by Trevor Whenham - 03/13/2006
Maybe it's because I am a huge Michigan fan and I have to find the positives from another dismal season, but I think that the National Invitation Tournament is as competitive and hotly contested thus year as it has been for a long time. The NCAA bought the NIT this year and is putting more of their efforts into improving and promoting it. If you can't get enough action from March Madness, the NIT runs at the same time and provides you with 40 more teams playing down to one for you to gamble on.
Like the big dance, the NIT has four No. 1 seeds. Each of them is a decent team that has found ways to underachieve and miss the tournament. Cincinnati has been particularly vocal, whining that Air Force stole the NCAA berth that was rightly theirs. It would likely have been in if it hadn't been the first victim of the Gerry McNamara last second express in its Big East tournament game against Syracuse.
Maryland lost to Boston College in the ACC tournament to finish with 12 losses, too many for the big time. They were 8-8 in the conference, which was fine if not outstanding, though it did win a couple of impressive games. Louisville came into the season hyped to go deep in March, but struggled in the very tough Big East. It didn't help that it had to play Connecticut and Villanova two times each. The final No. 1 is Michigan, the NIT champions of two years ago. The Wolverines were cruising to the 64 until they lost 7 of their last 9, often in pathetic fashion. All four teams have something to prove and some upset fans to appease. Each has very winnable first games, setting up some potentially interesting later-round matchups.
Those four teams aren't the only ones worth watching, however. Any team that won its regular season conference title but failed to win the postseason crown was guaranteed an NIT bid this year for the first time. One team that took advantage was the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers. They have been a darkhorse March Madness bracket buster in the past and they will be looking to wreak havoc in the NIT this year. They are a No. 6 seed that could surprise. A No. 2 to keep an eye on will be Florida State. They are stunningly inconsistent, beating Duke and getting crushed by Wake Forest within a week. Hofstra is a No. 2 that is the kind of team that would be arousing interest as a low seed in the big tournament. They come into the NIT having won 14 of 16, including two wins against George Mason, a No. 11 seed in the NCAA tournament.
The second round of the tournament runs Monday and Tuesday, March 20 and 21. Some surprisingly entertaining matchups are likely. St. Joe's, which we got to know and love two years ago, and Hofstra are well matched for a great game. Michigan and Vanderbilt are two teams that can beat solid competition and then lose to cellar dwellers, so their game will either be fantastic or unwatchable. Cincinnati should be out for blood and either Minnesota or Wake Forest can put up enough resistance to make it interesting. Louisville and Clemson have the same record, but Louisville has much more talent and will be looking to prove it.
If everything goes approximately to form, the best game of the tournament could very well be the semi-final between Cincinnati and Louisville that would fall on Tuesday, March 28 and will be televised. The Big East rivals played twice, both winning at home. A grudge match between the two well-matched squads would be outstanding basketball.
I won't pretend for a second that the NIT is even remotely comparable to the NCAA Tournament. If the teams were really good, they wouldn't be in the NIT. That being said, it is a whole bunch more basketball to watch. Most of the games fall on off days for the big tournament, so you don't even have to sacrifice another game to follow these ones. True basketball fans are in the midst of a serious addiction this time of year, and the NIT is a great way to get a fix between tournament games.
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of Doc's college basketball picks service.