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NIT 2014: Under-the-Radar Teams Capable of Making Deep Tournament Run

Mar 14, 2014; Atlanta, GA, USA; LSU Tigers guard Anthony Hickey (1) heads up court leaving Kentucky Wildcats forward Julius Randle (30) on the floor behind him during the first half in the quarterfinals of the SEC college basketball tournament at Georgia Dome.  Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
Tyler BrookeSenior Analyst IIMarch 17, 2014

Everyone may be talking about the NCAA tournament with March Madness now in full swing, but the NIT is also getting ready to start up, and there are a few teams flying under the radar that could make deep runs in that tournament.

Several teams now playing in the NIT were stunned to not get bids to the Big Dance, but the biggest may have been the SMU Mustangs. At 23-9, the Mustangs had big wins over teams like Connecticut, Memphis and Cincinnati, but the committee decided to pass up on the talented team after it finished the season with three straight losses.

While SMU will be a favorite to win it all in the NIT, there are a few teams people are overlooking that could make a run at the championship game, so let's take a look at some of them.

 

West Virginia Mountaineers

Feb 15, 2014; Austin, TX, USA;  West Virginia Mountaineers head coach Bob Huggins shouts during the second half against the Texas Longhorns at Frank Erwin Special Events Center. The Longhorns defeated the Mountaineers 88-71. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormin
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Big 12 was loaded with talent this year, and the West Virginia Mountaineers were unable to keep up, going 9-9 in the conference and 17-15 overall. But they showed at times during the regular season that they could run with even the best teams in the Big 12, with wins against teams like Kansas, Iowa State and Oklahoma.

While not the best team defensively, the Mountaineers were able to grab some big wins thanks to their offense. This season, they've averaged 77.5 points per game, ranking 36th in the nation. According to KenPom.com, West Virginia was 23rd in adjusted offense, ahead of impressive teams like Virginia, Syracuse and Arizona.

The Mountaineers will start the NIT by taking on Georgetown, and that could be a difficult matchup. But these aren't the same Hoyas that used to be one of the best teams in the country. Instead, the Hoyas went 8-10 this year in a weaker Big East Conference, and they could be facing an early exit against a streaky West Virginia team.

 

Green Bay Phoenix

Nov 16, 2013; Green Bay, WI, USA; Wisconsin-Green Bay Phoenix guard Carrington Love (12) takes the ball down the floor as his team plays the Wisconsin Badgers at the Resch Center in Ashwaubenon. Wisconsin defeated Wisconsin-Green Bay 69-66. Mandatory Cred
Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

Despite having the best record in the Horizon League, the Green Bay Phoenix were unable to punch a ticket to the Big Dance, as they were just barely passed over.

Instead, the Phoenix are now in the NIT and looking to prove that they should have gone to the NCAA tournament. They certainly had the resume, going 24-6 with a 14-2 conference record, a big win against Virginia and a three-point loss to Wisconsin.

The Phoenix will be a tough team to go against for anyone in the NIT, as their defense can be dominant at times. They held their opponents to just 39.1 percent shooting this season while recording 220 blocks this year, ranking 12th and second in the nation, respectively. 

That stifling defense will be tested early, however, as the Phoenix will be going against the Belmont Bruins, a team that ranks second in the nation in field-goal percentage, making 50.5 percent of its shots. But the Phoenix should be able to contain Belmont's high-scoring offense, and a big win like that should help give them some momentum for the rest of the tournament.

 

LSU Tigers

Mar 13, 2014; Atlanta, GA, USA; LSU Tigers forward Shavon Coleman (5) and forward Johnny O'Bryant III (2) react after defeating the Alabama Crimson Tide in the second round of the SEC college basketball tournament at Georgia Dome. LSU defeated Alabama 68-
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The LSU Tigers struggled to stay consistent throughout the season, but at 19-13 with a 9-9 SEC record, this team has the potential to make some noise with a couple of NIT wins.

For the Tigers, they have a pretty strong frontcourt that can force turnovers with blocked shots and steals while also dominating on the glass. With 39.7 rebounds per game, the Tigers are currently 10th in the nation in rebounding, while also adding a strong 5.9 blocks and 7.7 steals per contest.

That frontcourt is led by junior and freshman forwards Johnny O'Bryant III and Jordan Mickey. O'Bryant leads the team in scoring, averaging 15.5 points and 7.8 rebounds per game while shooting 49.7 percent from the field. Meanwhile, Mickey has been having a sensational rookie season, putting up 12.8 points, 7.9 rebounds and 3.2 blocks per game while shooting 53.3 percent.

Those talented players down low should do a good job of eliminating San Francisco's star player Cole Dickerson in the first round. Dickerson is putting up 14.8 points and 7.7 rebounds per game, but he may have trouble getting by O'Bryant and Mickey, making it a lot harder for the Dons to get their offense going.

If the Tigers can get a win over the Dons, they'll be set to play the Mustangs, and while that may be a very tough matchup, they could pull off the upset if they could continue to focus on staying aggressive down low.

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