophers will have it tough potentially going to Syracuse and Massachusetts to win the region, but this is the defensive team both the favorites fear.

(6) Akron – As it turns out, the MAC only got one team in the Big Dance thanks to Kent State taking care of business in the regular season as well as the conference tournament. The Zips finished 11-5 in the MAC, and they played very close games against Dayton, Kent State (2 out of 3 times), Penn State, and Winthrop. What makes Akron dangerous is their ability to win games in the 80's as well as those played in the 60's. This team could get hot and run the Florida State, UMass, Syracuse gamut to get to NYC.


  - OVER-SEEDED – (5) Maryland, a lot of their 8 ACC wins were very close.

  - UNDER-SEEDED – (6) Akron, battle-tested and should have been in the 4-5 game.

  - TEAM ON A ROLL – (8) Robert Morris, 14 game win streak snapped in conference tournament.

  - TEAM IN A SLUMP – (1) Syracuse, 4-6 in final ten and lifeless in Big East tournament.

  - BEST FIRST ROUND GAME – (6) Akron at (3) Florida State, the Zips should give the Seminoles a real challenge.

  - BEST SECOND ROUND GAME – (4) Minnesota at (1) Syracuse, the defensive Big Ten team Syracuse dreads in one-and-done tournament play.

  - BEST PLAYER – Gary Forbes, G-F Massachusetts

  - BEST COACH – Tubby Smith, Minnesota. He lost a streak of 14 straight NCAA appearances in his first season turning around the Golden Gopher program (including a national title).


In the first round, Syracuse is just too talented to slip up against a strong Robert Morris squad. Minnesota will keep the defensive pressure up against Maryland and should sail into the second round. Akron pulls the upset in Tallahassee, and Massachusetts will defend the home court against SFA. In the second round, a great coaching matchup between Jim Boeheim and Tubby Smith goes to Tubby Smith and Minnesota. Massachusetts will survive a hard-fought game against Akron. This leaves Massachusetts hosting Minnesota, and I think Minnesota will be hard-pressed to win two road games in a row. Massachusetts goes to MSG as the Syracuse Region champ.


(8) Alabama State (20-10) at (1) Arizona State (19-12)
(5) Oklahoma State (17-15) at (4) Southern Illinois (17-14)
(6) Rhode Island (21-11) at (3) Creighton (21-10)
(7) San Diego State (20-12) at (2) Florida (21-11)


(1) Arizona State – The Sun Devils would likely have made the NCAA tournament in any other major conference, but the Pac-10 was too strong to allow this team to overcome a very weak non-conference slate. Guard James Harden is very tough to stop, so expect a lot of screens to open up Harden either to the lane or for a long jumper. The Sun Devils were probably the second-best defensive team in the point-happy Pac-10, and that should serve them well in this tournament.

(2) Florida – the committee did a great job of seeding the field, at least at the top. The true favorites are indeed ranked 1-2 and given home-court advantage for the first two rounds. The baby Gators suffered from losing an astounding four first-round NBA draft picks, but the two national titles those players brought were more than enough to make Billy Donovan proud. Speaking of Donovan, he seems to really be taking the lack of an NCAA appearance out on the Gators, kicking them out of their practice gym and not allowing them to wear official UF practice gear this week. It will be interesting to see if these youngsters are motivated by this, or if they tune out and drop early.


(6) Rhode Island – Truth be told, this is a team that was faltering at the end of the season, losing 8 out of 10. What really happened was the Rams hit the tough A-10 stretch of Dayton, UMass twice, Temple, St. Joseph's and Xavier in the course of seven games. The Rams are not as good as those other A-10 teams, but they played against better competition than the two teams from the Missouri Valley in this region. Rhode Island may not be able to win this region, but they could certainly rip off a couple road wins against Creighton and Florida.

(8) Alabama State – While the SWAC is certainly one of the weakest leagues in college basketball, Alabama State won the conference by a three-game margin. In addition to dominating the conference, the Hornets played tough in early-season road games at SMU and Miami. Alabama State has enough potential to pull the shocker against Arizona State, and it only gets easier if the Hornets pull off that upset.


  - OVER-SEEDED – (3) Creighton, mainly because the Salukis played a much tougher schedule and finished better in the MWC.
  - UNDER-SEEDED – (6) Rhode Island, should be playing Creighton in the 4-5 game but maybe inherited an easier road to NYC.
  - TEAM ON A ROLL – (5) Oklahoma State, had two tough losses against Texas and a win over Kansas late in the season as well as a 6-4 final ten.
  - TEAM IN A SLUMP – (2) Florida, 3-7 in final 10 and the three wins against hapless South Carolina and Georgia twice.
  - BEST FIRST ROUND GAME – (5) Oklahoma State at (4) Southern Illinois, each team struggled against a tough schedule and that will pay dividends.
  - BEST SECOND ROUND GAME – (3) Creighton at (2) Florida, as the Blue Jays have the right mix of players to give a young Gator team fits.
  - BEST PLAYER – Will Daniels, F Rhode Island
  - BEST COACH – Billy Donovan, Florida. While I may disagree with his motivation tactics for the NIT (spoiled, anyone?), Donovan knows how to win tournaments with three national titles already.


