Silver Lining in NIT Tip-off
In an underwhelming field, the competition might be off the charts.
by Jon Jaques / @JJaques25
People on SLAMonline—and on twitter timelines everywhere—got predictably amped when the NBA released its schedule for the upcoming (?) ‘11-12 season a couple of days ago (fans always need something to look forward to in a dark sports summer, especially when the most exciting thing going is the Pittsburgh Pirates leading the NL Central). But college basketball’s schedule, which is guaranteed to proceed as planned, trickles out more by the day.
Yesterday, it was the NIT Season Tip-off’s turn to release its participants, pods and schedules. But unlike in year’s past, this field does not have much of a ‘wow’ factor. This season’s marquee teams (if you want to call them that), which will host first-round tournament games November 14-16, are Syracuse, Oklahoma State, Virginia Tech and Stanford.
Normally the NIT likes to invite its hosts based on who could potentially draw largest crowds at the tournament’s Final Four “Feast Weak” spectacle in Madison Square Garden (this of course involves assuming these teams actually advance this far, which has been far from a given in the tournament’s recent history).
But with other pre-season holiday tournaments leap-frogging the NIT in stature and buzz, top-tier programs are clearly passing up this event for rising, hot-spot gatherings. Luxurious, winter-escapes like Maui, Orlando, Puerto Rico and the Bahamas sound better to coaches, players and, most importantly… recruits. There are also the increasingly frequent made-for-TV showcases to generate excitement in the season’s opening weeks, like this November’s inaugural and snootily named “Champions Classic” at MSG featuring Duke, Kentucky, Kansas and Michigan State.
Programs of this caliber understandably don’t want to waste their time (and potentially risk a seed-crushing loss) facing the typical first round chum in the NIT pods if they don’t have to.
But this year’s NIT Season Tip-off could make up for what it lacks in flash with high-stakes competition. With the exception of Syracuse, which figures to be at the top of the Big East with a loaded and hungry roster, the other host teams figure to be bubble teams at best come March. In other words, this tournament is a precious chance for quality wins for Oklahoma State, Virginia Tech and Stanford.
String together three or four wins and your season has steady momentum heading into the rest of the non-conference schedule. Failure to get out of your own pod is a soul-squashing buzz kill.
Syracuse will host Manhattan, and Albany and Brown will face each other in the Carrier Dome’s other first round match-up. The Orange will crush this field (though anyone with a heart should love that American East-Ivy match-up).
There is potential for a nice little second-round match-up between Virginia Tech and George Mason in Blacksburg. When the Hokies get by Monmouth and Mason knocks off Florida International, the in-state battle for a trip to New York could be fun. George Mason is easily the top non-host in this tournament (and might be more deserving of its own pod in the region than Virginia Tech).
Oklahoma State hosts Arkansas Pine-Bluff, with Oral Roberts and Texas-San Antonio meeting in the other side of the pod. Yawn.
And finally Stanford faces Fresno State, and Colorado State takes on SMU in Palo Alto. It’s sad, but about 10 people on the West Coast will watch these games… how do you think the East Coast majority will receive it?
Conclusion: Syracuse is in a league of its own, but the other three hosts plus George Mason have a lot to gain by playing well … and even more to lose by laying a dud.
Non-college basketball diehards will probably lose interest in this tournament before it even starts, but if you give the NIT Season Tip-off a chance, you might see some unusually inspired basketball for the first month of the season.
Jon Jaques is a former starter for the Cornell Big Red and former forward for Israel’s Ironi Ashkelon club.