By Kevin Sweeney
While all the focus, and rightfully so, around this time of year is on the NCAA Tournament, there are still other teams looking to end their season’s on a high note and bring momentum into next season. While the NIT is a well-respected tournament, many have criticized the CBI, CIT, and Vegas 16 (which wasn’t played this season) as money-grabs for third-tier teams. I think these “third-tier” tournaments are great for the sport, as it gives teams more practice time, fans a chance to watch their squad a few more times, and players the experience of playing in must-win games. You can find my extended thoughts on that issue HERE. With all postseason tournament coming to an end, here’s a look at the final few teams remaining in each of these events and my predictions for which teams will finish their season with a win.
We are down to the final four of the NIT, with Cal-Bakersfield, Georgia Tech, TCU, and UCF ready to duke it out at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday and Thursday with a trophy on the line. Once again, we’ve seen that the NIT’s results are heavily skewed by which teams play like they want to be there, as many teams who were left disappointed on Selection Sunday posted lackluster performances in early-round NIT games.
Cal-Bakersfield has been on a miracle run from being an 8 seed (the lowest possible) to being two wins away from an NIT title, knocking off Cal, Colorado State, and UT-Arlington to earn the cross-country trip to New York City. Georgia Tech has continued its surprising campaign in year 1 of the Josh Pastner era with victories over Indiana, Belmont, and Ole Miss. Now, ACC All-Freshman team selection Josh Okogie and the rest of the Yellow Jackets will have to try and knock off red-hot Cal-Bakersfield if they want their season to continue.
Similarly to Georgia Tech, TCU has overachieved all season. While they didn’t reach the NCAA Tournament, the Horned Frogs came into the NIT with momentum after a stunning victory over Kansas in the Big 12 Tournament. They’ve parlayed that momentum into a deep run in the NIT, beating Fresno State, Iowa, and Richmond in their 3 games so far. Key in that run has been the play of junior Kenrich Williams, who has posted 2 double-doubles and a triple-double in the 3 games. This late run into March will without a doubt benefit Jamie Dixon’s team in the long run, as the Horned Frogs’ top 6 scorers will return next season. UCF and NIT-whisperer Johnny Dawkins round out the four squads headed to NYC. Dawkins went 11-1 with 2 championships in 3 trips to the NIT at Stanford, and has brought some of that success to Orlando, where Dawkins’ Knights have beaten Colorado, Illinois State, and Illinois in a trio of tightly-contested affairs.
Championship Game Prediction: Georgia Tech 74, TCU 70
We are down to 2 in the CBI, with the championship decided in a unique 3-game series format. The series begins tonight, with Wyoming making their way to Myrtle Beach to take on Coastal Carolina. It will continue with games on Wednesday and Friday (if necessary) in Laramie, Wyoming. Both teams have had the benefit of hosting all 3 of their previous CBI games (for a price), so it will be interesting to see how each team handles playing on the road, far away from home. Throughout the CBI, Wyoming has experimented with starting star sophomore Justin James, the team’s leading scorer who had come off the bench all season. James has passed that test with flying colors, averaging almost 19 points per game during the tournament. Meanwhile, Coastal Carolina has gotten 22 points in each of the 3 CBI contests from junior guard Jaylen Shaw, and has seen freshman wing Artur Labinowicz come into his own with 3 double-digit scoring performances.
Prediction: Wyoming wins the series 2-1
The semifinals of the CIT begin on Wednesday, as Texas A&M-CC travels to take on UMBC and Furman heads to New Jersey to take on Saint Peter’s. UMBC has been one of the great untold stories of the college basketball season, winning 21 games so far after having 7 straight seasons of 20 losses or more under first-year head coach Ryan Odom. The Retrievers can cap this incredible year with a postseason title with 2 more wins, but first they’ll have to go through a Texas A&M-CC team that fell just 3 points short of reaching the NCAA Tournament this season. The Islanders are led by Rashawn Thomas, a dynamic 6-7 forward who ranks in the top ten nationally in scoring at 22.6 points per game.
In the other game, Furman will look to continue their strong 2016-17 season without head coach Niko Medved, who took the same position at Drake during the CIT run. However, the team has been left in the capable hands of interim head coach Bob Richey, and will look to knock off the Peacocks, who came in second in the MAAC this season. St. Peter’s advanced in unlikely fashion over Texas State on Saturday, winning 49-44 despite not scoring in the game’s first 10 minutes. The Peacocks are well-coached and play excellent defense, making them a tough matchup in March.
Championship Game Prediction: St. Peter’s 62, UMBC 55
While the basketball tournament will not be played this year, it’s Twitter account lives on in glorious fashion. @VegasSixteen has quickly become a Twitter must-follow, with its timely gifs and witty remarks making the college basketball postseason more enjoyable for the average fan.