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March 18, 2008
College Basketball Invitational Preview
It's Great to be #98!

by Kevin Pelton

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If the NIT determines the 66th-best team in the nation, then the 16 teams participating in the inaugural Collegiate Basketball Invitational (CBI) have "We're No. 98!" as their unofficial rallying cry. The Gazelle Group, which has experience with preseason tournaments including the College Hoops Classic benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer, decided that plenty of teams were left over after the 65-team NCAA and 32-team NIT fields were selected, starting a 16-team tournament this March. Some teams declined, especially because of a financial guarantee host teams must provide, but a handful of big names will take part.

The CBI will be unique, reseeding the four semifinalists upon reaching that point of the tournament and concluding with a best-of-three series between the two finalists. Here's a look at the 16 teams vying to be the first CBI champion.

WEST

Washington Huskies (16-16, 7-11 Pac-10)
Pomeroy Ranking: #50/13 SOS
Best Wins: vs. #2 UCLA, vs. #22 Arizona
Key Player: PF Jon Brockman (17.6 ppg, 11.5 rpg, 53.1% fgs)

A year ago, the Huskies were devastated when the NIT passed them over. The same fate this year feels different; few teams seem more excited to play in the CBI. UW had a hard-luck season, including six losses by five points or fewer, four of them to NCAA Tournament contenders Stanford, Pitt and Washington State. Of course, the Huskies made some of that luck with their horrendous free-throw shooting: 59.0% as a team from the charity stripe. Brockman missed a three-point Pac-10 Tournament loss to NIT-bound Cal with a sprained ankle, but hopes to play Wednesday against Valparaiso. If he's healthy, the Huskies have to be the CBI favorite. (Full disclosure: the author is a UW alum.)

Valparaiso Crusaders (21-13 9-9 Horizon League)
Pomeroy Ranking: #123/123 SOS
Best Wins: vs. #88 Miami (Ohio), vs. 105 Western Michigan
Key Player: F Shawn Huff (12.9 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 48.4% threes)

Valparaiso looked dead in the water after a five-game conference losing streak (albeit one that included a three-point loss to Butler), but Homer Drew rallied the troops to win seven out of eight, including a double-OT win over Miami (Ohio) in the BracketBusters that was the team's best of the season. Valpo then advanced to the semis in the Horizon League Tournament before falling to Cleveland State. The Crusaders feature balanced scoring. Nobody averages more than 12.9 points per game, and five Valpo players average at least 9.8 points.

Nevada Wolfpack (21-11, 12-4 WAC)
Pomeroy Ranking: #112/143 SOS
Best Wins: vs/at #92 New Mexico State
Key Player: SG Marcelus Kemp (19.8 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 3.3 apg)

The Wolfpack was an NCAA first-round winner a year ago before losing second-round NBA picks Nick Fazekas and Ramon Sessions. At 12-4 in an atypically weak WAC conference, Nevada finished in a four-way tie for first place with eventual tourney champ Boise State, New Mexico State and Utah State, which got the automatic bid to the NIT. The Wolfpack swept the Aggies in the regular season, but lost to them in the semifinals of the tournament. Kemp, who had 27 points and 12 rebounds in last year's NCAA Tournament win over Creighton, is the go-to guy for a Nevada team that has just five players who average more than three points per game.

Houston Cougars (22-9, 11-5 Conference USA)
Pomeroy Ranking: #72/150 SOS
Best Wins: vs. #61 Kentucky, vs. #72 Tulsa
Key Player: SG Rob McKiver (23.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 2.9 apg, 38.3% threes)

The Cougars finished third in Conference USA but ended their season on a down note with consecutive losses to UTEP, first in the regular-season finale and then in the C-USA tournament. Go-to guy McKiver ranks 10th in Division I in scoring at 23.1 points per game, including a 52-point outburst against Southern Miss. McKiver's 129 three-pointers ranked fifth in the country. He alone will make the Cougars dangerous. Through the end of February, Houston's worst loss was a neutral-site game against VCU, but in the last four games they have lost twice to UTEP and also to No. 191 East Carolina.

EAST

Virginia Cavaliers (15-15, 5-11 ACC)
Pomeroy Ranking: #76/61 SOS
Best Wins: at #22 Arizona, at #52 Georgia Tech
Key Player: PG Sean Singletary (19.9 ppg, 6.0 apg, 3.9 rpg)

Virginia went 10-3 before beginning ACC play, but other than a win at Arizona beat no one rated better than #152 Northwestern by the Pomeroy Rankings. ACC play was not as kind to the Cavaliers, who went 5-11 and lost in the quarterfinals of the league tournament. However, many of the losses were very competitive; Virginia lost three ACC games in OT (including both matchups with Virginia Tech) and three more by two points or fewer, including against No. 5 North Carolina. Singletary is a battle-tested senior point guard who is a likely second-round pick.

