With the level of men's college basketball rising around the country, the National Invitational Tournament is developing a stronger reputation than it's ever had before.
While fan and media excitement is nowhere near the levels that schools enjoy in the Big Dance, the NIT is still home to NCAA tourney bubble teams and quality teams, especially as you get into the deeper rounds.
Round 1 has come to an end with few surprises other than No. 8 Robert Morris' triumph over top-seeded St. John's. Here's the complete Round 2 schedule with predictions and a closer look at a couple of the most intriguing matchups. For an updated bracket, visit ESPN.com.
|NIT Round 2 Schedule and Picks|
|Fri., 3/21||9:30 p.m.||(5) Belmont vs. (8) Robert Morris||ESPNU||Belmont|
|Sat., 3/22||11 a.m.||(2) Georgia vs. (3) Louisiana Tech||ESPN||Georgia|
|Sun., 3/23||11 a.m.||(2) Illinois vs. (3) Clemson||ESPN||Clemson|
|Sun., 3/23||3 p.m.||(1) Minnesota vs. (4) Saint Mary's||ESPN2||Minnesota|
|Sun., 3/23||5 p.m.||(2) Missouri vs. (3) Southern Miss.||ESPNU||Missouri|
|Mon., 3/24||7 p.m.||(1) Florida State vs. (4) Georgetown||ESPN||Florida State|
|Mon., 3/24||9 p.m.||(1) SMU vs. (5) LSU||ESPN||SMU|
|Mon., 3/24||11 p.m.||(2) California vs. (3) Arkansas||ESPN2||Cal|
(3) Clemson over (2) Illinois
Date: Sunday, March 23
Time: 11 a.m. ET
Where: Clemson, S.C.
Live Stream: WatchESPN
Clemson forward K.J. McDaniels made a name for himself this season, and the NBA looks like a real possibility if he decides to declare after this tournament.
On Tuesday, the junior tied his career high with 30 points while adding 14 rebounds and five blocks in a 78-66 win over Georgia State. Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress.com gave some perspective on McDaniels' efficient performance.
After the game, Aaron Brenner of the Charleston Post and Courier reported that McDaniels fought through left shoulder pain to have his big night.
"We don't want to end our season," McDaniels said. "There's still a sharp pain in it, but I'm fighting through it. Especially in the postseason, I'll do whatever I have to do."
Meanwhile, Illinois (20-14) claimed a thrilling 66-62 road victory over Boston University behind a strong second-half performance from guard Rayvonte Rice (28 points). With State Farm Center undergoing renovations, the Fightin' Illini will have to win three road games if they want to reach Madison Square Garden for the NIT semifinals.
This matchup features a couple of battle-tested teams, with Clemson (21-12) going through the ACC gauntlet and Illinois playing in the stacked Big Ten.
In this case, I expect McDaniels to play a starring role in another Clemson victory. As one of the best all-around players in college basketball, McDaniels should be able to shut down Rice on defense. Even though Illinois had one of the nation's best defenses that allows an average of 62.5 points per game, McDaniels has shown he's capable of exploiting top-caliber teams this year.
Prediction: Clemson wins
(2) Cal over (3) Arkansas
Date: Monday, March 24
Time: 11 p.m. ET
Where: Berkeley, Calif.
Live Stream: WatchESPN
These two teams already faced off earlier in the season on a neutral site when Cal claimed an 85-77 victory over Arkansas at the Maui Invitational in November.
Now that the contest is going to be held in Berkeley, look for the Bears to repeat and move on to the quarterfinals. Cal has a well-balanced scoring attack, and it was on display in the 77-64 opening-round win over Utah Valley State.
The Bears were without 6'10" center Richard Solomon due to a concussion, but if he can return by Monday, Cal (20-13) should be in good shape against the Razorbacks (22-11) in what should be an evenly matched game.
"That's a pretty big deal to get a team like Arkansas on your court in mid-March," Cal coach Mike Montgomery told John Crumpacker of the San Francisco Chronicle. "You want to see some athletes ... it will be an interesting match-up. I'm sure they'll be fired up, ready to go."
Between Solomon and 6'9" forward David Kravish, Cal has a size advantage down low that can help control the tempo and slow down Arkansas' rhythm as a potent run-n'-gun offense. While Arkansas looked impressive in its 91-71 win over Indiana State in the first round, I don't think they'll be able to move the ball up and down the court like they did in their NIT opener.
With four double-digit scorers on the season, the Bears look well-equipped to handle this close affair.
Prediction: Cal wins