2006-2007 Preseason NIT Season Tip-Off
The 2006 Dick’s Sporting Goods NIT Season Tip-Off field features eight teams who played in last year’s NCAA Tournament. From traditional powers Indiana and North Carolina to mid-major leaders Gonzaga and Winthrop, this tournament has a number of teams with high hopes at the start of the 2006-2007 season. The goal for each team involved in the NIT Tip-Off is to make only one NIT Tournament appearance this season, instead playing in the Big Dance at season’s end.
Take a closer look of the list of this event’s champions at the right. If you notice on this list, only the 2000 Duke team won both the NIT Tip-Off and NCAA Tournaments in the same season. However, a number of teams have gone on to appear in the Final Four following an NIT Tip-Off title: Duke (’85 champion, ’86 Final Four), UNLV (’86 champion, ’87 Final Four), Duke again (2000 champion, ’01 Final Four & title), and Georgia Tech (’03 champion, ’04 Final Four).
More recently, there have been four teams in the last ten years to earn an NCAA Tournament number one seed after winning the title: ’98 Kansas, ’00 Arizona, ’01 Duke, & ’06 Duke. In that same period of time, only Syracuse in 2001 and North Carolina in 2002 have won the NIT Tip-Off and failed to make the NCAA Tournament the following spring. Finally, the ACC has tasted great success in this event. The league has won four titles in a row and six of the last eight. Obviously that is good news for the ACC participant this season, North Carolina.
The point of this historical data is to acknowledge two things. First, the NIT Tip-Off organizers do a great job of landing key teams in the tournament field. Of course it is easier when the semi-finals and finals are in Madison Square Garden, an obvious draw for teams. However, consistently landing good competition is why many teams keep coming back. After a tune up game or two, the good teams get a shot at another two teams who also have NCAA Tournament aspirations. Second, this event should be carefully monitored and filed away in the NCAA Tournament storage drawer in your brain, as typically teams who succeed in the Tip-Off are at least major factors come March. The selection committee surely takes into account these neutral court, tournament style matchups when weighing the seeding or selection of a team four months later.
Under the new format, the NIT Season Tip-Off is divided into four geographical regions played at a quasi-neutral site in the home state of that particular region’s marquee team. Let’s take a look at each region before discussing the possibilities of these teams playing in New York and beyond.
The East Region takes place at the Charlotte Bobcats’ Arena, one of the newest arenas in the NBA. The highly-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels headline the region that also includes Winthrop, Iona, and Sacred Heart. The first round matchup of the Winthrop Eagles versus the Iona Gaels is one of the more intriguing matchups of the first round. Both participated in the NCAA Tournament last season, losing to SEC powers Tennessee and LSU respectively. Winthrop has made the NCAA Tournament six of the psat eight years behind Coach Gregg Marshall and is the favorite yet again in the Big South Conference this year. Iona should be a factor in the Metro Atlantic race this season as well, despite losing so much talent from last year’s tournament squad. Each of these teams would love a shot at North Carolina, who should advance easily over Sacred Heart. However, their first-round matchup may become increasingly important down the road, as tournament seeding or, less likely, at-large bids become a factor.
The Country Music Capital of the World, Nashville, hosts the South Region, led by last year’s SEC surprise, the Tennessee Volunteers. Bruce Pearl’s squad will not slip up on anyone this year, as returnees Chris Lofton and Dane Bradshaw will help lead the Big Orange attack as they attempt to claim another SEC East title. A first round battle with Fordham should do little to slow down the Vols, but should be a good gauge for the progress of a deep freshmen class. Two other 2006 NCAA Tournament participants square off in the other matchup, as Belmont faces UNC Wilmington. Belmont survived the crazy Atlantic Sun league last season, emerging from the tournament to claim its first NCAA Tournament berth in school history. UNC Wilmington also received an automatic bid last year, coming out of the upstart Colonial Athletic Association. This season, Belmont returns six of its top seven players and is the favorite in the Atlantic Sun to return to the Big Dance. UNC Wilmington, despite losing John Goldsberry, returns a lot of talent this season. New coach Benny Moss will look to make the Seahawk faithful forget about Brad Brownell’s departure to Wright St. He can start by winning a couple games here.
