The National Invitation Tournament is the red-headed stepchild of the college basketball postseason. While 65 programs get to experience the glory and the headlines that come with an invitation to the Big Dance, the snubbed squads of the nation let out a collective sigh and get ready for a possible trip to Madison Square Garden.
But the NIT isn't that bad of a consolation prize. Winning this tourney can redeem a lost season, prove that pesky selection committee wrong, or lay the groundwork for a better 2011.
Granted, Penn State followed their 2009 title with a disastrous 2010, but at least Talor Battle got to cut down somebody's nets during his time at State College.
Here are at least eight great reasons to watch this season's National Invitation Tournament, which kicks off Tuesday and Wednesday with first-round action around the country:
These are the schools whose video feeds we didn't get to see on CBS Selection Sunday. Which is probably for the best, because coaches Seth Greenberg (Hokies) and Bruce Weber (Illini) may have needed a three-second audio delay in lieu of serious self-control.
Illinois (No. 52 in the Pomeroy Ratings ), Virginia Tech (No. 31, the highest-rated team in the field), and Memphis (No. 51) all have legitimate beefs with the committee this year.
Tech's Malcolm Delaney is a bonafide star, making the all-ACC first team this year on his way to a lucrative NBA career. He averaged over 20 points a game for the Hokies, along with 4.3 assists and 3.6 boards, while hitting the 30 point mark five times. Four came against NCAA Tournament teams including Clemson, Temple, and Georgia Tech.
Memphis, in its first year without John Calipari, is just two years removed from a trip to the NCAA Championship game. The Tigers lost to Houston in the C-USA tournament by a single point, sending the Cougars on their way to an improbable dance invite while costing themselves a bid.
Sophomore guard Elliot Williams, a Duke transfer, leads the team in scoring (18.3 ppg). But he needs to get his mojo back if Memphis wants to make a run. He has shot just 17-53 over the Tigers' last five.
Illinois thought their win over Wisconsin, coupled with taking Ohio State to double overtime in the Big Ten Tournament semis, might be enough to earn them a dance card. But a 19-14 record and bad losses to teams like Utah and Bradley were enough to sway the committee the other way.
Juniors Demetri McCamey and Mike Tisdale give the Fighting Illini a solid inside-outside game. As a No. 1 seed, they draw Stony Brook in the first round, and I look for Illinois to play with a chip on its shoulder while making a deep run in the NIT.
Ah, North Carolina. The perennial powerhouse is one of those schools that you expect to see in your bracket each and every year, but they barely qualified for even the NIT in 2010 at 16-16.
I guess losing Tyler Hansbrough and Ty Lawson would be enough to make anybody take a step back, but Carolina's preseason ranking has proven even more inaccurate than the most optimistic Duke fan could have hoped.
Ken Pomeroy projects a comfortable Tar Heels win in the first round, but will fans show up for the NIT? Roy Williams is probably the best coach in this tournament, but he has struggled to deal with this .500 season. Carolina ended the season losing nine of their last 12, including a loss to Georgia Tech in the early rounds of the ACC tourney.
That first round prediction looks safe, except that UNC happens to have drawn a particularly interesting opponent...
William and Mary has enjoyed serious hype all year, much more than their unassuming profile (No. 113 Pomeroy, No. 58 RPI) would dictate.
Their reputation as a giant killer precedes them, and was earned by beating Richmond (home), Maryland (road), and Wake Forest (road) during a brutal nonconference schedule. All three are in the Big Dance.
Sophomore swingman Quinn McDowell (6'5", 212) might be one of the best players in the NIT this year. He is capable of offensive explosions and is joined by steady senior guard David Schneider in a duo that can give opposing guards fits.
Is Carolina's defensive ace Marcus Ginyard up to the challenge, or can William and Mary add another scalp to their wall and atone for losing to Old Dominion in the Colonial conference finals?
Mississippi State (No. 54 Pomeroy) and Mississippi (No. 41) enjoy a classic intra-state rivalry, one that State has gotten the better of twice this year.
The powers that be at the NIT placed the Rebels (or should I make it the Ackbars ?) and the Bulldogs on opposite sides of the bracket, setting up a potentially epic clash in the finals if both schools can survive.
