Beating the top seed in round one might’ve just happened for the second time ever in the NCAA Tournament, but in the NIT, the mid-majors run the show.
Upper Left Quadrant
The upper left quadrant of the NIT has the most mid majors by “region” in the tournament. Six of eight teams inside the quad came from outside the Power Five, and they showed why they belonged.
North Texas breezed by Alcorn St. to move on to a second round matchup against Sam Houston State. Both squads come into the ballgame touting top-30 defenses in the country as neither allow more than 58 points per game this season.
The Bearkats went on the road to sneak by Santa Clara in the opening round, and the path won’t get easier, as North Texas has only lost three home games all season.
The other game in the quad includes Eastern Washington. The Eagles stayed in state, taking a trip to Pullman to play Washington State. The Eagles handled their in-state foe, taking a nine-point lead into halftime and ultimately winning by seven. Sophomore Steele Venters scored 27, as they moved into the second round and another opportunity for a road upset against Oklahoma State.
Wrapping up the region, a loud Beeghly Center wasn’t enough for Youngstown State, as the Penguins closed out their best season since moving to Division I in 1981. Youngstown led for most of the first 35 minutes of the ballgame, but just didn’t have the firepower at the end to outlast Oklahoma State.
With three of the four remaining teams in the region being mid-majors, there’s a good shot we see one of them in Las Vegas in two weeks.
Lower Left Quadrant
This region isn’t quite as fun, as Oregon and Wisconsin wiped out a pair of regular-season conference champions in UC Irvine and Bradley, respectively. Neither game was very close.
Liberty did what was expected of them, beating Villanova in Lynchburg. The Flames are the No. 3 seed in the region and will need to go on the road to Wisconsin on Sunday. Liberty will look to continue the dominance of Darius McGhee, who scored 26 points in Tuesday’s win over Villanova.
Wisconsin will be just the third power conference opponent Liberty will play this season, losing the prior two to Northwestern and Alabama. If the Flames want to continue their run, they’ll have to find a way to score around Wisconsin’s defense, the 24th-best defense unit in the country.
UCF went up the road to Gainesville and beat their in-state rival Florida to advance to a date with Oregon. The Knights handled every facet of the game, ultimately closing out an 18 point win.
NBA draft prospect Taylor Hendricks had 17 points and eight rebounds for the Knights, but C.J. Kelly led UCF in scoring with 21. They’ll have to travel cross-country to play in Eugene against Oregon. It is the first ever matchup against the Ducks.
There’s not as many options for mid-majors in this quadrant since the top two seeds are both being Power Fives. Liberty looks to be the best shot for a mid-major to make noise, but a hostile Kohl Center won’t be easy on Sunday.
Upper Right Quadrant
There’s a plethora of storylines in this region. A major upset, a back-and-forth ballgame and a surprising result from this quad.
The team that catches the eye right away is Hofstra. The Pride went into Piscataway, trailed Rutgers most of the game, including by five with less than 30 seconds left, and found a way to beat the top-seeded Scarlet Knights.
The Pride did the majority of that with their star guard Aaron Estrada off the floor because of foul trouble. Hofstra gets rewarded from that game with a home game against Cincinnati. The Pride only went eight deep against Rutgers, so it’ll be important to see how well they’ll hold up physically in high-pressure situations without a deeper bench.
Cincinnati played a back-and-forth game against Virginia Tech, with neither team leading by more than nine, which ended up being the margin of victory. The Bearcats are the four seed in the region but can’t host the game due to renovations at its arena.
Cincinnati had one of its lower shooting games in volume on Wednesday, attempting just five 3-pointers in the first half, less than half of their average. It’s the first matchup all time between these two schools.
The Utah Valley Wolverines close out this region, as they walked into The Pit and handled New Mexico. The Wolverines had an answer for everything UNM was throwing their way, winning by 14, 83-69.
The win gave the Wolverines their winningest season in program history with 26. Utah Valley is going to try to pack it inside and play staunch defense in the paint, as they lead the country in blocks with 6.7 blocks per game.
Lower Right Quadrant
Closing out the bracket, only one of the two games in the region has mid-majors in it. Morehead State fought off a hard charging Clemson team. Four Eagles were in double figures in the win Wednesday, with four of five starters logging 30+ minutes. The Eagles trailed at half, before coming back in dramatic fashion to advance to round two. It is its first win in the NIT game.
Awaiting Morehead State is the UAB Blazers. The Blazers have played like a top mid-major all season, finishing third in Conference USA, before falling to nationally-ranked FAU.
The Blazers are going to speed up the game, they play with the 30th-fastest tempo in the country, as well as the 47th-most efficient offense in the country.
They’re going to have to make Morehead uncomfortable, as the Eagles are on the opposite end of the spectrum when it comes to tempo.
UAB had a commanding win over Southern Miss in the first round, weathering 19 turnovers en route to an 88-60 victory. Morehead State is going to take advantage of mistakes, so cleaning up those turnovers will be vital for success for the Blazers.