Blogging the Lesser Tournaments I: Pick Your Tourney

We don’t need to expand the NCAA Tournament, and we sure as hell shouldn’t. The college basketball regular season is plenty meaningful, and even at the end of the bubble, the NCAA Tournament only selects the elite teams. (Okay, maybe not so much this year. But don’t believe the hype about the NCAA being forced to select bad teams.)

What we need is a change in perception. We need to realize that the 128 teams selected to go to any one of four postseason tournaments are ALL at least above average, even good when you consider that double 128 would be 256 and Division I has almost a hundred more than that. Connecticut and North Carolina are below their usual high standard this year, but they are still good if not great teams, just not fantastic enough to make the NCAAs. Relative to the rest of Division I, even the third-tier tournaments select better teams than the mediocre squads that populate the NBA and NHL postseasons. We need to realize that if it’s a “reward for a great season” Villanova coach Jay Wright wants, the NIT, CBI, and CIT more than fit the bill just as much as the NCAAs do.

In college football, we know this. We recognize the importance of the bowls as a reward for a good season, even if they’re as overloaded with teams as the NBA and NHL postseasons, and even when the teams involved are FAR removed from the national title picture. You got selected to the Texas Bowl? Congratulations, you had a good season and now you get a nice vacation in a warm climate and a game on national television against a good opponent with a chance to end your season on a high note and win a trophy. You got selected to the Holiday Bowl? Ditto for you, plus you’re better than the vast majority of teams in college football; quit griping about not making the BCS. You got selected to the Capitol One Bowl? Ditto for you AND as many people will watch your game as a weak BCS game.

Any playoff proposal worth its salt will keep the bowls as consolation prizes for teams that don’t make the playoff. So will the bowls be treated like the afterthought the NIT is now – as a jeering way to refer to teams that don’t make the playoff, even if they happen to be #17 in a 16-team system? Or will they continue to be seen as rewards for good seasons?

Over the next few weeks I will treat the lesser tournaments as what they are: the non-BCS bowls of college basketball. As a celebration for 64 good seasons that didn’t put their teams within the elite. As a way to have four winners at the end of the season, not one. As a national spotlight (well, it should be) for teams that don’t get a lot of attention during the season because of all the focus on the NCAAs, allowing the NCAAs not to be the end-all and be-all of national attention. And as a trip to basketball arenas across America to see more basketball being played than the NCAAs allow. The titles don’t actually mean anything, but then, neither do the bowls. It’s a shot at bragging rights, and when it gets right down to it, which would a bubble team rather have: a double-digit seed in the NCAAs and only once in a blue moon advancing beyond the Sweet 16 (and rarely making it that far), or being favored to win the entire NIT while hosting home games in the process?

I will follow each tournament round-by-round as they approach their respective conclusions, keeping an eye on all the developing storylines and shining light on the tournaments behind the Tournament. I won’t be able to watch any tournaments other than the NIT, because I don’t have HDNet to watch the CBI or FCS to watch the CIT, but I will still attempt to follow them from afar. Follow the Blogging the Lesser Tournaments category to join my journey to show why a trip to the lesser tournaments is nothing to be ashamed of.

One good thing that resulted from the starting of the CBI and CIT was that it gave each of the three tournaments its own identity, instead of the NIT just being the consolation tournament for NCAA losers. The NIT is dominated by the teams on the wrong side of the NCAA bubble, serving as their attempt to prove they deserved to make the Big Dance. In fact, it really is the “little dance”. Not only does it have all the tradition – a longer tradition than the NCAAs, in fact – and the best non-NCAA teams, but ever since regular season champions that didn’t make the NCAAs started getting auto bids to the NIT, it’s actually gotten its own internal structure in the first round, much like the NCAAs.

In the NCAAs, the 1, 2, and 3 seeds – protected seeds that include the national championship favorites – take on teams that are only there because they have to be. They generally win those games going away; once in a blue moon a 15 or 14 will upset a 2 or 3. The 4 and 5 seeds take on the teams that probably deserved a little more respect – strong champions of weak conferences, borderline at-large teams – and it’s those 4-13 and 5-12 matchups that produce the most exciting upsets. The 6/11, 7/10, and 8/9 games pit at-large against at-large, and while it’s very rare that any of these teams make the Final Four, especially with the 1, 2, or 3 seed waiting in the second round, they certainly make for as appealing a game as you’re likely to find in the first round.