Bulldog forward Jarvis Varnado might be the biggest name in this year's tourney. Averaging a double-double and almost five blocks a game, the senior makes opponents fear the paint.
Mississippi junior guard Chris Warren paces the Ackbars, shooting .415 from downtown to average over 17 points a game. But his team has struggled in big games, with their only two big wins coming in early season action against Kansas State and UTEP.
Cardiac Cats Go East
Northwestern (No. 77) just had its best season in school history, notching 20 wins after losing its best player before the season even began. Pomeroy rates their matchup with Rhode Island as Wednesday's game to watch.
Rhode Island skidded into the postseason with painful losses to also-rans St. Bonaventure and Massachusetts, as well as a 57-44 pasting at the hands of NCAA 5-seed Temple, but they are 13-2 at home this year. Northwestern is 2-8 on the road.
Guard Michael "Juice" Thompson plays over 90 percent of minutes for the Wildcats and was one of the Big Ten's best point guards all season. Sophomore John Shurna was one of the best players in the Big Ten, period, averaging just over 18 and six from the forward spot.
URI's best win came over Oklahoma State in the early going. Northwestern's best wins include Purdue, Notre Dame, and fellow NIT teams NC State and Illinois. As a Wildcat partisan, I'm hoping that the road will be kind to Northwestern. Either way, it should be an exciting game.
Gang of Five
According to pundits around the country, the Big East is the nation's best conference. Eight Big East teams got into the NCAAs. Five more are in the NIT. That's a whole lot of postseason love.
South Florida (No. 78 Pomeroy), Connecticut (No. 55), Seton Hall (No. 62), Cincinnati (No. 69), and St. Johns (No. 72) ought to give Madison Square Garden a distinctive Big East flavor in the coming weeks.
Four-seed Seton Hall welcomes Texas Tech before a probable second rounder against Arizona State, both major conference opponents who could feel the wrath of the East.
UConn (another 4 seed) draws 20-12 Northeastern, a talented squad, and could play Va. Tech in second round. Behind Carolina's Williams, UConn's Jim Calhoun is the second best coach in the NIT, although his health problems have certainly played a role in the Huskies' struggles this year.
USF (a 3-seed) will play NC State in the first round, yet another major conference matchup. Their star guard Dominique Jones averages 21.3 points per game and gives the NIT yet another superstar to watch.
Cincinnati (2-seed) gets Weber State (20-10, No. 109) from Big Sky in first round, a team that has a lot of postseason experience with getting knocked out in the first round.
St. Johns is the only Big East school denied home court advantage in the first round, and drew Memphis. If they can survive the Tigers, they get to come home to the Garden and a probable game against Ole Miss.
The Big East has to be the favorite to cut down the nets in Madison Square, on numbers alone.
The Mid-Major Superstar
Illinois State's Osiris Eldridge (6'3", 215, senior guard) has been starting in Bloomington-Normal since he was a freshman. This year, he leads a deep, experienced Redbirds squad that will play Dayton on the road in Round One. The Flyers are arguably the best team State has faced all year outside of Northern Iowa, and Eldridge and Co. couldn't handle UNI.
The Missouri Valley is well-represented this year, with Wichita State joining ISU in the NIT bracket, and Northern Iowa getting hard-earned hype in the Big Dance.
A Blessing In Disguise
Coastal Carolina had a great year. Yet at 28-6, they're out, while Winthrop dances. That's gotta hurt.
The Chanticleers drew Mike Davis' UAB Blazers in the first round, creating an exciting medieval match up—the Blazers' mascot is a dragon, while a Chanticleer, by all appearances, is some kind of mythical rooster.
Junior Chad Grey (6'7", 205) and senior Joseph Harris (6'5", 180) lead the scoring for Coastal, and both shoot good percentages at well over 50 percent. The Chanticleers got beat down by Duke on Nov. 16, 74-49, in their only game against a true major opponent.
UAB may be favored to win on their home floor in Birmingham, but Coastal Carolina is honestly lucky to have choked against Winthrop. Those poor saps get to go to the play-in game for the honor of battling Duke in the first round of the other tourney.
Who do you think has a better chance to make a run? I'll take the Chanticleers for all the marbles, please.
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