Richmond Spiders (16-14, 9-7 Atlantic 10)
Pomeroy Ranking: #138/99 SOS
Best Wins: vs. #35 Virginia Tech, vs. #65 Temple
Key Player: C Dan Geriot (14.0 ppg, 5.5 rpg)

In his third year at Richmond, one-time Air Force Head Coach Chris Mooney has the Spiders in the postseason for the first time. Mooney's Princeton-style offense isn't quite as extreme in Richmond, but the Spiders ranked 282nd in adjusted pace, so they clearly slow the game down. Richmond is better defensively than on offense, and a 52-49 win over Virginia Tech was probably the team's signature performance. Freshman center Geriot has been effective in the high post.

Old Dominion Monarchs (17-15, 11-7 Colonial)
Pomeroy Ranking: #124/141 SOS
Best Wins: vs. #35 Virginia Tech, vs. #80 VCU
Key Player: PF Gerald Lee (13.1 ppg, 5.9 rpg)

The Monarchs have to feel pretty fortunate to be playing tournament basketball after finishing fourth in the Colonial and losing their tournament opener to William & Mary. The Old Dominion offense is strongly perimeter-based. The Monarchs attempted far more threes (599) than free throws (504) and ranked near the bottom of the NCAA at getting to the free-throw line. That translated into low field-goal percentages; Lee (48.1%) was one of only two regulars to shoot at least 45% from the field. By the way, if you're looking to figure out why Virginia Tech missed the NCAA Tournament, these last two entries are a good place to start.

Rider Broncos (23-10, 13-5 MAAC)
Pomeroy Ranking: #137/243 SOS
Best Wins: Neutral #107 Penn State, at #113 Siena
Key Player: F/C Jason Thompson (20.6 ppg, 12.0 rpg, 2.7 bpg, 55.8% fgs)

After falling to Siena in the MAAC Championship, Rider will be playing postseason basketball for the first time in a decade thanks to the CBI. The Broncos were short-handed in that game, playing without second-leading scorer Ryan Thompson and with other nagging injuries, but should be healthy for the CBI. Their other Thompson, Jason, is an outstanding big man who ranked second in the NCAA in rebounding and 15th in blocks. Still, Rider was hardly dominant against the second-weakest schedule in the tournament.

SOUTH

UTEP Miners (19-13, 8-8 C-USA)
Pomeroy Ranking: #102/119 SOS
Best Wins: vs. #72 Houston, Neutral #72 Houston
Key Player: SG Stefon Jackson (23.7 ppg, 5.6 rpg)

You won't hear Dick Vitale and Jay Bilas arguing CBI seeding, but go figure on this: Houston went 11-5 in Conference USA and won't host a game, while 8-8 UTEP is the top seed in the South. Clearly, the consecutive head-to-head Miners wins (and advancing to the semifinals of the C-USA Tournament) proved valuable for UTEP. Jackson is a pure scorer who ranked in the NCAA's top 10 in scoring and put up 41 points earlier this season against East Carolina. It was his score that proved the game-winner in the tournament against Houston.

Utah Utes (17-14, 7-9 Mountain West)
Pomeroy Ranking: #69/83 SOS
Best Wins: Neutral #29 New Mexico, #53 UNLV
Key Player: C Luke Nevill (15.3 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 54.7% fgs)

Utah had a strange Mountain West season, suffering painful losses at Texas Christian and Wyoming and playing the conference's top teams tough but without much to show for it (two losses to BYU by a combined 11 points; 1-2 record against UNLV with two losses by a combined 13 points; a 1-2 record against New Mexico with two losses, one by three points and one in OT). The missing Nevill brother, Luke, is a skilled Aussie who can score in either the low or high post. He's come off the bench lately to try to limit his foul trouble. Utah surrounds him with solid three-point shooters but rarely gets to the line or gets offensive rebounds.

