Preseason NIT 2012: Top Performers and Grades for Entire Field

Thad NovakCorrespondent INovember 23, 2012

Preseason NIT 2012: Top Performers and Grades for Entire Field

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    Fans looking for high-powered offenses lighting up the scoreboard came away from this year’s preseason NIT with some big smiles. Michigan pounded Kansas State in the title game, 71-57, and that wasn’t even close to the tournament’s most impressive scoring display.

    The field was well stocked with individual offensive stars too. At the top of that list, unsurprisingly, stands Lehigh’s C.J. McCollum, the third-leading scorer in the country.

    Herein, a closer look at McCollum and the rest of the NIT’s top five individual standouts, followed by grades for the entire four-game tournament for all 16 teams.

5. Angel Rodriguez, Kansas State

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    Backcourt mate Rodney McGruder got most of the preseason hype, but Angel Rodriguez made his mark for Kansas State in NIT play. No Wildcat has adapted to new coach Bruce Weber’s offense with more success than the sophomore point guard.

    He opened the tournament by torching Lamar for 19 points and still had time to dish out four assists.

    In the Wildcats’ three remaining games, he scored in double figures every time out—a feat no other K-State player accomplished—while piling up 5.7 assists a night.

4. Tray Woodall, Pitt

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    After battling groin and abdominal injuries much of last season, Tray Woodall is finally getting the chance to prove how good he is. Lehigh probably wishes he weren't after he lit up the Mountain Hawks for 23 points and eight assists in their quarterfinal game.

    Woodall, like most of the Panther offense, struggled in the loss to Michigan, but he bounced back big time in the consolation game against Delaware.

    Woodall shot 6-of-8 from the field to score 13 points against the Blue Hens, and he also dished out seven assists on the night.

3. C.J. McCollum, Lehigh

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    There’s no question that C.J. McCollum had an off night in Lehigh’s only NIT loss (at Pitt). Of course, an off night for him still means 17 points on 7-of-11 shooting, plus three assists and two blocks thrown in for good measure.

    The Lehigh senior is a pure scorer with few equals, and he showed it in this tournament, pouring in 19 points against Robert Morris, 21 against Penn and 35 (including 5-of-7 three-point shooting) against Fairfield.

    That win over the Stags, in which he also grabbed six rebounds, would’ve been McCollum’s best game of the season…if he hadn’t opened the year with 36 points and eight boards against No. 19 Baylor.

2. Devon Saddler, Delaware

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    Offense was at a premium in Delaware’s 59-53 upset over Virginia, and Devon Saddler provided the primary security blanket for the Blue Hens.

    His team-high 15 points included 7-of-8 shooting from the free-throw line—and it was still Saddler’s worst performance of the tournament.

    The 6’2” junior caught fire at Madison Square Garden, scoring nearly half of his team’s total points in two games in New York.

    Of course, despite his 32 points against Kansas State and 28 more against Pitt, Delaware lost both outings. But he still deserves credit for raising his game against his team's toughest competition.

1. Tim Hardaway Jr., Michigan

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    Sometimes lost in the hype over Glenn Robinson III’s arrival in the Michigan backcourt is the fact that the Wolverines already had an awfully good shooting guard with an NBA pedigree.

    Tim Hardaway Jr. spent last season playing sidekick to Trey Burke as a scorer, but in the NIT, Hardaway grabbed the hero’s role for himself.

    His biggest performance came in the championship game, where he poured in a game-high 23 points along with seven rebounds, but he had been putting up impressive numbers throughout the tournament.

    He scored 16 against Pitt and 17 against Cleveland State and, even on his worst scoring night (10 points in the blowout over IUPUI), he was still a force on the glass with seven boards.

Michigan: A

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    No. 4 Michigan was the only ranked team in the NIT field, so anything short of a championship would have been a disappointment.

    Of course, the Wolverines didn’t fall short of a championship, and they earned themselves a couple of valuable wins along the way.

    Beating Cleveland State and IUPUI won’t impress the selection committee much, but Michigan’s other two foes are both NCAA tournament-bound.

    A win over Pitt (even a close one) and a decisive victory over Kansas State will both count in Michigan’s favor come Selection Sunday, and Trey Burke and company are still undefeated on the year to boot.

