As Vanderbilt looks to extend its season in the NIT, we break down the bracket and try to figure out if the Commodores can make a run to New York.
The 32-team bracket was announced by the NCAA on Sunday night, and the first round begins today and tomorrow.
Who wants to be here? Who doesn’t?
One of the hardest things about handicapping the NIT as opposed to the NCAA Tournament is this: some teams aren’t really interested in competing. In that sense, the NIT can sometimes function like a minor bowl game, where a team that normally would be a pretty heavy favorite can get upset simply because they don’t care and their opponent does.
This isn’t foolproof, but some teams in this bracket may have clear reasons not to show up — and that may work against top seeds making it to New York. For instance, in 2019, the last NIT that was played under the usual format, only one of the four top seeds made it to New York. In 2018, none of them did. Theoretically, the top seeds are the best teams in the event, but since they’re also the last few teams left out of the NCAA Tournament, many of them probably wanted to be playing in the bigger event. Granted, everybody wants to be playing in the bigger event, but some teams early in a rebuilding cycle may view the NIT differently than a team that viewed this as “their year.”
But this can also cut both ways. Of the four top seeds in this year’s NIT, I can divide them into two buckets. Texas A&M’s leading scorer is a senior, but the Aggies’ next nine players are not — and included in that group are four sophomores and two freshmen; the Aggies had a rough stretch in the middle of SEC play that knocked them out of the NCAA Tournament but came on strong late in the season and might look to continue that. Dayton is a young team that struggled early before playing its way into NCAA contention late; in fact, per KenPom, the Flyers rank 358th nationally in experience. (Then again, the Flyers, in spite of being a top seed, won’t be able to host for at least the first two rounds due to its home arena being in use by the First Four and then the Ohio high school state tournament.)
The flipside of that are Oklahoma and SMU, experienced teams whose players are probably disappointed to be ending their college careers in the NIT.
Who are some other candidates for disappointment? St. Bonaventure was a preseason top 25 team whose five leading scorers are all seniors (though the Bonnies aren’t even hosting a first-round game.) Ditto Virginia, though the Cavaliers are less senior-heavy. Florida’s head coach has already left, and Mississippi State’s is rumored to be gone after the Bulldogs are done with their NIT run.
Aside from Dayton, some other young teams that might be looking to build momentum for next season include Saint Louis (343rd in experience), Colorado (316th), Toledo (315th), and Northern Iowa (285th.)
Another place to look for teams that might overachieve are programs that haven’t been in the postseason in a while. That’s a list that includes Vanderbilt, which hasn’t been in any postseason tournament since 2017. The same is true of Wake Forest (which also happens to be the second-best team in the event per KenPom, though the Demon Deacons are also an experienced group which might cut in the opposite direction.) Texas A&M is in the postseason for the first time since 2018 — and the last time Washington State was in the NIT or NCAA was in 2011, when Klay Thompson was playing for them. Hell, Santa Clara hasn’t played in the NCAA or NIT since Steve Nash was in college (1996.) Missouri State hasn’t played here since 2011 — or, three coaching jobs ago for Cuonzo Martin.
Handicapping it all
With all that in mind — who do I like to get to New York?
Out of the Oklahoma bracket, I’ve made my thoughts clear on the Sooners — but they’re also the best team in the field per KenPom, and they have a first-year coach. They also were ranked 52nd in KenPom in the preseason — an indication that, well, they probably weren’t expecting to be an NCAA Tournament team this season. As such, I think talent and home-court advantage win out here; the Sooners should beat Missouri State, Colorado, and North Texas to reach Madison Square Garden.
I don’t like either of the top two seeds in the SMU bracket — SMU for reasons stated above, while second seed BYU was a potential tournament team that played its way out over the last few weeks of the regular season. Between Saint Louis and Washington State, give me the Billikens, a young, talented team that would host in a matchup between the two.
On the other hand, I like chalk to hold in the Texas A&M bracket — the Aggies, after all, are coming in hot after nearly claiming the SEC’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. To a point, anyway — I think Wake Forest is a better team, and unlike a lot of teams that wound up barely missing the NCAA Tournament, the Demon Deacons were overachievers who probably didn’t enter the season expecting to make it; in fact, they were ranked 105th in KenPom in the preseason and picked toward the bottom of the ACC.
That leaves the Dayton bracket, and here’s why I like Vanderbilt to get to New York: Dayton loses homecourt advantage (and might lose a road game to Toledo), and the next two seeds are a Xavier team that collapsed down the stretch to play its way out of the NCAA Tournament, and a Florida team that won’t have its head coach (and that, like the Musketeers, looked like an NCAA Tournament team a month ago.)
NIT First-Round Schedule
All times Central.
- Princeton at VCU (6:00 PM, ESPNU)
- Belmont at Vanderbilt (6:00 PM, ESPN2)
- Missouri State at Oklahoma (6:00 PM, ESPN)
- Texas State at North Texas (7:00 PM, ESPN+)
- Cleveland State at Xavier (8:00 PM, ESPNU)
- Alcorn State at Texas A&M (8:00 PM, ESPN2)
- Oregon at Utah State (8:00 PM, ESPN)
- Santa Clara at Washington State (10:00 PM, ESPNU)
- St. Bonaventure at Colorado (10:00 PM, ESPN2)
- Towson at Wake Forest (6:00 PM, ESPN+)
- Dayton at Toledo (6:00 PM, ESPN+)
- Mississippi State at Virginia (6:00 PM, ESPN2)
- Nicholls at SMU (7:00 PM, ESPN+)
- Northern Iowa at Saint Louis (7:00 PM, ESPN+)
- Long Beach State at BYU (8:00 PM, ESPN+)
- Iona at Florida (8:00 PM, ESPN2)