DraftExpress' J.L. Weill gives readers an appetizer look at the major players, teams and matchups before fans can get those forks and knives dug into the main course.
Monday: 7:30 PM ET. Boston U. at No. 1 Duke- ESPN 2
Tuesday: 10:00 PM ET. New Mexico State at No. 18 UCLA- ESPN 2
Wednesday: 7:30 PM ET. Duke/Boston U. vs. Seton Hall/Manhattan, ESPN
November 23rd- 7/9:00 PM ET. Semifinals from Madison Square Garden, ESPN 2
November 25th- 7:00 PM ET. Finals from Madison Square Garden, ESPN 2
First, a little background on the makeup of the tournament, and why the whole thing takes two weeks.
A regionally complex tournament to begin with, the NIT Season Tip-Off features two rounds of games at home courts around the country before having semifinals and finals matchups at New York's Madison Square Garden. For some teams, getting past the first and second rounds would be the signal of a monumental season ahead (we're looking in your direction, Drexel). For others, not making it to New York would be considered an upset worthy of apoplectic fan reaction.
The first-round games will take place on November 14th and 15th, with home games at venerable locales like Duke's Cameron Indoor, the Meadowlands (Seton Hall) and Missouri's Mizzou Arena, in addition to home tilts at Princeton, Memphis, Temple, Alabama, and Pauley Pavilion in Westwood. The organizers' expectation is for those home teams to win, setting up more appealing second-round games between Duke and Seton Hall, the Crimson Tide and Memphis and Temple against UCLA.
Were seeds to hold, the television dream scenario would pit Duke against the Princeton-Missouri winner, with Memphis battling UCLA. In years' past, the field would have had a few more traditional powers, but new NCAA limits on the number of exempted tournaments universities can participate in have left big-ticket clubs like Kentucky, Kansas, Illinois and Stanford with less flexibility in their scheduling.
For loyal DraftExpress readers and followers of the NBA, the focus will be two-fold: which teams look good, and who are the professional-caliber talents on display. Here's a summary breakdown:
Duke - Everyone's preseason darling pick for good reason, the Blue Devils do little to decrease their antagonists by returning two potential Player of the Year candidates -- and NBA lottery hopefuls -- in sharpshooter J.J. Redick and low post brute Shelden Williams. Coach K also has at his disposal two of the country's best, and most ready to contribute, freshmen in point Greg Paulus and power forward Josh McRoberts. Anything less than a NIT Season Tip-Off title would be considered a surprise for the consensus No. 1 team in the land.
Memphis - It will be two months before the Tigers are to meet any of their foes in the depleted Conference USA, so it's national recognition time for John Calipari's club. Led by sophomore point guard Darius Washington and athletic marvel Rodney Carney, the Tigers will be aiming to put themselves on the map before the conference slate, and the mighty Green Wave of Tulane, beckon. Memphis likes to run, and Washington would be a stiff test for any opposing point guard, Duke rookie Paulus included. The athletic Joey Dorsey could provide the grit that has been missing from the finesse Tigers in the past. First things first, however, as mid-major darling Wisconsin-Milwaukee is up first, and a potential bruiser against SEC contender Alabama looms large in the next round.
UCLA - Young and hungry, Ben Howland's third Bruins squad will garner some preseason attention for the first time, and the spotlight of the NIT would be a great jumping off point for a surprise Pac-10 title run. Injuries have the talented Bruins playing catch-up, but they should still have enough early on to make a run. Lead guard Jordan Farmar runs the show, while backcourt mate Aaron Afflalo tries to shoot daggers into the opponent from the wings. An inconsistent frontcourt presence will be a test all year, but enigmatic big Ryan Hollins has been drawing raves, and the early season is a great time to catch teams off guard and to build some confidence. If they can stop New Mexico State in the opener, the young Bruins' ability to solve Temple's matchup zone will determine their NIT chances.
Alabama - If the NIT games become a battle of low-post muscle, Bama stands to exceed expectations. Paced by a stacked frontcourt of Jermareo Davidson, Chuck Davis and freshman standout Richard Hendrix, the Crimson Tide should find plenty of ways to score in the paint. Ever-improving point man Ronald Steele will be in charge of distributing the ball, and keeping defenses honest with a timely jump shot or two. While some worry about Alabama's lack of guard depth, Justin Jonas raised a few eyebrows with a 34-point exhibition game. Still, few expect anything but post-oriented offense from the Tide. Getting past Memphis to New York for the semifinals would be a strong statement for Bama's NCAA tourney credentials.
Temple - John Chaney hopes to put a forgettable season behind him with another defensively focused Owls club in 2005-06. The matchup zone will be tough as always, so the team's success or failure will depend once again on its offensive firepower. Lucky for Chaney, he boasts one of the nation's best in senior Mardy Collins, a do-everything guard who led Temple in scoring, rebounding and assists last year. A starter for the summer U-21 team, Collins hopes to follow in the substantial footsteps of prior Owls greats Nate Blackwell, Rick Brunson and Mark Macon. He'll be helped by sophomore Mark Tyndale, one of several returning starters. A second-round date with UCLA looms as a good test of the veteran Owls' potential.
Manhattan - A down year for Bobby Gonzalez's club in '05 should be followed by a return to city prominence. Behind a trio of now-seasoned young players, the Jaspers hope to bounce back to the form that got them within a few buckets of the NCAA Sweet 16 in 2004. Sparked by MAAC Rookie of the Year (and potential conference Player of the Year) C.J. Anderson and fellow sophs Arturo Dubois and Jeff Xavier, Manhattan should be a real headache for local rival Seton Hall in the first round, and might make a Duke team finding its legs work for it in the second.