The most balanced region is the Midwest, hosted by Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. With three teams from the state of Indiana, emotions are sure to run high for the fans involved in this basketball-rich state. Patriot League representative Lafayette will attempt to pull the upset in the opening round over the favored Hoosiers. The Hoosiers will surely be scrutinized closely, as this game marks the debut of new head coach Kelvin Sampson. Another fantastic matchup will take place in the region’s other game between Notre Dame and Butler. Notre Dame will attempt to shake its end-game horrors from last season, having lost eight games by three points of less. The Bulldogs look to get back on track as an NCAA Tournament regular, having played last year in the NIT of the post-season variety. Both teams could earn at-large bids this season should they not win the Big East and Horizon League tournaments, so this matchup is sure to be observed by committee members, even this early in the season.
The West Region will be played at the Spokane Arena in Spokane, Washington. If they had not already, the Gonzaga Bulldogs officially arrive as a marquee draw, being selected to host a region of this tournament. In the opening round, Gonzaga will have to deal with Morris Almond and the Rice Owls, a potentially dangerous team this season. The Zags will be attempting to replace the mustached assassin, Adam Morrison, who carried their squad last season. Josh Heytvelt, Derek Raivio, Sean Mallon, Jeremy Pargo, and company will try to collectively fill the void left by the co-national player of the year. Rice would love to make headlines with a big upset early, and a young Gonzaga team could be ripe for the picking. Colorado State and Baylor play in the other first round matchup. Surely, Baylor is excited to just be playing anybody not in the Big 12 after serving the NCAA mandated penalty last season in which the Bears could not play any non-conference games. This year, Baylor has a legitimate shot to play in the post-season, more likely in the NIT than NCAA Tournament. Colorado State likewise has post-season aspirations, and each could separate itself a bit by notching an early-season victory.
Besides just the matchups themselves, there are a few national storylines found in this tournament. First and foremost, as briefly mentioned earlier, the Kelvin Sampson era begins in Bloomington. Sampson, whose NCAA violations while coaching Oklahoma are well documented, will attempt to lead the Hoosiers back to the NCAA Tournament. Wait, Mike Davis did that. So Sampson is charged with leading the Hoosiers to the Final Four. Wait, Davis did that too. So that only leaves championships for Sampson to please the Indiana faithful. While I’m sure they have an NCAA Title in mind, I’m also certain that the Hoosier fans would love an NIT Tip-Off championship to start things off. Anything less than a championship apparently earns you a pink slip at IU.
A second major storyline on a national level will be the play of the mid-majors. Last season unprecedented breakthrough by mid-major teams shook the foundation of the college basketball world. However, the question that now remains is if these teams are here to stay or were simply a one-year wonder. Winthrop, UNC Wilmington, Rice, and Butler will carry the mid-major flag in this field. Each of these teams has a shot against a national name in either the first round, second round, or, in the case of Butler, both.
Finally, the third major national storyline centers on one of the best teams, according to pre-season prognosticators, in the nation: North Carolina. The Tar Heels are the prohibitive favorite to claim the Tip-Off title. Some even say they are a favorite to claim the national title. This tournament should provide an early-season test of the chemistry of this team. Talent is of little question, but establishing a starting lineup, much less a regular rotation, will be challenging for Coach Roy Williams. Tyler Hansbrough is the best player in this event and should use the big stage of Madison Square Garden to add to his legend around Chapel Hill.
There are nine or ten teams who have a fighting chance to earn an NCAA at-large berth in March. Though Selection Sunday is a ways off, one can never ignore the repercussions of an early season upset or the ability to win four straight games and earn the NIT Season Tip-Off title. Also, though only one team will win the event, others can do a great deal to plant a seed in the collective head of the tournament committee as a squad worthy of an at-large bid in March. With so much on the line this early in the season, NCAA hoops will grab some of the attention of the NFL and College Football and shine before the nation.
The NIT Season Tip-Off has been around in some fashion since 1985, when Duke won the inaugural Pre-Season NIT tournament championship. Since that time, this event has produced early-season drama, great non-conference matchups, and occasionally a preview of what would take place the following March. Here are the winners since the first tournament in 1985:
1991 Oklahoma St
1998 North Carolina
2002 North Carolina
2003 Georgia Tech
2004 Wake Forest
East Region Champion: North Carolina
South Region Champion: Tennessee
Midwest Region Champion: Indiana
West Region Champion: Gonzaga
Semi Finals: North Carolina over Gonzaga
Tennessee over Indiana
Finals: North Carolina over Indiana