Delaware: A-

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    For a program as low profile as Delaware, the team's overall record in the NIT is far less important than the fact that it managed to get fans outside the CAA to notice it at all.

    That being the case, the Blue Hens’ road upset of Virginia (which got them to the nationally-televised games at Madison Square Garden) carries a lot more weight than the two losses that followed it.

    Of course, the Blue Hens also provided a pretty strong argument that their win over the Cavaliers wasn’t a fluke, considering that they only lost by three points to a very good Kansas State team.

    The power-conference gauntlet they’ve faced in the NIT—also including Big East sleeper Pitt—will stand them in good stead as they jockey for position in what’s likely to be a wide-open CAA.

Alabama-Huntsville: A-

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    When a Division II school plays four games against D-I opposition, the logical prediction is that it’s going to come away with four losses. That Alabama-Huntsville avoided that fate is a tribute to the Chargers’ heart, as well as to their senior point guard.

    Jaime Smith’s 18-point, eight-assist night keyed an upset win over North Texas in Alabama-Huntsville’s NIT opener.

    The Chargers weren’t in a position to sneak up on their remaining three opponents, but even in defeat, they put up a strong showing against Cleveland State (losing by two) and a respectable one against Bowling Green (leading for much of the first half before falling by a 68-54 score).

Robert Morris: B+

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    Considering that it opened the NIT with a 29-point loss to Lehigh, Robert Morris actually did quite well for itself in two weekends of competition.

    After getting wrecked by the Mountain Hawks, the Colonials bounced back to win all of their final three games.

    The magnitude of that achievement is tempered a bit by the quality of the opponents they defeated—both Fordham and Bowling Green had particularly weak tournaments—but a 3-1 record is still better than most of this field can boast.

    Then, too, strength of schedule counts for a lot less with a team like Robert Morris that has no hope of getting an at-large bid in March in the first place.

Pitt: B

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    Obviously, Pitt would have loved to come away from the NIT having defeated the No. 4 team in the national rankings. The Panthers came up five points short against Michigan, but they did everything else right in this tournament.

    It isn’t just that Pitt won its other three games, against tough Lehigh and Delaware teams, as well as struggling Fordham.

    The eye-opening part is the degree of blowout the Panthers handed all three of those foes: an average margin of victory of 28.7 points per game—more than enough to warn the Big East that this team is not to be overlooked in 2012-13.

Fairfield: B

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    In contrast to many of the unseeded teams in this year’s NIT, Fairfield made the tournament a success by capitalizing on its opportunities.

    The Stags were far from the best team in the field (as evidenced by decisive losses to Virginia and Lehigh), but when they faced an opponent closer their own skill level, they pounced.

    Point guard Desmond Wade provided the highlight of the tournament for Fairfield with a clutch three-pointer to sink Fordham in the final seconds.

    Add in a less-ulcer-inducing win over Penn, and Fairfield came away looking better than a lot of teams in the consolation bracket.

Kansas State: B-

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    Most of a team's non-conference schedule is under its own control, but the difficulty of the opposition it faces in the NIT is up to the bracket designers.

    Still, Kansas State’s 3-1 record as a semifinalist doesn’t look nearly as impressive when you know that the three wins came against Lamar, Alabama-Huntsville and Delaware.

    The Wildcats didn’t exactly cover themselves with glory in the title game, either, getting pummeled by 14 points against fourth-ranked Michigan.

    Making the finals is still an accomplishment unto itself, but it loses some luster when only one of the wins involved (the 66-63 squeaker over Delaware) has even a prayer of mattering to the selection committee.

Lehigh: C

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    Lehigh played exactly as well as the No. 5 seed in the NIT is projected to, losing a road game to the No. 4 seed but beating every other opponent. The real issue for the Mountain Hawks is that they could have done so much more with this tournament.

    Had Lehigh played as well against Pitt as it did last March in upsetting Duke, it could have set the tone for a monster season.

    Instead, a blowout loss to the Panthers makes the rest of the Mountain Hawks’ achievements—wins over Robert Morris, Fairfield and Penn—ring a little bit hollow.

