I'm trying, albeit not that hard, but I just can't seem to get too excited about the NIT.
I know the politically correct thing for me to do is spin this as a great accomplishment, urge all of you to sell out Hilton Coliseum, and scrounge up the necessary advertising to send Bill Seals to New York to cover Iowa State in the NIT's Leftover Four.
Alas, being politically correct is not one of my strengths.
Now, specifically I think the Cyclones should view the NIT as a positive. Almost 10 months ago, this was a program left for dead in the wake of the Larry Eustachy scandal. Face it, we knew nothing about Wayne Morgan but were just hoping for the best, especially after the search process that led to his hiring.
They went to battle this season against an upgraded schedule with a freshmen backcourt and very little depth. They overcame the odds by posting a winning record overall, including notable victories over postseason-bound foes like Northern Iowa, Xavier, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Texas, and Colorado.
There are two types of teams that should consider making the NIT field an achievement. First, those that haven't experienced the postseason in a long time. Second, emerging programs looking to make the next step and build momentum towards next season.
ISU fits the latter profile. And that's why it's ok for them to approach the Not-Invited-Tournament with anticipation as opposed to trepidation or a feeling of it being beneath them. Despite the presence of outgoing seniors like Jake Sullivan and Jackson Vroman, this is still a program in its infancy. Morgan Company are still just a first year coaching staff, and Will Blalock and Curtis Stinson are still just freshman.
And this is still a team that needs to build toughness away from Hilton Coliseum. Perhaps the 2004 NIT will afford them that opportunity?
However, getting excited about the NIT is sort of like getting excited about-heck, I don't know what it's like getting excited about. Maybe it's like getting excited about the Humanitarian Bowl, which is more like a sentencing than a reward?
Nonetheless, I hope once ISU gets in there they do some damage. Not that I'll necessarily be watching intently, unless they make it to New York. I mean the NCAA Tournament is going on at the same time. Why watch Triple-A baseball during the World Series?
Even though I'm a Michigan fan, I don't plan on watching them in the NIT. Even though I'm a Cyclone supporter, I don't plan on watching them in the NIT. Even though I'm a radio commentator in Iowa, I don't plan on watching the Hawkeyes in the NIT.
A few weeks ago, I decided to give up the NIT for Lent.
Big 12 Gets Four
How could the great Big 12, which placed two teams in the Final Four each of the last two years, get just four teams in the field?
Was it a conspiracy perpetrated on the Big 12 by NCAA Tournament Selection Committee Chairman Bob Bowlsby, the athletic director at the rival Big Ten's University of Iowa?
The answer is simple: conference play doesn't count as much as your entire body of work.
Texas Tech finished behind Colorado by a game in the league standings. Yet the Red Raiders were 27 spots higher in the RPI. Colorado had just 17 wins against Division I foes, and only one road win against teams in the top 100 of the final RPI (92nd-ranked Nebraska). The Buffaloes best non-conference win came against Northwestern, and they were beaten soundly at home by NCAA Tournament qualifiers Utah and Richmond.
Case closed on Colorado.
Missouri played a tremendous schedule, but inconsistency (see losing to Belmont at home) kept their RPI down to a nondescript 51st, that's simply not good enough for a team with just a 16-13 overall record. Still, had the Tigers found a way to beat Kansas in the Big 12 Tournament quarterfinals, or beat Kansas at home in their Hearnes Center finale, they still might've made the field. Because of the schedule strength, Mizzou controlled its own destiny down the stretch, but it just didn't complete its work.
Case closed on Missouri.
Another Big 12 team with a legitimate case was Oklahoma, despite its 8-8 finish in the conference. The Sooners ranked higher than Colorado and Missouri in the RPI, overcame the losses of Kevin Bookout and Jabahri Brown, and beat two NCAA Tournament qualifiers (Michigan State & Princeton) in the non-conference to finish with 19 overall wins.
However, none of these three Big 12 teams have a case to make as strong as Utah State or Notre Dame do. In my opinion, the Selection Committee made the right choice by leaving all three of the Big 12 bubble teams out of their final Big Dance card.
Breaking Down the Bracket
Here's how I see the 2004 NCAA Tournament unfolding by region:
First round stunners--Manhattan over Florida
Off to the Great Eight--Wake Forest & Oklahoma State
Final Four bound--Oklahoma State
First round stunners--None, although Illinois-Chicago will scare Kansas
Off to the Great Eight--Kentucky & Georgia Tech
Final Four bound--Kentucky
First round stunners--East Tennessee State over Cincinnati
Turning Sweet 16--Duke, Illinois, North Carolina & Louisville
Off to the Great Eight--Illinois & North Carolina
Final Four bound--North Carolina
First round stunners--UTEP over Maryland & Western Michigan over Vanderbilt
Off to the Great Eight--Stanford & Connecticut
Final Four bound--Connecticut
National Semifinals--Oklahoma State over Kentucky & Connecticut over North Carolina
National Championship--Connecticut over Oklahoma State
(Steve Deace can be heard on the radio each weekday from 3-6 p.m. in Central Iowa on 1460-KXNO, the flagship of the Cyclone Radio Network)