The NIT. Yes, The road to Madison Square Garden or, with a Big East-like 13% of the field, we could call it The Tournament of Champions (big shout out to Ben at the Rumbling Buffalo for that one). The Conference of Champions will indeed be well represented as the National Invitational tips off tonight.
The Pac – for better or worse – doesn’t have a major track record of success in the NIT. They’ve claimed the 1999 (Cal), 1991 (Stanford), and 1985 (UCLA) titles and have never played runner-up. We could go further and begin looking at seeding, or tournament win percentages, or all-time appearances, whatever. Let’s call this spade a spade: it is the NIT, it is not the tournament you wanted.
But it is a tournament and, as Herm Edwards once said, "YOU PLAY. TO WIN. THE GAME!"
Let’s take a peak at the current state of each of our four Tournament of Champions participants and how they just might earn the right to be called "Number 69."
Arizona – The #1 seed in Region 4 – wait, let’s discuss this for a second. Regions 1, 2, 3, and 4? That’s the best we can do? It sounds like a government shelter following nuclear holocaust where everyone’s confused about who’s good, who’s bad and whether or not the couple torn across Regions 2 and 4 will ever be together again. Digression, back to the ‘Cats. They wrapped up with a heartbreaking loss in the conference tournament title game to Colorado, closing the season an underwhelming 2-2. By ESPN’s BPI, Arizona was the biggest Big Dance snub. By KenPom, the fourth. So what does that mean? It means that this team can play a little bit and win some ballgames if they can manage to score more than 51 points. They are down to a seven-man rotation and have been prone to offensive droughts, defensive lapses, and interior annihilation. But it does no one any good to mull on what’s become fact after 34 games. Miller’s group is 14-3 at home and could play three home games before heading to NYC; a delightful little treat for the NIT’s top seeds.
Stanford – The Cardinal are the three-seed in Region 4 (droid voice) waltzing into the little dance after nearly pulling off a single week sweep of rival Cal. Ultimately, they didn’t. They also hold a record of 2-2 against CBI participants (Butler, Oregon State, Washington State) so Stanford has been, shall we say, enigmatic? Ok, let’s remind ourselves that Chasson Randle is pretty darned good, too. In the last five games, the pup has averaged 21ppg for the offensively inept Cardinal. Few will ever question the defensive intensity of a Johnny Dawkins team – look at the dude - but stern looks aren’t always enough. For Stanford to make it to New York, they’re going to have to score points (we see you Chasson). The Cardinal drop in with the 129th best O-rating in the nation. Then of course toss in the fact that round one opponent, Cleveland State, yields the 37th best D-Rating in the country. Suddenly Palo Alto feels a lot further from NYC than, well, the whole country.
Oregon – The Ducks’ disruptive end to the Pac-12 season landed them in Region 2 (Terminator voice) as the three-seed. Their March to Madison will kick off against LSU and a familiar conference foe in Trent Johnson of failed-to-recruit-Lin-lore (that’s over, right?). Ok, so this is the Devoe show. The senior has been on a tear of late and it should come as no surprise that his 6-19 FG game against Colorado marked the end of the aforementioned run of disruption. That’s not to say he doesn’t have help in the form of Garrett Sim, E.J. Singler and others. This is a solid squad and, in my humble opinion, under-seeded at the three. They’re a pretty complete team and have already dismantled their region’s (Alien voice) top seed (UW) by a cool twenty-five. They are, however, in the Region with the most BCS conference teams (5). Mean much? I dunno but I counted them up and it’s a fact.
Washington – Here is the only team on this list to garner an auto-bid to the NIT – god it broke my heart reading that fact. But look, here they are, and while Tony Wroten’s quotes pained me to read knowing they came on the heels of those FTs, he made me a believer. I often find myself wrapped up in how a team reacts to adversity and Washington’s case as the first ever-major conference champion to not dance would qualify as such. Will the Dawgs curl up and call it a season? Or put on their big boy pants on and prove somebody wrong? As we’ve already addressed, to get to NYC, as a one-seed, the Huskies will get to host three games in Seattle where they’re notoriously comfortable. Perhaps also worth noting is that the Huskies – like Arizona – have already played games in MSG this season. Hey, come tourney time, you’ll take every advantage and a little familiarity never hurt.