Monday, March 12, 2007

Previewing the NIT

Before I delve into the field of 65, I figure I'll ramble for a bit about the N.I.T., since I won't really get another chance, as it starts tomorrow.

In most years, I really couldn't give two shits less about the National Invitation Tournament. Pitt has only been involved once since I started seriously following Pitt basketball, and the rest of the time, I pay almost no attention. Honestly, I couldn't even tell you who won last year. Or the year before that. Or any year, really.

This year, I am resolving to change things. Over the years, my attraction to college basketball has gradually increased. At first, I only would watch if Pitt were playing. Then I started getting interested in any game involving Big East teams. Now, I've found myself watching any game that happens to be on TV. A lot of this could have to do with the fact that I have access to cable television whenever I want for the first time in my life, but regardless, I have crossed over to the point where I am at last ready to start following the N.I.T.

This actually might be the first time I've ever even looked at an N.I.T. bracket since Pitt's ill-fated run to the N.I.T. Sweet 16 in 2001. And I'll admit, I really am not sure quite what to make of it. In a lot of ways, this is even harder than filling out the NCAA bracket. To begin with, I know less about most of these teams, if only because they haven't been in the spotlight (read: on national television) nearly as often.

On top of that, I don't even know how the N.I.T. works, really. Do these teams even try? Is a team like Syracuse, which obviously got snubbed, going to sulk and bow out to Missouri State in the second round? Or would the Orangemen use that as motivation to win the whole thing and use it as proof that they should have been included in the big dance? Obviously, it's not that cut-and-dried, and I highly doubt teams would tank games because they're upset at the selection committee. But it's something to think about.

From looking at the history of the tournament, or, at least, the champions and the runners-up, it seems like most of the time the winner and runners-up are both relatively big names. They're almost always from power conferences, too, very few mid-majors throughout this list. So that leads me to believe I should pick as if these teams all care just as much as this tournament as they do any other competition.

I also tend to fall into the habit of thinking of these teams in relation to the teams in the field of 65, if that makes any sense. Like, I look at these teams, and I think about their flaws, and why they'd be prime for a first or second-round knockout. But in reality, their shortcomings are far less noticeable against the inferior competition of the N.I.T.

There's also some things that are hard to get my head around, like the fact that the first three rounds are played at home campuses of the higher-seeded teams. That's always a mindfuck for me because you never really have to think about home/road splits and home-field advantage in the NCAAs. The closest you come is when a team happens to play games not too far from its home, i.e. Louisville playing the first two rounds in Lexington and UCLA not having to leave California at all during the regional phase of the tourney.

With that said, I spent about five minutes and filled in an N.I.T. bracket for the first time ever, making many picks based on personal bias and scant knowledge of the teams involved. Here's what I wound up with:

North Regional

And so it begins. The #1 team in this bracket is Mississippi State, which was 18-13 this year. I can't even remotely begin to get my head around the idea of an 18-13 college team being a number one seed in a high school tournament, let alone anything else. Their first-round opponent, 8th-seeded Mississippi Valley State, has its fair share of awesome names. Their leading scorer and rebounder (their leading rebounder is 6'2", yikes) is named Stanford Speech. There's a Dick Cannon. And a Tychicus Snow. Still, I feel like there's a reason that Mississippi State is a 1 seed, so I'll stick with the favorites.

Then my Big East bias kicks in, as I have Providence overcoming Bradley on the road, which probably isn't a good bet, but I still have a grudge against Bradley for knocking off Pitt in the second round last year. Then I have Provy upsetting Mississippi State too to force their way into the Elite 8. Hey, I like Herbert Hill a lot. Neither Bradley nor Mississippi State really have a player who can take over a game like Hill can, and Hill did it in a much tougher conference than the MVC or the SEC West.

In the bottom half of the bracket, I have 3-seed Michigan progressing all the way to the Elite 8 on the basis that the Wolverines have been pretty good at home all year, and the reason they'll have home field advantage in the first two rounds is because I'm picking Toledo to upset Florida State in round one. I don't like the 'Noles. They beat Florida at home, and apart from that, did absolutely nothing remarkable (which granted, hasn't stopped some teams from getting 4 seeds or 6 seeds in the big dance).

In the regional final, I'll finally put a halt to Provy's unlikely road streak, and put Michigan in the Final Four. Go Blue.

East Regional

Unfortunately, West Virginia shouldn't even have any sort of problem with Delaware State in the first round, nor the winner of the UMass/Alabama matchup (which I chose as UMass just because I still think the SEC is dumb). WVU has home-field throughout, which is too bad because the Mountaineers were 14-1 at home (with their only loss in Morgantown, I'll point out, a 13-point throttling at the hands of Levance Fields' team).

The bottom half of the bracket is one of the most interesting in the N.I.T., I think. Drexel, one of the most prominently mentioned names when it comes to NCAA snubs, is somehow a 3-seed, and they get ACC Tourney cinderellas NC State in the opener. Then they get the winner of Oklahoma State/Marist, which will probably be the Cowboys. Everyone expected Oklahoma State to be much better than they were, but they shit the bed big-time this year and who knows what kind of performance they'll put up in the N.I.T. I'm taking Drexel to the Elite Eight, more for the sake of CAA representation than anything else.

