Although the NCAA tournament has dominated the spotlight since Selection Sunday, the NIT has featured some entertaining action of its own. The event will take center stage for the next few days as it enters the quarterfinal round.
Three of the top seeds are left standing, and the only major surprise among the final eight teams is Belmont. St. John's was upset in the opening round by Robert Morris, which opened the door for the Bruins. The remaining squads are now just three wins from a postseason title.
Let's check out all of the important information for the quarterfinals, including a schedule and predictions for all four games on tap. It's followed by a breakdown of the top remaining contenders heading into the round.
Bracket, Schedule and Predictions
Bracket: CBS Sports
|3/25||(5) Belmont vs. (3) Clemson||7 p.m.||CLEM|
|3/25||(3) Southern Miss vs. (1) Minnesota||9 p.m.||MINN|
|3/26||(3) Louisiana Tech vs. (1) Florida St.||7 p.m.||LA TECH|
|3/26||(2) California vs. (1) SMU||9 p.m.||SMU|
Ranking Top Contenders
The Mustangs were building a very strong NCAA tournament case until a three-game losing streak heading into Selection Sunday dashed their hopes. It was the type of disappointing finish that could have really caused the squad to lose focus en route to an early NIT exit.
That's where having an experienced coach helped. The Associated Press (via ESPN) passed along comments from 73-year-old Larry Brown, who said he told his team to avoid complaining and instead put that energy into finishing strong:
I said that I didn't want to see anybody crying or complaining, because I didn't want to take anything away from the teams that got in. When I saw that Louisville was selected as a 4-seed, I figured that (the NCAA tournament selection committee) didn't have a lot of respect for our conference.
We need to figure out how we can finish strong and get better. We can only blame ourselves. That's the way I look at it.
The message seems to have resonated with his players. SMU has won each of its first two NIT games by double digits. The team's second-half performance against LSU after being down by five at the break showed how good it can be when at its best.
While the Mustangs are built on a strong defensive base, the biggest key of all is Nick Russell. The senior guard is streaky on the offensive end, but when he's playing well they become a very difficult team to beat with Nic Moore and Markus Kennedy leading the way.
Minnesota is a so well-rounded team capable of playing any style. It illustrated that in the first two rounds, beating High Point in a high-scoring affair and then coming back to knock off St. Mary's in more of a defensive battle.
The Golden Gophers are at their best playing a slower tempo because they move the ball around well on offense and are very active in the passing lanes defensively. But if the other team wants to play quick, they have enough firepower to keep pace with three players above 11 points per game.
Being able to adapt on the fly isn't easy, and Minnesota's ability to do it is a testament to first-year head coach Richard Pitino. As Cory Hepola of CSN Houston points out, reaching this stage of the season is an accomplishment, even if it's not the NCAA tournament:
The X-factor for Minnesota as it continues to hunt for a title is Elliott Eliason. The center isn't a major offensive contributor, but in the win over St. Mary's he blocked seven shots in an eight-point win. Erasing points like that in close games is a huge advantage.
3. Louisiana Tech
The Bulldogs haven't been generating much attention, but they are a strong sleeper selection to emerge with the NIT title. They are a team that was forced to overcome some adversity and are still just one win away from hitting 30 for the campaign.
Which team will win the NIT?
Raheem Appleby, who got off to a terrific start this season, suffered an ankle injury in January and missed more than a month. He hasn't played anywhere near as well since his return, leaving Louisiana Tech without one of its most valuable contributors.
Several players stepped up in order to fill the void, including Jaron Johnson. If that hadn't happened, the Bulldogs would have been in major trouble since they like to play an up-tempo style. The depth has allowed the team to move past the injury and get itself back in the conversation for a postseason title.
Ultimately, Louisiana Tech is a team that relies heavily on the outside shot with seven different players capable of hitting threes. If the Bulldogs can get hot from beyond the arc over the next few weeks, they can beat anybody in the tournament.