Wisconsin-Milwaukee - An NCAA tourney and mid-major darling, the Panthers have changed coaches, but not focus. A Horizon league title is within reach, especially with the talented Joah Tucker back. Despite some big losses scoring-wise, UWM returns Boo Davis and Adrian Tigert in addition to Tucker, and was the overwhlming choice for league favorite on media day. Former Bo Ryan disciple Rob Jeter takes the reins of this '05 Sweet 16 club, and could trip up Memphis if the Tigers get caught looking too far ahead.
Miami (OH) - An '05 Postseason NIT loss put a damper on a conference title season, but Charlie Coles' crew enters this NIT Season Tip-Off with optimism, mostly due to Coles' winning tradition and the return of several key cogs. Senior shooter William Hatcher is the rock, if junior Nathan Peavy is the roll. Peavy could hold the key to the season if he can continue to improve and use his athleticism to his advantage. The Hawks don't score a lot, but are persistent on defense and will give first-round opponent Alabama fits with a half-court, grind it out game. The Crimson Tide, however, are a big lot, and could be the sort of half-court team that can play with Miami.
Seton Hall - Embattled head coach Louis Orr could use some early-season magic to keep the unemployment wolves at bay. The Hall, fresh off a disappointing year, lost the bulk of their team -- principally freshman transfer Justin Cerasoli -- and will regroup around Kelly Whitney, a talented but enigmatic low post scorer. Brian Laing and Jamar Nutter will try and help the Pirates get a shot at Duke in the second round. The opener against metro rival Manhattan is no gimme, and Orr's bunch could get the year off on the right foot with a victory.
Missouri - By now, anyone who follows college basketball fairly closely knows the troubles Quin Snyder has had in Columbia. Despite loads of talent, recruiting success and some NCAA tourney runs, Snyder never was able to turn the corner. Now, after some well-publicized NCAA infractions and subpar seasons, Snyder has circled the wagons. This year, with the defection of leading scorer and rebounder Linas Kleiza to the NBA, it will be up to Jimmy McKinney, Jason Horton and Thomas Gardner to navigate the loaded Big 12. The Tigers get the home game in round one, and a favorable potential second-round opponent in Ivy Leaguers Princeton. However, Mizzou's NIT success or failure may depend on how mentally tough Snyder and his charges can be.
Princeton - An atypical down year for the Tigers in '05 means this year's team will face unusually high expectations. Unfortunately for Princeton, they lost the services of All-Ivy performers Judson Wallace and Will Venable, as well as three other departed seniors. Center Harrison Schaen, a 6-9 sophomore who sat out last season, will be the centerpiece of a work-in-progress. A home game in the first round helps tremendously.
The Sacrificial Lambs
New Mexico State - Returnees Trevor Lawrence and Mike Mitchell will try to offset the loss of leading returning scorer Duane John, who was suspended over the summer. The biggest loss for the Aggies is the retirement of coaching lifer Lou Henson this spring. A win over a hungry UCLA team seems unlikely.
Boston University - Coach Dennis Wolff's bunch led the nation in field-goal percentage defense last year, and they'll need to hold first-round opponent Duke to roughly 2% to have a shot at knocking off the loaded Devils. Kevin Gardner leads the Terriers in a one-and-done NIT appearance.
Sam Houston State - With two keys to its '05 season departed (Conference POY Joe Thompson and potential pro Eddy Fobbs), it will be a team effort for the Bearkats. While Missouri is no Duke, a road game for pay is about all Sam Houston St. can realistically expect.
Drexel - The loss of four key seniors means the Dragons will be hard-pressed to contend in an expanded Colonial League this year, and while first-round opponent Princeton is hardly a world-beater, anything more than an upset in the opener would be monumental.
Army - After just 14 wins in three season, Army coach Jim Crews would love to start the '06 campaign with a bang. Despite Temple's penchant for playing down to its opponent, that bang ain't gonna happen in this NIT.
Ten players to watch with an eye on the NBA draft:
(1) Shelden Williams, Duke - A little offensive consistency outside of the paint is all that's missing from Williams' game. A shot blocking menace, Williams is a preseason first-team All-American.
(2) Josh McRoberts, Duke - Perhaps the best incoming freshman in the land, McRoberts has everything you need to be a lottery pick: size, skill, athleticism, shooting touch and, soon, a Duke pedigree.
(3) Mardy Collins, Temple - A stat sheet filler, Collins has the game and the makeup to put a team on his back. A strong year could mean high lottery for the talented combo guard.
(4) Darius Washington, Memphis - Quick, efficient and heady, Washington makes up for a lack of physical size with excellent penetration ability. His shot is streaky, but effective.
(5) Rodney Carney, Memphis - An athletically gifted scorer, Carney dunks. A lot. He has streaky NBA range, but needs to find the in-between game being a pro swingman requires.
(6) J.J. Redick, Duke - The other preseason All-American at Duke, Redick is a known commodity. Showcasing an all-around game in addition to 35-footers would help Redick's NBA stock.
(7) Jordan Farmar, UCLA - As pass-first point guards become fashionable again (see also Williams, Deron), Farmar has the potential to be among the nation's best with time and experience.
(8) Ronald Steele, Alabama - Another excellent floor leader, Steele will have to show he can create offense off the dribble and continue to knock down his jump shots to keep both his teammates from getting double-teamed and his NBA dreams alive.
(9) Joah Tucker, Wisconsin-Milwaukee - After averaging 24.4 ppg in the Horizon League and NCAA tourneys, including 32 against Illinois, Tucker is on the radar, even though he definitely looks like a tweener. He'll now get the chance to raise his profile.
(10) Jermareo Davidson, Alabama - With all the potential in the world, Davidson has got to show he can play with his back to the basket. Despite being an athletic marvel with good instincts, offense matters in the pros.