Bubble teams dominate the NIT field. I recognize every one of the top three seeds from the bubble conversation, plus the 4 seed Seton Hall and the 5 seed William and Mary (who I have to imagine is only being forced to go on the road to North Carolina so the big-name Tar Heels get a home game). Similarly, with the exception of Northwestern, the 7 and 8 seeds consist mostly of the teams that got the auto bids. So the 1 seeds get pretty easy trips to the second round, complete with home field advantage (except for Illinois, who apparently will have to go on the road to Stony Brook), while the 2 seeds should have a fairly easy ride if they aren’t caught wallowing in their own inability to make the Big Dance. The 3/6 and 4/5 games, though, should be a LOT of fun. The 3 and 4 seeds will have home court advantage, but they will be playing other good teams that could very easily get feisty on a good day.

The NIT is especially bowl-like because it is the only one of the lesser tournaments to play on a neutral site. In the NCAAs, teams play to win and move on to another semi-randomly chosen site, where the stakes slowly get bigger and bigger, but the Final Four and a number of the regional sites are generally football stadiums. But in the NIT, if you can make it to the semifinals, suddenly you’re playing in the World’s Most Famous Arena, Madison Square Garden. You’re arguably playing on more hallowed ground than most of the NCAA tournament sites. Once you reach this point, you’re practically getting the true-to-life NCAA tournament experience.

For bubble teams, this is their chance to shine and prove the NCAA committee wrong, and while the cases of teams left out this year are weaker than normal, there are still some teams with plenty of motivation. I’ll be keeping a close eye on the upper right section of the draw, where Virginia Tech and Rhode Island are the top two seeds. V-Tech coach Seth Greenberg ripped into the selection committee on ESPN’s Bracketology show, and they have a desire to prove they are better than their non-conference schedule, just as Illinois was better than their RPI and Arizona State was better than their conference. Rhode Island wants to prove not only that they deserved to make the NCAAs, but to make the top line of the NIT – but they may have gotten the toughest draw of the two seeds in Northwestern. And then there’s Mississippi State, who has everyone else arguing on their behalf after almost knocking off Kentucky in the SEC final.

My picks for second round: Illinois def. Tulsa, Illinois State def. Cincinnati, Arizona State def. Texas Tech, Mississippi def. Memphis, Virginia Tech def. Connecticut, Rhode Island def. Wichita State, Mississippi State def. William and Mary, South Florida def. UAB. My picks for MSG: Arizona State def. Illinois, Rhode Island def. Mississippi State, Rhode Island def. Arizona State.

The College Basketball Invitational doesn’t think of itself as third-tier. In its own mind, it sees itself as a competitor with the NIT. The group that started it was partly reacting to the NCAA taking over the NIT and gaining something of a monopoly over the college basketball postseason. But the NIT still has the history and tradition on its side, and the CBI rarely gets more than a couple of defectors to party with them. (It doesn’t help, according to what I’ve read, that the CBI and CIT are pay-to-play and teams would rather play for free in the NIT.)

At this point, you start running out of big-conference teams (although is the dropoff in the BCS conferences really that big after the NIT?), so while the NIT, despite a more balanced composition than the NCAAs (thanks to the auto-bid rule), is mostly dominated by teams from BCS conferences, the third-tier tournaments are filled up with teams from underrepresented conferences – namely, mid-majors. Defending champion Oregon State is the only team from a BCS conference in the CBI field – and in case you hadn’t noticed, the Pac-10 wasn’t exactly BCS quality this season. Saint Louis, who became a borderline NCAA candidate by becoming an A-10 spoiler late in the season, is probably the most interesting team in the field, joining fellow late-season A-10 spoiler Duquesne, who may have only played their way into the CBI field with their late-season heroics. Colorado State is the representative of the highest-RPI conference – even though no Mountain West teams made the NIT field.