Tulsa Golden Eagles (20-13, 8-8 C-USA)
Pomeroy Ranking: #77/126 SOS
Best Wins: Neutral #63 UAB, vs. #83 Charlotte
Key Player: C Jerome Jordan (10.1 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 3.7 bpg, 59.2% fgs)

Speaking of strange seeding from Conference USA, Tulsa had the same conference record as UTEP and beat them in the conference tournament (albeit by two points in overtime) yet would play at UTEP in the quarterfinals if the seeds hold. A mere 10-10 after losing to Houston on Feb. 6, the Golden Hurricanes won 10 of their last 13 games, and two of the three losses were to Memphis. Jordan, a seven-foot sophomore from Jamaica who ranked fourth in the NCAA in blocks per game, anchors a solid Tulsa defense.

Miami (Ohio) RedHawks (17-15, 9-7 MAC)
Pomeroy Ranking: #88/76 SOS
Best Wins: vs. #18 Xavier, Neutral #34 Mississippi State
Key Player: F Tim Pollitz (15.7 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 3.1 apg, 54.4% fgs)

By Pomeroy's numbers, Miami played the second-toughest non-conference schedule in the country, making a 6-6 record much more impressive than it would appear. Four of the six losses came to Kansas, Louisville, USC and Dayton, while the RedHawks beat tourney-bound Xavier, South Alabama and Mississippi State. So what happened during the conference season, when Miami went just 9-7 in the MAC? Many of the losses were close, including double-OT contests with Western Michigan and, in BracketBusters, Valparaiso, but you'd have expected more.

MIDWEST

Bradley Braves (17-15, 9-9 Missouri Valley)
Pomeroy Ranking: #85/82 SOS
Best Wins: at #24 Drake, vs. #60 Illinois State
Key Player: PG Daniel Ruffin (14.8 ppg, 5.8 apg, 40.3% threes)

Bradley is glad to play on and host a game after finishing the season with two heartbreakers, both against Creighton--a double-OT loss in the regular-season finale and a four-point loss in the Missouri Valley tournament. The Braves have a marquee win to their credit (at Drake) and were competitive all year despite starting the conference season 0-4. Senior point guard Ruffin missed two games late in the regular season after his arrest on a misdemeanor domestic battery charge, but returned in time for the losses to Creighton and will play in the CBI.

Cincinnati Bearcats (13-18, 8-10 Big East)
Pomeroy Ranking: #100/21 SOS
Best Wins: at #9 Louisville, at #23 West Virginia
Key Player: PG Deonta Vaughn (17.1 ppg, 4.1 apg, 38.9% threes)

The Bearcats are taking full advantage of the CBI, as in years gone by a 13-18 record would not have gotten them anywhere near postseason play. As evidenced by four wins against NCAA Tournament-bound teams, including on the road against Louisville and West Virginia (a satisfying win against former head man Bob Huggins), Cincinnati can play with anyone on any day. What, then, to make of early-season losses to Belmont and Bowling Green? During a six-game season-ending losing streak, the Bearcats lost four difficult games against tourney-bound opponents--but also winnable home games against second-division squads Providence and DePaul. No result will be a surprise for this inconsistent group.

Ohio Bobcats (19-12, 9-7 MAC)
Pomeroy Ranking: #108/110 SOS
Best Wins: at #58 Maryland, vs. #66 Kent State
Key Player: PF Leon Williams (16.2 ppg, 9.7 rpg)

Miami might have a gripe with the way the CBI was seeded as well. Again looking at the same conference, Miami and Ohio both went 9-7 and Miami won head-to-head in the MAC tournament, yet must go on the road (and make a fairly long trip, having been moved to the South region). In fairness, willingness to host a game and other factors went into the seeding, but having to play in the South in particular is a tough break for the RedHawks. As for Ohio, the Bobcats have had some success against CBI-caliber competition. In addition to the wins above, Ohio also beat George Mason in BracketBusters. Forwards Williams and Jerome Tillman provide strong production inside, combining for 29.4 points and 17.1 rebounds per game.

Brown Bears (19-9, 11-3 Ivy)
Pomeroy Ranking: #148/255 SOS
Best Wins: vs. #152 Northwestern vs. #159 American
Key Player: G Mark McAndrew (16.5 ppg, 5.0 rpg)

The Ivy rarely sends multiple teams to the postseason, and the CBI offers an opportunity to the conference's clear runner-up. Two of Brown's three Ivy losses were to league champ Cornell (the third came in OT at Yale), and Brown finished three games ahead of third-place Pennsylvania. Alas, the run is likely to be short. Brown is badly outclassed in this tournament, having not won a game against a team ranked in the Pomeroy top 150 (and played only seven such games, as compared to 16 for Ohio).

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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