by Phil Kasiecki
The 2002 NIT represents a change in a couple of respects, both positive. The field has expanded to include 40 teams, and with that change, more mid-major teams get in. In the past, a high-major conference team that barely broke .500 made the NIT over mid-major teams with 20 wins that were left out of the NCAA Tournament; there have been seasons where the NIT left out almost as many teams with 20 or more wins as the NCAA Tournament.
Even though the NIT has no shortage of mid-major teams, the high-major conferences are well-represented. The Atlantic Ten led the way with five teams, while Conference USA had four and the Big East, Mountain West and SEC all had three teams. The Big East would have had a fourth team, but Georgetown declined its invitation out of travel and academic concerns, ending a string of 27 consecutive seasons of postseason play for the Hoyas.
Of note among mid-major conferences, the Ivy League has two teams in the NIT, further capping off a great season for the league. The previous two seasons, the Ivy League was 28th in the conference RPI ratings; this season, it finished 13th.
Taking a look at the first round, we have some very good matchups.
South Florida at Ball State:
Ball State started the season like a house on fire with several big wins, while South Florida is a potentially dangerous team with Altron Jackson and B.B. Waldon leading the way and Reggie Kohn running the show. The Cardinals have an excellent threesome of their own with Theron Smith, Patrick Jackson and Chris Williams all scoring 15 points or more per game, and Smith is solid on the glass. The Cardinals also have snipers from long range aside from Jackson and Williams, making them dangerous if the Bulls try to double Smith.
Detroit at Dayton:
This game features two perimeter-oriented teams. The Flyers are led by wing Brooks Hall and guards Ramod Marshall and David Morris, while Detroit is led by Greg Grays and Willie Green. The Flyers look to have a slight edge, as they shoot the ball better and their guards take better care of the ball. They are also a better rebounding team. Detroit should make it interesting, but look for Dayton to pull this one out.
Louisiana-Lafayette at Louisiana Tech:
Two former conference rivals in the Sun Belt Conference meet up again in this one. The Ragin’ Cajuns feature freshman big man Michael Southall, who played well against Chris Marcus and Western Kentucky for a while in the Sun Belt title game, and wing Anthony Johnson, who plays bigger than his height. Louisiana Tech counters with a solid post player of their own in Antonio Meeking and wing Gerrod Henderson, a one-time Sun Belt Player of the Year. Neither team shoots the ball well and both teams average more turnovers than assists, so this figures to be a low-scoring game.
Georgia State at Tennessee Tech:
Two teams from the lower conference ranks that had excellent seasons face off in this one. Jeff Lebo’s team shoots the ball very well and has a solid leader in Damien Kinloch, while Georgia State may go as Thomas Terrell does. The Golden Eagles rebound better as well, so they appear to have the edge in this one.
St. Bonaventure at Syracuse:
This promises to be a good matchup of high-major conference teams. The Bonnies bring in a terrific perimeter unit led by J.R. Bremer and Marques Green, while the Orangemen have one of their younger teams in recent memory and also enters the NIT in the same funk that led to them not making the NCAA Tournament. If the Bonnies shoot the ball well, they should open up the Syracuse zone, which should not phase them since they don’t try to get the ball inside much as it is. The Orangemen will need to give Preston Shumpert some help, which they did not do much of in the latter portion of the season after doing a great job of it early in the season.
South Carolina at Virginia:
Two teams whose last-ditch efforts to make the NCAA Tournament fell short will match up in this one. These two teams are also similar in that they do not look for much productivity on the low post. While the Cavaliers are not a world-class rebounding team, they are much better than the Gamecocks in this area, though the Gamecocks will have a height advantage up front. Neither team shoots the lights out from long-range, so expect this to be a fast-paced game with a lot of transition and slashing to the basket.
LSU at Iowa:
This matchup is similar to South Carolina/Virginia. Iowa is clearly the better team on paper and is also playing better basketball of late. The Tigers are a little more balanced offensively, and aside from Reggie Evans, the Hawkeyes are not overwhelmingly better on the low post than the Tigers. Pierre Pierce could be the ex-factor for Iowa; he will be matched up with Torris Bright, who capably runs the show for LSU, and though Pierce has struggled from long range this season and has had his rough moments in conference play, he has had some very good games as well. How well Iowa defends Ronald Dupree will be a key as well.
Bowling Green at Butler:
This may be the first round game everyone is waiting for, as it involves arguably the two most notable omissions from the NCAA Tournament. Butler enters as one of the nation’s hottest teams save for their lapse in the first round of the Horizon Tournament. They are a solid defensive team and play great fundamental basketball, epitomized by point guard Thomas Jackson. But the Falcons are none too shabby themselves, having won 24 games and with a team that shoots 48.6% from the field. Keith McLeod and Len Matela are the primary recipients of passes from Brandon Pardon, who runs the show very capably with a 2.2:1 assist/turnover ratio. Neither team is very deep, but this promises to be a great matchup right away in this tournament.
Yale at Rutgers:
Despite losing in the Ivy League’s playoff, Yale has made it to postseason play, and the Bulldogs are capable of making some noise with a balanced attack. This will be a tough game for them since Rutgers has lost just once at home all season long. They will need to run their offense to precision and keep the Scarlet Knight guards in check. If they rebound and play solid defense, they have a good chance to take this one.
UNC-Greensboro at Memphis:
Although many felt Memphis belonged in the NCAA Tournament, their weak schedule did much to keep them out, and don’t be surprised if we see an upset here. The Spartans have a good lineup all-around; Courtney Eldridge, an excellent defender, runs the show, with David Schuck being a threat inside and facing the basket and James Maye and Jay Joseph shoot the ball well on the wing. The taller Tigers will need to win the battle on the boards, which they should do since the Spartans do not rebound very well. A good shooting night from Dajuan Wagner would not hurt as well.
Manhattan at Villanova:
This game is an upset waiting to happen given that one never knows which Villanova team will show up on a given night, a prime reason they are in the NIT. Manhattan has several weapons offensively, but for them to pull this off, the Jaspers will need to play good perimeter defense against the turnover-prone Wildcat backcourt, and also do a good job with Villanova’s post players, namely Ricky Wright.