The first round will feature Arizona State getting by a dangerous Alabama State team. Southern Illinois is catching OK State at a tough time, but I still think the Salukis take that one at home. Creighton and Florida win mostly due to home court advantage. Arizona State and Florida should dispatch the MWC teams in the second round, which leads to quite a showdown in the desert. I really think the baby Gators are just too young to win on the road against a quality opponent like the Sun Devils, so Arizona State wins the Tempe Region.


(8) UNC Asheville (23-9) at (1) Ohio State (19-13)
(5) New Mexico (24-8) at (4) California (16-15)
(6) Cleveland State (21-12) at (3) Dayton (21-10)
(7) Utah State (24-10) at (2) Illinois State (24-9)


(1) Ohio State – Just like the Gators, the Buckeyes are a one-seed for the second straight year, although this time in the NIT. The Buckeyes fell to the same fate as the Gators, with a trio of first-round NBA draft pick freshman departing last season. The Buckeyes are finally playing quality basketball for the first time in the last three games, and are only here thanks to Drew Neitzel going crazy in the Big Ten tournament. Despite only finishing 19-13, the Buckeyes played a tough schedule (Butler, UNC, Tennessee, Florida, Syracuse, Cleveland State) and went 14-3 at home. The only real question mark is whether Ohio State can be motivated to play well in the NIT, but the home court should definitely help in that regard.

(3) Dayton – Some could argue that the Buckeyes were the fourth-best team in the state of Ohio this season, behind Xavier, Kent State, and these Dayton Flyers. Dayton jumped into the rankings by blasting Pittsburgh and winning at Louisville, impressive feats considering where those teams ended up. Unfortunately, Dayton ran into major injury trouble in the middle of A-10 play after a 14-1 start and dropped to the lower half of the league. The Flyers did win their last three before running into the Xavier buzzsaw in the A-10 quarterfinals, and it appears Dayton is healthy at the right time.


(5) New Mexico – Never really in contention for the NCAA Tournament, the Lobos played very well behind BYU and UNLV in the MWC this season. The Lobos attack you with a small lineup, usually featuring 4 guards and 1 forward. This can be tough for teams that want to play grinding man-to-man defense. The Lobos performed better than .500 on the road this season, and drew an overrated California team in the first round. Look for New Mexico to trouble Ohio State in the second round.

(8) – UNC Asheville – Many times in recent Big South seasons, UNCA and Winthrop have played for the NCAA tournament. Winthrop has dominated the series recently, but UNCA was disappointed after sweeping the season series to lose the NCAA berth on their home court in the Big South final. What makes UNCA such a tough matchup is their 7'8" center Kenny George (yes he dunks flat-footed, weighs 360 pounds, and wears amazing size 28 shoes), who plays about 25 minutes a game and changes the game dramatically due to his size. The best two players on UNCA are actually the guard duo of Bryan Smithson and K.J. Garland, who can heat up from outside. This is just what you need to beat the zone-defense Buckeyes, and it will be interesting to see how the Buckeyes handle George when he is in the game. If they survive Columbus, they will seriously challenge for NYC.


  - OVER-SEEDED – (4) California, seeded this high thanks to their conference
  - UNDER-SEEDED – (8) UNC Asheville, should be at least a six in this region
  - TEAM ON A ROLL – (6) Cleveland State, won seven of last nine, only losing to Butler twice.
  - TEAM IN A SLUMP – (4) California, 2-8 in final ten tells a true story.
  - BEST FIRST ROUND GAME – (8) UNC Asheville at (1) Ohio State, super home court advantage and future NBA talent against a rough inside-out combo of Kenny George and the two UNCA guards.
  - BEST SECOND ROUND GAME – (3) Dayton at (2) Illinois State, don't discount Illinois State in this region, which is probably the toughest overall. This one will be close.
  - BEST PLAYER – Jamar Butler, G Ohio State
  - BEST COACH – Thad Matta, Ohio State. Coach on the rise, succeeding at every school he's been at.


The first round features two great games in Columbus and Dayton. Ohio State and Dayton will find a way to beat the under-seeded Cleveland State and UNCA teams. New Mexico will expose California on the road, and Illinois State rolls in the only cakewalk of the region. The second round should see an easy Ohio State win over New Mexico, and a great game between ISU and Dayton. Dayton keeps on rolling and takes a short drive to Columbus to try and knock off the Buckeyes. That will not happen, and OSU will go back to NYC just like they did in the preseason NIT. OSU wins the Columbus Region.


(8) Morgan State (21-10) at (1) Virginia Tech (19-12)
(5) UAB (22-10) at (4) VCU (24-7)
(6) Charlotte (20-13) at (3) Nebraska (19-12)
(7) UC Santa Barbara (23-8) at (2) Mississippi (21-10)


(1) Virginia Tech – The Hokies came within a few seconds of upsetting North Carolina and winning their way into the Big Dance, but their credentials without that win were identical to Ohio State (in other words, not good enough). Nevertheless, the Hokies were solid in ACC play and played tough against Butler and Gonzaga early. Tech is another team which challenges you by going mostly small, with 3-4 guards and no center in play most often. Virginia Tech is also on a roll, playing their best basketball by far after an early-February slump. This region is probably the weakest of the four, so that should help Virginia Tech roll toward NYC.

