March Madness started well before Thursday. While the NCAA Tournament took its leisurely time with a play-in game before the real fun started yesterday, the NIT, CBI, and CIT have been blitzing through their first rounds; the last game of the CIT’s first round was yesterday, between Southern Miss and Louisiana Tech, while the NIT and CBI crammed their respective first rounds into two days. And over the past few days, all three tournaments have been proving they can be just as full of excitement as the Big Dance.
In the NIT, UConn barely survived Jim Calhoun’s old team, Northeastern, thanks in part to lock-down defense in the final few seconds. NC State had to wait to see if Richard Howell’s layup with 8 seconds left beat the shot clock buzzer. North Carolina had to come back and play lock-down defense to beat William and Mary, and Jacksonville pulled off a 24-foot buzzer beater to perform the equivalent of a 16 seed knocking off a 1. In the CBI, Virginia Commonwealth had to hold off a furious comeback by George Washington, and in the CIT, Fairfield had to come back from 27 down – possibly the largest deficit come back from in Division I postseason history – to force overtime and eventually beat George Mason, overshadowing a not-so-successful comeback by Western Carolina as they fell to Marshall.
And that was just Tuesday.
I mentioned on that day that the CIT was more an opportunity to play more games than a serious tournament, but it has started to develop a reputation for housing as much March Madness as the Big Dance, only taken to record-breaking extremes. Last year, Bradley hit what may have been the longest buzzer-beater in Division I postseason history to knock off Oakland in the second round. Worth noting that Oakland and last year’s champion, Old Dominion, are both in the Big Dance this year. Sadly, Day 2 of the CIT did not produce as much excitement, with no game being closer than eight points, and Louisiana Tech similarly put away Southern Miss by nine.
The other two tournaments, however, did not disappoint. Following up on the Jacksonville upset, the Pac-10 went down to 0-2 in postseason play entering the NCAAs, before Washington squeaked by Marquette, as Boston University upended Oregon State by 18 points. Duquesne was unceremoniously dumped from the tournament by Princeton, but Green Bay took a while to pull away from Akron, while the NIT produced more buzzer-beaters. Nevada squeaked out a four-point win over Wichita State, Wesley Witherspoon hit a buzzer-beating layup to put Memphis over St. John’s, and Kent State came from behind to knock off Tulsa. The NIT seriously produces just as much excitement as the Big Dance, because its teams are still good teams. In a way, the CBI may have fallen the furthest behind in the excitement department – though remember how I identified only six teams from conferences with RPI rank of #17 or below? All four of the teams that faced teams from top-16 conferences won.
The NIT actually slows down to a more leisurely pace from this point on, spreading the second round over several days, and taking Sunday off, perhaps to make room on ESPN’s schedule and avoid overly competing with the NCAA Tournament – indeed, half the games aren’t played until Monday. That’s when Virginia Tech squares off against UConn, in a game that must look right scary to the Huskies after the way they escaped Northeastern, while Rhode Island takes on Nevada. Mississippi State’s argument is still alive heading into a Saturday showdown with North Carolina, as is Illinois heading into a contest with Kent State. Jacksonville will attempt to make lightning strike twice against Texas Tech, and Cincinnati-Dayton, Memphis-Mississippi, and NC State-UAB round out the NIT slate.
Monday is also when both the CBI and CIT will cram in all their quarterfinals. Saint Louis is the only A-10 team left in the CBI quarters and they face the Green Bay team that squeaked out that tight buzzer-beater, in what may be the most interesting game of the third-tier slate. The next-most interesting game might be Charleston vs. Virginia Commonwealth, two schools not really that far apart. Elsewhere, Princeton takes on IUPUI, and Morehead State takes on Boston University. In the CIT, Appalachian State travels to Marshall in a battle of two 23-win teams that also aren’t that far apart, while Fairfield takes on Creighton, Louisiana Tech faces Missouri State, and the “western bracket” ends when Pacific takes on Northern Colorado.
My picks for CIT quarters: Appalachian State def. Marshall, Fairfield def. Creighton, Missouri State def. Louisiana Tech, Northern Colorado def. Pacific.