NIT Tournament 2021: Bracket, Schedule and Top 1st-Round Matchups to Watch

Adam Wells@adamwells1985Featured ColumnistMarch 16, 2021

Colorado State head coach Niko Medved directs his players during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Duke in Durham, N.C., Friday, Nov. 8, 2019. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Gerry Broome/Associated Press

The NIT in men's college basketball is back this year, albeit in a condensed form with only 16 teams vying for the championship that starts Wednesday. 

One possible wrinkle with this year's tourney is that three of the four No. 1 seedsColorado State, Mississippi and Saint Louis—are alternates for the NCAA tournament and could make the 68-team field if one of the schools has to withdraw because of COVID-19 issues. 

The NCAA set a Tuesday deadline for teams to meet health and safety protocols, so those three teams will know by the end of the day where they will be playing this week. 

Here's the bracket for this year's NIT as well as matchups to watch when first-round play begins Wednesday. 

Jordan Strack @JordanStrack

Here is the NIT bracket.. Toledo plays Richmond on Wednesday night down in Texas. 7 pm on ESPN2. https://t.co/qBg5j2TdMJ

No. 1 Colorado State vs. No. 4 Buffalo

Since Colorado State is among the alternate teams for the NCAA tournament, it's safe to say the school was very close to making the field. 

The Rams had an excellent regular season, finishing with an 18-6 record (14-4 in the Mountain West). Head coach Niko Medved's team doesn't play a flashy style, but it has built a formula for consistent success. 

Colorado State ranks 108th in scoring offense with 75.5 points per game, but ranks 47th in defensive rating (94.3). David Roddy and Isaiah Stevens are a dynamic backcourt duo who combined to average 31.2 points and 14.2 rebounds per game. 

Stevens shot 41.8 percent from three-point range. Adam Thistlewood is also an excellent shooter from behind the arc (39.3 percent this season). 

Buffalo could play spoiler after coming off a strong finish to the regular season. The Bulls won seven straight games before losing to Ohio in the MAC title game. 

The Bulls play a very different style than Colorado State. They operate at a fast pace and score a lot of points. They lead Division I with 44.0 rebounds per game and rank 17th with 81.7 points per game. 

Buffalo has four players who average at least 13.5 points per game. Ronaldo Segu is their best three-point shooter (40.7 percent). Jeenathan Williams averaged a career-high 17.4 points per game with a 48.6 field-goal percentage. 


No. 2 Davidson vs. No. 3 North Carolina State 

North Carolina State saved its season with a five-game winning streak to end the regular season, but it couldn't carry that momentum into the ACC tournament. Syracuse had no problem against the Wolfpack in the second round with an 89-68 win. 

Davidson has also had an up-and-down year with a 13-8 overall record, including a 3-3 mark in its last six games. The Wildcats do present a number of problems coming into this matchup, especially on the offensive end because of their size. 

Head coach Bob McKillop's team tied for 31st in the nation with 63.6 points allowed per game during the regular season. It does look worse based on defensive rating, where it slips down to 145th in the nation (99.3). 

But the Wildcats offensive rating of 112.8 ranks 15th in the nation. Kellan Grady is the engine that drives the offense with 17.3 points per game on 47.7 percent shooting (39.7 percent from three). Luka Brajkovic (6'10") and Hyunjung Lee (6'7") are potential matchup problems for NC State. 

North Carolina State has been using a big starting lineup down the stretch. Manny Bates (6'11"), Jericole Hellems (6'7") and D.J. Funderbunk (6'10") can offset Davidson's size, but they don't have the same shooting efficiency. 

Funderbunk and Bates don't shoot three-pointers. The Wolfpack average 32.6 rebounds per game, 339th in the country. If they can't score and are letting Davidson get a lot of second-chance opportunities, this game will get out of hand in a hurry. 


No. 2 Saint Mary's vs. No. 3 Western Kentucky

Every year, there's at least one mid-major program that has a great regular season but falters in the conference tournament and inevitably gets left out of the NCAA tournament. 

Western Kentucky had that happen to them in 2020-21. The Hilltoppers won Conference USA's East Division and set themselves up for an automatic tournament berth, but North Texas ruined that dream in the conference title game with a 61-57 upset win in overtime. 

It's a credit to Western Kentucky that the game even went to overtime, as it started the game ice-cold and North Texas took a 17-0 lead in the first five minutes. 

That seemed bound to happen at some point based on how Western Kentucky had been playing throughout that tournament. The Hilltoppers were sloppy with 14.7 turnovers in three games against UAB, UTSA and North Texas. 

Saint Mary's is playing with house money at this point. The Gaels finished seventh in the West Coast Conference with a 14-9 overall record. Their only path to success is on defense, where they rank 18th in points allowed (62.3) and 49th in rating (94.5). 

Offense has been lacking for head coach Randy Bennett in 2020-21. They rank 324th with 64.1 points per game and shoot just 29.3 percent from three-point range. 

Despite those numbers, the NIT made Saint Mary's a higher seed than Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers can pull off the upset in this game as long as they protect the basketball.