NIT Notebook: Tigers Invade the Big Apple

NEW YORK – Don't be surprised when Clemson and Air Force get together Tuesday night in the NIT semifinal game that the Falcons have more fans than any of the other teams inside Madison Square Garden.

That's because there are Air Force servicemen all over the world and it won't matter if those in that branch of the service attended the service academy in Colorado Springs, they're still going to be rooting for their Falcons.

Moreover, Air Force head coach Jeff Bzdelik thinks the other branches of the armed forces will be firmly behind his Falcons.

"At breakfast (Monday), I was walking to get my plate at the buffet, and there some ladies sitting there and they were all Army moms and wives," he said. "They had tremendous respect for what my players stood for. One of the moms had lost her son 18 months ago in Iraq and we were embracing.

"My point is, regardless of what branch you're in, it's like family."

The two best meet Tuesday
When Air Force and Clemson square off at 9 p.m., the top two seeds in the NIT will be going at it.

C.M. Newton, the director of the NIT Selection Committee, said Air Force was the No. 1 overall seed, with the Tigers being the second of the top four seeds.

In fact, he said there was never really much question that Clemson was the second-best rated team in the NIT, regardless of what all the Syracuse and Florida State fans moaned about.

"(We looked at) the total body work, the 17-game win streak and the close games that they lost," Newton said. "We didn't try to break it down to the last 10 games or any of that stuff. We looked at the total year and we just felt like that Clemson had deserved it more than Syracuse."

Newton, the former coach at Alabama and Vanderbilt, as well as athletics director at Kentucky, joined former North Carolina coach Dean Smith to discuss and select the teams from the South.

Newton also said breaking down the entire tournament and seeding all the teams was very difficult.

"This is without question the best field ever," he said. "Look at who we had to leave out. We left out an Akron team that won 25 games. We left out Washington. We left out an Iowa team that finished fourth in the Big 10."

An odd Clemson-Air Force connection
Bzdelik used to be the head coach of the NBA's Denver Nuggets and one of his players was former Clemson star Greg Buckner. In fact, Buckner and Detroit's Dale Davis are the only two former Tigers currently in the NBA.

"He was a real pro," Bzdelik said. "I think he embodied what I think the definition of a professional is. Greg came to practice everyday. Whether it be a game or practice, I always knew what to expect from Greg.

"He was just really tough defensively; he prepared himself mentally; he knew the scouting report word by word; he was a total team player; moved well without the basketball; really worked on his game to improve it on a daily basis. I have the utmost respect for Greg Buckner."

Big Apple bites
When the Falcons take to the floor, they only way to identify them individually will be by their number and not their name.

"We don't have our names on the back of our jerseys because the name on the front of our jersey is more important than the name on the back," Bzdelik said. …

Former Clemson cornerback Justin Miller sent a limo to the team's hotel Sunday night to pick up Vernon Hamilton, James Mays and another player. The group went out last night to explore the greatest city in the world. … Tigers coach Oliver Purnell said the team will have the opportunity to do some more sightseeing Monday night and should they win Tuesday night, they will have more activities lined up for Wednesday, like possibly going to Ground Zero.

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