My regional final pits the hated couch-burners against Drexel, and I've decided I've had enough of WVU, so they're getting the boot. While you may scoff at the notion of Drexel winning both at Oklahoma State and in Morgantown, it's important to note that the Dragons are certainly not afraid of playing away from home. They've knocked off Vermont, Syracuse, Villanova, Creighton, and the mighty Northeastern Huskies on the road this season. Plus, they share the same mascot as my alma mater, Taylor Allderdice High School. Drexel to the Final Four.

West Regional

Man, what happened to Air Force? They were the mid-major darlings earlier in the year, and then they lost it. They're on a four-game losing streak, including an embarrassing loss to Wyoming in the Mountain West Tournament that probably was the final nail in the coffin of Air Force's NCAA resume. I've actually been to the University of Wyoming, and believe me, no one should be losing to any sports team that comes from there. Except for maybe the rodeo team. They are probably pretty good at that.

But I think something's gotta give, considering that Air Force was 23-4 just a few short weeks ago. I'm giving them the West Regional's Final Four bid, if only because no one else from that bracket really instills any confidence in me.

There are still some fun teams, to be sure. In the 4/5 game I'm taking Fresno State over Georgia, although Hines Ward wouldn't agree with me. I still don't like the SEC at all, and Fresno State has a guy named Ja'Vance, which is close to Levance, which is pronounced "Bob Cousy Award."

More Big East love in the other half of the bracket, where I have DePaul beating Vermont in the Sweet 16 (also known as the "second round" in the N.I.T., something that would be amended if people would only listen to me). DePaul plays some tough, gritty basketball, and finished 9-7 in conference play, same as Villanova, although to be fair Nova's schedule was much tougher because of the soon-to-be-extinct unbalanced scheduling. Plus, they have Hofstra in the first round, and Hofstra is so bad it lost to Northeastern by double digits in a game I got to witness personally.

Then, according to my bracket, they'd get to play Vermont at home, because Vermont is a 7 seed and I have them upsetting 2-seeded Kansas State in the first round. I don't think I even heard Kansas State mentioned once until they squeaked by Texas at the beginning of February. Then they sort of disappeared again until they raped a totally lackadaisical Texas Tech in the Big 12 tourney. I'd much rather see any team called the Catamounts win than some nondescript, boring Big 12 team.

Summary: Air Force over DePaul in the Elite Eight.

South Regional

Not only did Syracuse get bent over and fucked in the ass by the NCAA selection committee, they're not even rewarded with a #1 seed in the N.I.T. No, that honor goes to Clemson, which started 17-0 by virtue of playing a non-conference schedule full of powerhouses such as Monmouth, Charleston Southern (I didn't even know this school existed until thirty seconds ago. Awesome.), and Wofford. Still, I figure they'll have a hard time losing to East Tennessee State in the first round, and playing at home to the winner of the 4/5 game, they've got a pretty good chance there, too.

Speaking of that 4/5 game, we have Ole Miss at home to Appalachian State. While I really think the Rebels are the better bet here, some things defy all logic, and one of them is the fact that Appalachian State is HOT HOT HOT!

The other side of the regional is Syracuse's to own. This is a bold assertion, since I have a feeling Syracuse just doesn't care at this point, since getting omitted from the big dance was such a debilitating blow. But I don't care. I have 'Cuse blowing by South Alabama, Missouri State, and Clemson on their way to the final spot in the N.I.T. Final Four.

Final Four

Just to recap, my Final Four consists of:

Michigan, Drexel, Air Force, and Syracuse.

The first semi-final pits Michigan against Drexel, and since these games are now at Madison Square Garden, I feel like Drexel would have more of the crowd behind it here, since Philly is just a quick jaunt away. Michigan has struggled mightily away from Ann Arbor all season, and I'm tempted to go with the hot hand in Drexel. Plus, Dragons. Yes. Drexel it is.

In the other semi-final, if Syracuse has made it this far without apathy setting in, I feel like they'll smell blood and just keep on trucking, right through Air Force. And again, the Syracuse students probably won't have any qualms about driving across New York to attend the game, whereas Air Force might have a little bit more trouble gathering support from Colorado.

That leaves the final as Drexel vs. Syracuse, in a rematch of a game Drexel won at the Carrier Dome, 84-79, back in December. Now that I think about it, these are also the two most-talked about teams when talking heads and water cooler pundits alike bring up this year's batch of NCAA snubs. Maybe hearing these names so often throughout the last 24 hours played a subconscious role in the way my bracket turned out, but either way, in the end, I say 'Cuse wins the rematch in the ultimate "fuck you" to the NCAA selection committee.

Regardless of what happens, I'm excited to see the results. Mainly just to see if Appalachian State can pull off a win, but it'll be fun even if they don't.

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