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NIT preview: A new champion is guaranteed

March 28, 2017 Columns No Comments

NEW YORK – On Sunday South Carolina advanced to its first Final Four at Madison Square Garden. This week the Garden will crown a first time champion in our nation’s oldest post season tournament, the NIT.

One coach has two NIT titles on his resume. Another coach has frequented the Garden sidelines with resounding success. Three schools have never made it this far. The NIT Final Four tips off with the semifinals at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday, as CSU Bakersfield will face Georgia Tech, while TCU opposes Central Florida. The final is on Thursday.

Johnny Dawkins is the Central Florida mentor. Back in 2012 and 2015 Dawkins guided Stanford to the NIT titles. Following the 2016 season the school and Stanford parted ways. Dawkins signed on with Central Florida and the Knights have seen their fortunes turn around.

Jamie Dixon of TCU is in his first year at his alma mater following a long tenure with Pitt. In his 13 years at Pitt, Dixon posted a 26-15 record at the Garden. The “World’s Most Famous Arena” holds a special place in Dixon’s heart. For years the Garden hosted the Maggie Dixon Classic, honoring the memory of his late sister who passed away in 2006.

TCU, UCF and CSU Bakersfield have never advanced to the Final Four. Georgia Tech is the lone school to have done so, finishing as runner-up to North Carolina in 1971.

Georgia Tech has four double-digit scorers led by a freshman guard, Josh Okogie at 16.1 points per game. Josh Pastner’s group shows an impressive defensive efficiency of 90. They will not turn you over as much (19 percent defensive TO rate). Rather, Pastner relies on basic defending and contesting shots. Their defensive eFG percentage is an impressive 46 percent.

After the loss to Pitt on the first day of the ACC Tournament Tech went home, regrouped and rested. Knowing an NCAA bid was a virtual long shot they were more than happy to accept the NIT bid. Rested and eager to make amends on how the season ended, Georgia Tech is on a roll coming to New York, with sights on cutting down the nets on Thursday.

CSU Bakersfield won the WAC regular season title. They defeated Utah Valley in four overtimes in the conference semifinals before dropping the final to New Mexico State. Twenty years and one day removed from the anniversary of their third Division II National Championship, the Roadrunners were bound for new territory – the NIT trip and first appearance at the Garden.

Madison Square Garden is now set to host the NIT Final Four (Ray Floriani photo)

Jaylin Airington, a 6-4 senior, leads in scoring at 14.4 points per game. Balance is the key as the Roadrunners have four players averaging double figures and put five in that column in the win at UT-Arlington. They are a good defensive team with a 93 defensive efficiency. The key aspect of that defense is the ability to force turnovers. Their defensive TO rate is a disruptive 23 percent. Consistency has been the key. At no time this season did they lose more than two straight.

For coach Rod Barnes, in his sixth year at Bakersfield, it is yet another program milestone. He led the Roadrunners to their first Division I postseason appearance, the CIT, in 2012. Last season they captured the WAC post season championship, advancing to their first NCAA Tournament as a D-I member. This season, yet another chapter to their history has been added with the NIT, culminating in a trip to its Final Four.

TCU weathered a late-season seven-game losing streak. Since that time the Horned Frogs have captured six of seven as they come to New York. TCU shows an outstanding 114 offensive efficiency, highlighted by a 53 percent eFG percentage. TCU is led by a trio of juniors in scoring. Vlad Brodzianky (Big 12 All-Defensive) at 6-11 leads with 13.8 ppg. Alex Robinson, a 6-1 guard, is scoring 11.4 and 6-7 Kenrich Williams, who had a triple-double in the quarterfinal win over Richmond, checks in at 10.9. Jaylen Fisher, a freshman guard and Big 12 Honorable Mention, went down in the opening round against Fresno St. He has been effectively spelled by another frosh, Desmond Bane.

UCF, who enters having won nine of their last ten, is paced by sophomore guard B.J. Taylor with 17.6 ppg. Dawkins also has the services of one of the best three-point shooters in the country, senior Matt Williams, who is shooting 38.8% beyond the arc and adding 15.1 points per outing. UCF also has an intriguing inside player in Tacko Fall. The 7-6 (no typo) sophomore was the American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year. Fall averaged 11 points a game, adding 9.7 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per outing.

How they got here:

  • CS Bakersfield (25-9) became the first eight seed, since seeding was employed, to win three on the road and get to New York. CSB defeated top seed Cal in the first round before stopping Colorado State and UT-Arlington.
  • Georgia Tech (20-15) lost the first round of the ACC Tournament against Pitt. Tech accepted the NIT bid, then defeated Indiana and Belmont at home before upsetting Mississippi on the road.
  • UCF (24-11) defeated Colorado at home, came from behind to win at Illinois State and clinched the Final Four spot knocking off Illinois at home.
  • TCU (22-15) defeated Fresno State at home, Iowa in OT on the road and Richmond back at home to earn their first trip to the NIT semifinals.

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