The NIT tips off tonight and this is a tournament where the mid-majors actually have a solid chance this season based on the bracket. The top teams from the ACC are all clustered in one half of the draw, leaving the possibility that once the tournament reaches Madison Square Garden for the semifinals, we could have at least one non-traditional team in the mix.
Three of the top seeds are in action Tuesday night, and we have already looked in on the game between Alabama and Northeastern. Here are a couple of things to keep in mind as you take in the rest of the first day of NIT basketball:
1. Niagara at Maryland: Maryland was one of the last bubble teams depending on how you look at it, with many believing they scored enough wins in the ACC (including a conference tournament victory over Duke) to make it to the NCAA Tournament. Them's the luck though. Instead they will host regular-season MAAC champion Niagara. The Purple Eagles are about as average as they come, and that includes on defense. The real problem they have is that they can't stop any shooters out on the floor, ranking near the bottom of Division 1 in almost every defensive category... except turnovers. And Maryland likes to turn the ball over. But if they can't actually generate those, this is going to be a long night. The Terps have a very good defense, except they have the hardest time taking the ball away. It is almost a wash there because Niagara is very good with its ball control. So this will come down to who shoots better. And while Juan'ya Green is the name to know on the Purple Eagles, you have to believe that Maryland's defense will be the deciding factor here. The computer gives the edge to Maryland, with an 83 percent chance of winning.
2. Kentucky at Robert Morris: Yes, the No. 1 seed in the tournament will begin on the road. That might just be Big Blue Nation's way of snubbing the NIT -- "We don't need that crap in our building!". Or it could have some practical purpose. The bottom line is that they will travel to Robert Morris, which isn't exactly like traveling to say... Louisville. The Colonials definitely had their struggles this season, and that will continue trying to slow down Kentucky's offense. Maybe their best hope is to keep fouling the Wildcats, who struggle from the free throw line like few teams in college basketball. Or they can pray that Velton Jones and Russell Johnson are able to get steal happy with the less than conscientious ball handlers on Kentucky. This one is going to take a lot of luck, but having this one at home at least gives the Colonials hope. The computer gives the edge to Kentucky, with an 58.2 percent chance of winning.
3. Ohio at Denver: The biggest issue for Ohio is going to be dealing with Denver's star player Chris Udofia, who for all of his size disadvantage plays the floor like a much bigger player. But Ohio has actual bigger players and Reggie Keely will be tested on the inside, as he was against Akron in the conference finals. Denver's offense is better, despite the size problems; its defense is better, and its hungry after getting bounced from the WAC Tournament in unceremonious fashion by Texas State (!). This game might come down to who rebounds the ball better. That has been the biggest difference between last season's version of the Bobcats and this year's: the ability to get second chance shots and make the most of their possessions. Both teams struggle with the boards, given their size disadvantages against most of their opponents, so it remains to be seen who will come out on top here. The computer gives the edge to Denver, with a 64.1 percent chance of winning.
4. Louisiana Tech at Florida State: Louisiana Tech lost its mojo over its final three games, which derailed the Bulldogs' undefeated run in conference, and also its path to the NCAA Tournament. There is no single thing you can point to that went wrong for Louisiana Tech, because everything went wrong. The offense misfired; the defense collapsed; and it all added up to three losses. Now Florida State had its collapse much earlier in the season (including an opening loss to South Alabama), but they have stabilized into a pretty average team. But based on the size of the collapse by the Bulldogs, and that Louisiana Tech is a really poor shooting team, Florida State should have quite the edge. Plus they have Okaro White, and little something called Michael Snaer. The computer gives the edge to Louisiana Tech, with a 65.6 percent chance of winning.
5. Stephen F. Austin at Stanford: As we mentioned in our preview of the Southland game, this will also be a battle of tempo, and it really looks like Stanford has the edge here. It isn't necessarily because they play at the pace of Northwestern State -- no one does -- but it is because they have the interior defense to deal with Taylor Smith. Northwestern State was able to keep putting Smith on the foul line to prevent him from getting two points, and basically forced the Lumberjacks to come back on them one point at a time. It almost failed, but Stanford is a lot better on defense to begin with than Northwestern State. The Cardinal should be able to shut down this interior attack, and if the offense finds just a modicum of integrity, take this game. The computer gives the edge to Stanford, with a 52.8 percent chance of winning.
Other picks for tonight:
Virginia over Norfolk State: 91.1 percent
BYU over Washington: 79.0 percent
St. Joseph's over St. John's: 72.7 percent