On the other hand, while BCS conferences are not well represented, the true mid-majors crowd out the small majors. Saint Louis and Duquesne are joined by George Washington as A-10 represntatives. Indiana State represents the Missouri Valley. Akron holds down the MAC; Virginia Commonwealth the CAA; Green Bay the Horizon. The Eastern Kentucky-Charleston game will feature the only two teams on the left side of the draw from conferences ranked worse than 16th in the RPI, and Charleston comes from the #17 SoCon. The right side is more forgiving to low-majors with Boston U, Morehead State, IUPUI, and Princeton.

The CBI is the least bowl-like of the bunch, but it makes up for its lack of a neutral site final with a final format that neither the NCAA or NIT can boast. The CBI final is a best-of-three series between the two teams remaining, instead of a winner-take-all single game. So while the NIT makes making the semifinal the biggest achievement of the tournament, the CBI places more of its emphasis on the final as the singular, defining event of the tournament. The goal is to reach the final, and then prove you’re better than the other team you face. It makes more sense to talk about halves of the CBI draw than quarters, especially since the CBI doesn’t expressly seed the field like the NIT.

My picks for second round: Saint Louis def. Akron, George Washington def. Charleston, Colorado State def. Boston University, Duquesne def. Hofstra. Saint Louis def. Colorado State 2-0.

The addition of the CBI wasn’t good enough for the people at For them, all it showed was that the NCAAs and NIT didn’t have to be the only two tournaments out there. So last year, they started their own tournament to give more love to the mid-majors out there, and give teams that once were one-and-done in the NCAAs or NIT a chance to win some postseason games, even if in a down year against inferior competition. (Because the newly-formed Great West conference isn’t NCAA-eligible, its conference champion, South Dakota, receives an auto bid to the CIT.) Unlike the CBI, they recognize that they stand behind the NIT in the pecking order, but they do compete with the CBI for teams, and successfully.

In a sense, winning the CIT is like winning the mid-major NIT. I seem to recall them saying they would emphasize teams from conferences that hadn’t put half their teams in the postseason by the time the CIT got their hands on them, but that wasn’t enough for them to pick the Pac-10’s fifth team. Instead, Creighton and Missouri State are the representatives of the highest-RPI conference in the field. But there’s only one fewer team from a conference ranked #16 or higher in the RPI than the CBI, with Western Carolina, South Dakota, Harvard, Appalachian State, Middle Tennessee State, Northern Colorado, and Pacific the only representatives from lesser conferences. Unlike the CBI, the CIT wasn’t willing to pick a team as far down the pecking order as the America East.

The CIT clearly doesn’t take itself as seriously as the NIT or CBI. Not only do they emphasize mid-majors, they expressly forbid teams with losing records, while the NIT or CBI would take them if they had a good enough profile otherwise. Perhaps recognizing the fact they’re more a bowl-like “reward for a good season” than a tournament with any meaning, the CIT doesn’t have a real “bracket” per se, but instead determines new matchups after each round, making each game an event in its own right. Thus the western teams play each other (Portland-Northern Colorado, Pacific-Loyola Marymount) instead of playing for any real “seeding”. In a sense, it’s more a way of adding more games to its teams’ schedules than a real tournament. But emphasizing mid-majors does cost the CIT in the attention department. While the CBI can at least point to teams people paying attention only to the NCAAs might at least have vaguely heard of during the year, like Saint Louis (though really, Oregon State? The team my Seattle Redhawks blew out in Corvallis? South Dakota may be the only lower RPI team selected to any postseason tournament), the CIT has to promote its tournament based on what their teams have done in the past, like George Mason and Creighton. Personally, Appalachian State may be the team that interests me most in this field.

My picks: George Mason def. Fairfield, Marshall def. Western Carolina, South Dakota def. Creighton, Appalachian State def. Harvard, Missouri State def. Middle Tenn. St., Northern Colorado def. Portland, Pacific def. Loyola Marymount, Louisiana Tech def. Southern Miss.

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