Often labeled as second fiddle to the NCAA tournament, the NIT gives those teams unable to make the cut a last-ditch chance at glory in a tournament of their own.
As one could probably imagine, a tournament of any kind creates an incredible environment. Though this tournament features just 32 teams as opposed to the bigger 68 of the madness, anything can and will still happen—like South Dakota State upsetting No. 1 Colorado State last year.
Unlike the bigger tournament, team motivation can play a large part in how things shake out, making it all the more unpredictable. A team unhappy with missing out on the Big Dance is susceptible to an upset by a team certainly happy to get a nod.
Here's a look at the early schedule for the NIT:
|First, Second, Quarterfinals||March 15-23||Campus Sites|
|Semifinals||March 29||Madison Square Garden, New York City|
|Finals||March 31||Madison Square Garden, New York City|
As mentioned, 32 teams get bids, and as the table shows, higher seeds get the home court. The official bracket gets a reveal show of its own on ESPNU at 8:30 p.m. ET on Selection Sunday.
The latest bracketology predictions and insight provide a glimpse of how wild the tournament could be.
For example, Big Apple Buckets' annual projections have Valparaiso and Florida as notable No. 1 seeds. The latter is quite interesting because the Gators sit 51st in ESPN's RPI rankings with a 1-6 mark against the RPI top 25. A No. 1 seed in the NIT meshes well with ESPN.com's Joe Lunardi, who has the Gators as one of the top eight teams missing the NCAA tournament in his bracketology predictions.
Valparaiso might be even more interesting, though. The Crusaders are quietly one of the better teams in the nation at 26-6 with an RPI of 54, not to mention a respectable 4-2 mark against the RPI top 100.
But the Crusaders took an ugly overtime loss to Green Bay to exit the Horizon League conference tournament early, meaning nothing comes easy for the team from here on out. It joins North Florida, Wichita State, Belmont, Bucknell, Hofstra and others as teams to bow out of conference brackets early, and they now have to sweat it out with only the NIT a sure thing.
Which isn't a bad thing for the NIT. All these upsets could mean a dip in quality for the Big Dance, but they also mean more quality for the NIT, which might have a better field than ever. Yahoo Sports' Jeff Eisenberg provided context to the situation:
Seven top-seeded teams have already slipped up in conference tournaments and only SoCon winner Chattanooga has so far managed to cut down the nets.
All the upsets will make for a weaker NCAA tournament because some of the nation's best small-conference squads will be relegated to the NIT. March Madness will miss Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker if Wichita State does not earn an at-large bid, as will it also be worse off if a deep, experienced Valparaiso team is left home or if Monmouth's fun-loving bench is doomed to the NIT.
Though some teams might find it bad to land in the NIT and not get a shot at playing the Cinderella, others might welcome the experience for reasons other than the just-happy-to-be-here justification.
Take a team like the Monmouth Hawks. A 27-7 record and 58th RPI ranking look good, but a .500 mark against the RPI top 50 and RPI top 100 says a lot about where the program resides. The silver lining? The explosive Hawks, who took down notables such as Notre Dame and USC this year, should have every player back next season.
It's enough for Stephen Edelson of the Asbury Park Press to argue that the NIT is preferable on the chance the team gets more time together on the court compared to a brief NCAA tournament showing.
"If the Hawks were to make a nice run in the NIT, which they’re already in by virtue of their MAAC regular-season title, they might have another three games against good competition," Edelson wrote. "More if they reach the semifinals at Madison Square Garden in the 32-team event."
Dilemmas such as this are where the NIT will entertain this year. The bracket format lends to entertainment, but with so many developing teams and squads with chips on their shoulders after missing out on greater things colliding, it makes for a combustible event.
Much will change ahead of the actual selection process. But with Florida, Valparaiso, Wichita State, Gonzaga and maybe even LSU—featuring borderline surefire No. 1 NBA draft pick Ben Simmons—on the way to the tournament based on the latest bracketology, the days of outright ignoring the NIT are over.
Far from the days the bracket was just lesser-skilled teams that missed out on something bigger, this year's NIT looks like it will put on a historic show from a competitiveness standpoint.