Virginia: C-

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    Virginia was the victim of the NIT’s biggest upset, falling at home to eighth-seeded Delaware before the tournament even moved to Madison Square Garden.

    Painful though that loss was, though, the Cavaliers recovered well enough to limit the damage to their season as a whole.

    UVA’s performance in the consolation rounds (a 19-point win over Lamar and a 16-point romp against North Texas) certainly helped vindicate its pre-tournament billing, not to mention returning a bit of its power-conference swagger.

    The Cavaliers' NIT-opening win over Fairfield wasn’t quite as resounding, but overall, their 3-1 finish could certainly have been worse.

Cleveland State: C-

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    Cleveland State deserves some sort of “avoiding disaster” award for its NIT performance.

    The Vikings posted a respectable 2-2 record—albeit against some iffy competition aside from top-seeded Michigan—but came agonizingly close to an 0-4 finish in the tournament.

    CSU opened against in-state rival Bowling Green, where it needed a late turnover from the Falcons’ Jordon Crawford to take the game into overtime before earning a 79-73 win.

    The Vikings then got another huge scare from Division II Alabama-Huntsville, who missed a pair of chances to take the lead in the closing seconds of a 71-69 defeat.

Lamar: C-

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    Stuck with the toughest four-game schedule in the NIT, the Cardinals performed exactly as expected. That’s small comfort, though, when the expectation is a 1-3 finish.

    Both second-seeded Virginia and third-seeded Kansas State pummeled Lamar with ease, and erratic North Texas (featuring one of the tournament’s top individual talents in Tony Mitchell) had one of its good days in serving up a third decisive loss.

    The Cardinals salvaged some dignity by edging out IUPUI, but one win isn’t a whole lot of solace for three losses, even if they were “good” losses.

IUPUI: D

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    The Jaguars had the bad luck to draw top-seeded Michigan in their opening game, but their poor grade here has little to do with their blowout loss to the Wolverines.

    The larger problem is that IUPUI won just one of its three remaining games against decidedly more beatable competition.

    The win (over Bowling Green) was convincing enough, but it hardly outweighs a pair of tough losses.

    Lamar and North Texas both had rough tournaments of their own, so it’s hard to salvage much of a silver lining from falling to either foe, much less to both on consecutive nights.

North Texas: D-

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    Of all the unseeded teams in the NIT, none came in with higher expectations than North Texas.

    The Mean Green feature a preseason Wooden Award candidate in PF Tony Mitchell (15.7 points and 8.8 rebounds per game so far), but still managed to lose their tournament opener to lowly Alabama-Huntsville, the field’s only Division II squad.

    Wins over shaky Lamar and IUPUI squads do little to ease the pain of that defeat, especially given how the tournament ended for North Texas.

    Given a chance at redemption with a shot at an ACC team, North Texas flopped in Charlottesville, falling 80-64 to Virginia.

Bowling Green: D-

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    Bowling Green barely topped .500 a year ago, so it wouldn’t have needed to accomplish much in order to call the NIT a success. The Falcons would, however, have had to beat a team from Division I, and they couldn’t even manage that.

    The Falcons’ only two wins on the season have come against Division II foes, including Alabama-Huntsville in their NIT finale.

    That victory, though, can’t offset the damage done by a trio of losses to three unremarkable D-I foes (Cleveland State, Robert Morris and IUPUI) over the rest of the tourney.

Fordham: D-

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    Fordham couldn’t have looked much worse during the opening weekend of NIT action. The Rams followed a 35-point loss to Pitt with a 16-point defeat at the hands of unheralded Robert Morris.

    Chris Gaston and company played better in the consolation rounds, but not much.

    They avoided a winless tournament by just two points with a 70-68 victory over Penn, then put up a good fight against Fairfield before adding another three-point loss to their already-ugly record.

Penn: F

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    Being the only team without a single win in a four-game tournament is a lonely place to be. It’s even lonelier when it means you’ve finished behind Division II Alabama-Huntsville.

    Penn didn’t exactly lose to pushovers, with Delaware and Lehigh heading its list of opponents. Still, 0-4 is 0-4, and only one of those (a 70-68 defeat at the hands of Fordham) was even all that close.