Betting the NIT
T.O. Whenham of Doc's Sports Predictions
The Tournament starts on Thursday, but if the conference tournaments got your betting juices flowing then you don't want to wait that long to get some action. There's the play-in game on Tuesday night, but that's just one game, and it's not much of one at that. Thankfully, there is another perfect solution to get your college basketball fix - the NIT. The tournament that no team wants to play in starts on Tuesday with seven games, and brings nine more on Wednesday, so it's a perfect way to pass the time and get into form for the real show later in the week.
The National Invitational Tournament will look a bit different than it has in recent years. To be honest, though, how many people really know or care what the tournament has looked like? I have followed it closely recently only because I am a Michigan fan and my team is too pathetic to play in a real tournament, but I'm probably the exception. The rights to the NIT were bought by the NCAA in 2005, and they have scaled it back from 40 teams to a more reasonable 32 for the 2007 edition. They are split into four regions with eight seeds per region - like a miniature NCAA tournament. The games in the first three rounds are played in the home arena of the higher seeded team, and the semi-finals and finals move to Madison Square Gardens.
South Carolina has won the NIT the last two seasons, but they didn't have a record nearly good enough to earn a shot at a three-peat. That leaves the field wide open. Here's a look at five questions you will have to answer as you handicap the tournament and look for a new champion:
1) What impact will hurt feelings have? Syracuse and Drexel both feel like they were shafted by the NCAA selection committee. They are right. To make matters worse, they didn't get a lot of respect from the NIT selection committee, either - Syracuse is just a No. 2 seed, and Drexel is a No. 3. Both teams face beatable opponents and have the chance to go deep, but only if they have their head in the right place and decide that they want to win. If they continue to pout and feel like they are better than the NIT, they likely won't win, and they could be primed for a profitable upset. To a lesser extent, the same issues have to be considered about Florida State, West Virginia, Air Force and Kansas State, as well. You have to get inside the heads of the teams to figure out how they might react.
2) How will teams react to quick turnarounds? The schedule in the NIT isn't particularly balanced, so some teams could face some bizarre and challenging travel situations. Toledo, for example, plays on Tuesday at Florida State. If they were to win then they could have to travel all the way up to Michigan to play again on Thursday night. Six teams in total will have to play on Tuesday and then again on Thursday. Some of those teams - Utah State and NC State, for example - had a tiring conference tournament run, so their endurance might not be up to the challenges of the NIT, especially considering the relative lack of importance of this tournament.
3) Can the No. 1 seeds get their acts together? The four top seeds in this tournament are, as expected, a talented but deeply flawed group of squads. West Virginia can be very impressive, like when they shot the lights out against Providence or when they beat UCLA, but they can also be frustratingly bad, like in two losses against Pitt and one against Georgia Tech. Clemson had the best first half of a season -- and the worst second half -- that a team could possibly have. Air Force went from being a potential No. 4 seed in the Big Dance to not making it at all with a horrific collapse down the stretch. Any of those teams could win it all, but it also wouldn't be a surprise if any or all of them lost in the first round, either. You have to figure out which is more likely.
4) How big is the letdown? For a couple of teams, Cinderella's glass slipper was sitting right in their grasp, but they couldn't quite slide it on. NC State made a very surprising and impressive run through the ACC tournament, beating Duke, Virginia and Virginia Tech. They just didn't have enough left to overcome North Carolina and win it all, though. Utah State upset Nevada in the WAC tournament and only lost to New Mexico State by two, despite playing in New Mexico State's home gym. Both teams could use those huge and unexpected performances as a confidence builder for this next step, or they could be physically and emotionally exhausted.
5) How big is home court advantage? Unlike the big tournament, home court advantage is a serious consideration in handicapping the NIT. The challenge comes in determining how significant the home court advantage will be compared to the regular season. In some cases, the home fans aren't going to be particularly enthused or motivated by the appearance in this tournament. It's possible, then, that the home court advantage won't be as significant as it was during the regular season. That could create some value in the betting lines.