The 2012 NIT Season Tip-Off bracket was finally announced earlier this month. While the featured teams in the event – Michigan, Virginia, Kansas State and Pittsburgh – don’t quite compare to some of the more prestigious preseason tournaments (this isn’t last year’s Maui field by any measure), the NIT adds intrigue as the only preseason event which still features a true 16 team knock out tournament format. There are no guarantees and all four host schools will be forced to win games on back-to-back days to advance to the tournament semifinals in New York City. There are more than a couple schools in the field which will feel that they have the ability to knock out a major conference opponent and spoil the Thanksgiving party at the Garden.
With the bracket announced, we take a closer look at the tournament including some early storylines, match-ups and unheralded players to familiarize yourself with before November.
New kids debut
Michigan fans are more than familiar with their highly regarded incoming class featuring Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary and Nik Stauskas but those aren’t the only fresh faces that will be making their national debut in the NIT Season Tip-Off.
Despite Michigan’s Top 10 class, the Wolverines don’t have the most highly regarded freshmen in the tournament. That honor belongs to Pittsburgh’s Steven Adams. Adams, a 7-foot New Zealand native, is the consensus No. 5 incoming freshman in the country. Adams will be joined by fellow consensus top 100 recruit James Robinson in Pittsburgh while Virginia adds three top-100 players to the fold in Justin Anderson, Evan Nolte and Mike Tobey.
With the NIT Season Tip-Off so early in the season, this will be the first chance for players from this year’s freshman class to make themselves known commodities on the national circuit. Mitch McGary vs. Steven Adams would be certain to open a couple eyeballs in November.
Bruce Weber settles into new digs
John Gasaway wrote the best post-mortem on Bruce Weber’s career at Illinois but less than two weeks later, Weber had landed on his feet with another major conference gig at Kansas State. With a $3.9 million dollar buy out in hand, there’s weren’t many better landing spots for Weber. Frank Martin left behind a NCAA tournament team that returns its leading scorer and seven of its top eight contributors. Say what you want about Weber’s ability to coach offense, his defensive track record should fit in well with a Kansas State group that ranked as the Big 12’s second best defense a season ago. Weber has a chance to succeed in Manhattan but the NIT Tip Off will serve as his first measuring stick as games against opening games against Washburn, Emporia State and North Dakota are unlikely to move the scales.
Mid-Major All Tournament Team
There will be some serious mid-major talent featured in the early rounds of the NIT Season Tip-Off including a pair of projected 2013 lottery picks in Tony Mitchell and CJ McCollum.
- Tony Mitchell, North Texas – Mitchell is unlike anything you’d expect to find in the Sun Belt. He’s 6-foot-8, 235 pounds with a 41-inch vertical and a 7-foot-4 wingspan. Measurables more than good enough to make NBA scouts drool. Mitchell was a top-20 recruit out of high school and attended four schools in three states. He was ruled an academic non-qualifier at Missouri before paying his own way to North Texas. After playing one semester, or 22 games, last season, Mitchell opted to forgo the NBA draft and return for his sophomore season in North Texas.
- C.J. McCollum, Lehigh – The 6-foot-3 combo guard scored 30 points on Duke in an NCAA tournament upset before opting to come back to school for his senior year. He’s averaged just under 22 points per game over the last two seasons and is one of the nation’s premiere guards, projected by many as a 2013 lottery pick.
- Velton Jones, Robert Morris – High volume shooters are a dime-a-dozen at the mid-major level but finding a volume shooter that maintains efficiency is much more rare. Jones, a 6-foot guard, fits the bill. His usage rate ranks in the top-25 nationally but his offensive rating of 107.0 is solid, his assist to turnover numbers are strong and he gets to the free throw line. How to stop him? Don’t foul and force him to convert in traffic as he made just 38% of his twos a season ago.
- Anton Grady, Cleveland State – Cleveland native had a promising freshman campaign and should take on a significantly bigger role as the three players ahead of him in the offensive pecking order (Jeremy Montgomery, Trey Harmon and D’Aundray Brown all graduated). Already a great rebounder and defender, the 6-foot-8 forward could emerge as one of the Horizon’s best players with an improved offensive arsenal.
- Devon Saddler, Delaware – Saddler is more of the typical high scorer you see at the mid-major level. The 6-foot-2, 205 pound scorer averaged 19 points per game a season ago but shot just 44% on twos and 31% on threes. Despite his inefficiencies, anyone that can near 20 points per game has the ability to take over a game
Cinderella Watch: North Texas and Lehigh
Given the mid-major talent outlined above, there’s a very real chance that one of the four host schools is eliminated before earning a trip to New York City. Two mid-majors might be most likely to crash the party at the Garden thanks to not only their talent but some potential holes in their opponents.
North Texas not only has future pro Tony Mitchell, they face a Kansas State team still adapting to a new head coach after just a handful of early season games. North Texas returns its entire starting lineup from a season ago.
Lehigh, the highest seeded non-host school, is also a likely Cinderella. The Mountain Hawks return four starters, including CJ McCollum, from a squad that many will remember knocking off Duke in March. Pittsburgh has talent, including a top-10 prospect in Steven Adams, but will have to regain confidence coming off of Jamie Dixon’s worst season at Pitt.
Three Individual Match-Ups We Want to See
There’s plenty of star players featured in the bracket but these are three individual head to head match-ups that we’d love to see on Thanksgiving weekend.
- Steven Adams, Pittsburgh vs. Mitch McGary, Michigan
A pair of freshmen blue chip big men going head to head. This battle should provide some excitement. Adams was one of the biggest risers in the final batch of ranking updates while McGary was notable for his early rise and subsequent slip.
- Trey Burke, Michigan vs. CJ McCollum, Lehigh
This would require an upset but this would be as good as it gets in terms of a high level point guard match-up in November. NBA scouts would be tuned in and you can be sure that both players would elevate their games just a hair
- Rodney McGruder, Kansas State vs. Justin Anderson, Virginia
McGruder is a senior and has played in his fair share of big time games. He’s a proven commodity that can score the ball inside and out. Anderson is a top-50 freshman for Virginia playing in his first big game on a team that returns only one double digit scorer.
Game We Want to See: Pittsburgh vs. Michigan
This match-up would reunited old Big East rivals John Beilein and Jamie Dixon in the familiar setting of Madison Square Garden. Beilein was 3-5 against Dixon when he coached at West Virginia and the contrasting styles could make for quite a game. Dixon’s squads have been renowned for their defense (although last year’s Pitt defense was inexplicably mediocre) and offensive rebounding and should provide a great test for Michigan’s young stars in their first prime time game of the season.
Game to Avoid: Michigan vs. Virginia
This game would be a rematch of last year’s Big Ten-ACC Challenge contest and would provide Michigan with a chance at revenge. However, it would also likely be one of the slowest games you could draw up this early in the season and it would be nice enough to save those grind-it-out 58 possession games for February.
Bracket Predictions: Semifinals: Michigan over Pittsburgh; Kansas State over Virginia. Finals: Michigan over Kansas State