(4) Virginia Commonwealth – VCU is really the second-strongest team in this region, but Nebraska and Mississippi jumped them based on conference affiliation. VCU was in the at-large bubble talk for the NCAA after winning the CAA by 3 games, but a semifinal conference tournament upset by William and Mary put the nail into the coffin and let George Mason back into the Big Dance. VCU lost their only meeting against GMU, but the Rams played very well on the road against Arkansas and Miami. VCU plays a grinding, slow, defensive style which may trouble Virginia Tech in the second round.


(5) UAB – As many accolades as can be thrown at VCU, the Rams have a tough first round hosting the second-place team in C-USA (behind Memphis), the Blazers of UAB. The Blazers won seven of their last nine regular season games, the two losses coming in competitive games against Memphis. UAB knows it will not see anything as talented as Memphis in this region, so don't be surprised if the VCU train is derailed in the first round. Keep Robert Vaden in mind as one of the most consistent performers in the region.

(6) Charlotte – The 49ers were one of the many reasons the A-10 had to sweat out Selection Sunday to ensure three bids for a league that perhaps deserved even more. Led by guard Leemire Goldwire (great name), Charlotte definitely cost UMass an at-large NCAA berth while finishing on a 6-2 roll. Charlotte wins more when they can set a high scoring pace, so look for the 49ers to run Nebraska ragged, much like Kansas and Texas did to the Cornhuskers this season.


  - OVER-SEEDED – (3) Nebraska, which at best should be in the 4-5 game.
  - UNDER-SEEDED – (4) VCU, who will likely meet the Hokies one round too soon.
  - TEAM ON A ROLL – (8) Morgan State, 14-2 on the latter half of their season and losing those two games by a total of 3 points.
  - TEAM IN A SLUMP – (2) Mississippi, started 13-0 on a creampuff schedule and had major troubles until a small 3-game win streak in March against weak competition.
  - BEST FIRST ROUND GAME – (5) UAB at (4) VCU, a perfect matchup of teams which may surprise many by knocking off Virginia Tech and winning the region.
  - BEST SECOND ROUND GAME – (4) VCU at (1) Virginia Tech, a battle for NYC in all likelihood and Virginia bragging rights.
  - BEST PLAYER – Robert Vaden, G-F UAB
  - BEST COACH – Anthony Grant, VCU. Not afraid to train his team against an elite schedule and reaps the benefits in these post-season tournaments.


In the first round, Virginia Tech and Mississippi will be too much for Morgan State and UCSB to handle. VCU will squeak by UAB, and Charlotte will continue to prove the strength of the A-10 by beating Nebraska. VCU shocks Virginia Tech in the second round, leading to a battle with Mississippi, which should squeak by Charlotte. The Rams will have to go on the road to prove it, but they really are better than Mississippi. VCU wins the Blacksburg Region.

So there you have it. Lots of compelling storylines and great games for those who need more than just the NCAA Tournament. Last year the final four was epic with all four 1-seeds making NYC, but I think the field is more balanced this season and will lead to a couple of 1's dropping in the Regions. If I had to call it right now, I'd say Ohio State beats VCU, Arizona State takes out Massachusetts, and Arizona State continues the trend of Buckeye losses in championship games. I'll revisit the NYC final four in-depth when we know the actual teams.

The CBI Tournament

Richmond (16-14) at Virginia (15-15)
Rider (23-10) at Old Dominion (17-15)

Cincinnati (13-18) at Bradley (17-15)
Brown (19-9) at Ohio (19-12)

Valparaiso (21-13) at Washington (16-16)
Houston (22-9) at Nevada (21-11)

Utah (17-14) at UTEP (19-13)
Miami(OH) (17-15) at Tulsa (20-13)

Virginia, Bradley, Washington, and UTEP will host the regional finals according to the CBI website. While only a handful of these games will be available on television, the finals are an innovative three-game series on March 31, April 2, and April 4. This provides even more teams that had quality seasons with a chance to play for a title. The most interesting region is the West, which features two teams that had a very good season yet got left out of the NIT (Nevada, Houston) as well as one of the all-time cinderellas in Valpo and one of the three major conference teams in the field of 16 (Washington). It will be very interesting to see if the three major conference teams flex their muscle or sleepwalk into ambushes.

My take on the tournament: In the East, Virginia beats Richmond and Rider. Out West, Washington rips Valparaiso and then survives a tough game against Nevada. The Midwest turns into an intrastate battle where Ohio defeats Cincinnati. Finally, the South Region goes to UTEP after wins over Utah and Tulsa. In the semifinals, Virginia and Washington move on. Virginia sweeps the final against Washington 2-0 and takes the CBI crown. Let’s hope the CBI tournament finds some success in its first season, so that more teams have a chance to continue playing basketball and following the dream.

Good luck filling out your brackets, and we'll see you again in 2 weeks!

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