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March 18, 2008
National Invitation Tournament Preview
Home Teams Rule

by Joe Sheehan

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With all due respect to the centuries of basketball experience the members of the NIT selection committee have, it appears that the determining factors in its selection and seeding of teams for the tournament had more to do with football than basketball. To wit:

                    Record    RPI   NC RPI   L12  ConfT   Top50W  Seed
Nebraska             19-12     96      103   6-6     QF        3     3
California           16-15     92       65   4-8     QF        2     4

Utah State           23-10     70       75   8-4     SF        0     7
Stephen F. Austin     22-5     64       49  10-2     SF        1     7
UC Santa Barbara      22-8     89       47   9-3     SF        1     7

The NIT was, for a long time, driven by attendance, and I’m sure there’s some element of that in that rightmost column. It is likely, though far from certain, that Nebraska and California will draw more people, generate more revenue, for a home game than Utah State or Stephen F. Austin would have. However, ever since the NCAA took over administration of the tournament, the refrain from C.M. Newton was that the new and improved NIT would be concerned more with basketball than bucks. Seeding two BCS teams with long-established football programs and medicore basketball teams nine miles in front of two conference champions who did everything better than the BCS squads except get nine or 10 home games against BCS schools is embarrassing to everyone involved.

For the second year in a row, the new NIT has put the screws to the conference champions who earned their NIT bids by losing in their conference tournaments. Those teams exclusively occupied the bottom eight slots in the bracket last year. However, those placements were largely defensible, with only Vermont and Toledo, #7 seeds, arguably underseeded. While no credit was given for winning a conference as opposed to finishing eighth in one, and a handful of teams, notably Akron and Bucknell, were unfairly ignored, the committee didn’t make the kind of egregious mistakes you see above.

In 2008, it’s more of the same. The only automatic qualifier seeded above the bottom two lines is Virginia Commonwealth, itself underseeded at #4, below such teams as the aforementioned Nebraska, Creighton and Florida State.

The committee took great pride in noting that the top seeds in each region advanced to the final last season, assigning credit for this to their accurate evaluation of the teams involved, never mentioning the more important factor: home games. The home team hosts every game in the first three rounds of the NIT, a significant advantage in the world of college basketball. Home teams were 24-4 in last year’s tournament, which makes the mis-seeding of Utah State and Stephen F. Austin an even greater penalty.

The NCAA got a lot of credit for assuring regular-season champions a seat in the NIT, but if this is how those champions are going to be treated, it’s clear that the move was intended as a gesture, and not an acknowledgement of the quality basketball played throughout Division I. The same organization that refuses to match up a MEAC and a SWAC school in the play-in game, no matter what school it has to screw to avoid it, has no problem burying each conference’s NIT representative.

Seeding aside, the NIT usually produces some good basketball, albeit without the drama or the caliber of play we see in its big brother. For those of us who wandered around Monday not knowing what to do with ourselves on the first day with no games after the orgy that is Championship Week, the first round of the NIT (and, for those who can find it, the CBI), are like manna from heaven. Stale, store-brand manna, but manna nonetheless.

That 24-4 mark for home teams last year makes it pretty easy to pick the favorites: Ohio State, Arizona State, Virginia Tech and Syracuse. Those teams will wear white until they reach New York or get eliminated. What’s amusing is that a trait that served to put them into the NIT—a lack of quality wins away from home—is the one they get protected from in this event. If you really wanted to test those squads, you’d make them play the kind of road games they studiously avoid in November and December. Instead, they’ll go a combined 12-0 or 11-1 in home games and collectively feel justified in their anger at the committee, as if they were going to get East Regional games on campus.

Beyond the top seeds, here are the teams to watch over the next two weeks, ones that, if they can overcome road-court disadvantage, can make a run to New York and spoil the committee’s designs:

  • New Mexico: Steve Alford’s squad has the highest Pomeroy Rating of any NIT team, and is here largely because it lost two overtime games in the last two weeks of the season, one to BYU at home and one to Utah in the quarterfinals of the Mountain West tournament. The Lobos are the best three-point shooting team in the land at 42.5%, and among the best defensive squads at 91.9 points per 100 possessions. Unlike past New Mexico squads, they won away from Albuquerque: 8-5 on the road. They’re probably the best team in the East bracket.
  • Utah State: Like their counterparts at the top of the WAC, the Aggies can score (first in EFG%, sixth in offensive efficiency) and can’t stop the other guys (273rd in defensive efficiency, in part because they don’t force turnovers or defend the perimeter). Their ability to put it in the basket makes them dangerous because their first two games will be against fair to poor offensive squads (Illinois State, then Dayton or Cleveland State).
  • Morgan State: They’re a big underdog against media darling Virginia Tech, but keep in mind that VT lost four games to teams with RPIs above 100. Morgan State was the best team in a more-competitive MEAC, nearly beat Connecticut and Miami (Fla.) on the road, and has the 18th-rated defense in the land. This will be a game.
  • Stephen F. Austin: One of three good Southland teams, the Lumberjacks would have been a popular upset choice in the NCAA tournament had they not lost to Northwestern State in the Southland semis. They won road games at Oklahoma and San Diego in the nonconference campaign, and get their wins with in the halfcourt, in the top 40 in both two-point and three-point FG defense.

Just for fun, here are my picks through the bracket:

First round: Ohio State, New Mexico, Dayton, Utah State, Virginia Tech, VCU, Nebraska, Mississippi, Arizona State, Southern Illinois, Creighton, Florida, Syracuse, Maryland, Florida State, Massachusetts.

Second round: New Mexico, Dayton, Virginia Tech, Mississippi, Arizona State, Creighton, Syracuse, Massachusetts.

Quarterfinals: New Mexico, Mississippi, Arizona State, Syracuse.

Championship: Syracuse over New Mexico.

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

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