2007 Preseason NIT preview
Historically the Preseason NIT field has consisted of four ranked teams in the preseason polls that will meet in New York City to attract viewers to the Worldwide Leader.
That’s not the case in 2008, but for the first time in recent years, the entire field is competitively deeper and is evenly distributed across the four pods. At least two mid-majors have a legit chance to get to Madison Square Garden while some forgotten big boys will look to win four in-a-row and make an early season statement.
East Regional – Carrier Dome, Syracuse, NY
The winner of Syracuse/Siena vs. the winner of St. Joseph’s/Fairleigh Dickinson
Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim has made a scheduling precedent of not leaving his home state and now he’s officially outdone himself in 2007. The Orange, except for a road game at Virginia and a possible trip across the street to Madison Square Garden for this event, will not leave their home arena ’til January 9.
With two five-star freshman prospects in the starting lineup, Syracuse will be faced with a very difficult test in its season opening contest.
The fans at the Carrier Dome will get their first official look at highly regarded freshman point guard Jonny Flynn. He’s a New York high school star and performed well for the silver medal-winning U.S.A. U-19 World Championship team.
“Obviously, you don’t know what freshmen are going to do until you get into a game situation,” Boeheim said in an Associated Press interview. “We expect a lot out of them, as does everybody, but I think they expect a lot out of themselves.”
Tough-nosed and sharp-shooting guard Eric Devendorf will be looked upon for leadership in these early games. However, the junior from Bay Hill, Mich. will not be counted on for too much responsibility as a combo-guard this season and his shooting numbers should resemble those of his freshman campaign (44.5 FG%, 37.6 3PT%, 82.1 FT%).
I definitely have to take a new role,” Devendorf told the AP. “Last year we had the seniors, but this year we have a lot of younger guys.”
The key for Syracuse winning this event will be sophomore wing player Paul Harris’ ability to get out of the gate like he did last year. The highly-touted prospect scored double-figures in eight of the first ten games in 2006 and had less than seven rebounds only twice in that stretch.
However, the 12th-best national prospect (according to Rivals.com) didn’t score more than six points throughout the entire month of January. If Harris can start out hot again and pick up where he left off in his last game at the Big East Tournament against Notre Dame (24 points, 15 rebounds in 22 minutes), the Orange will overcome the blow of losing low-post scorer Demetris Nichols to graduation.
Boeheim’s teams have a knack for losing at home to nationally-overlooked mid-major teams (Bucknell in 2005, Wichita State in 2006). Siena is not likely to pose a serious challenge, but it can’t be taken lightly.
Siena’s 20 wins last season were a bit deceiving because the Saints did not beat a single team in the RPI Top 100. However, Fran McCaffery has clearly turned around this program around from a 6-24 record prior to his arrival and the Mid-American Athletic Conference coaches recognized that by ranking Siena as the early favorite in the preseason poll
I was surprised to be honest,” McCaffery stated to MSG Network. “It’s not that I don’t think we have a team that will compete for the championship, it’s just the league is as strong as it has been from top to bottom since I’ve been here.”
McCaffery has arguably the MAAC’s best player in guard Kenny Hasbrouck (16 ppg last season) and will be pushing the pace game in and game out.
The key in the opener against the Orange–and Siena’s other major non conference tests (vs. Stanford, at Memphis, and an ESPN Bracketbuster game)–will be proving it can stretch defenses with its outside shooting, allowing new low-post man Josh Duell, a Vermont transfer, to get easy touches on the block.
If the indefinite academic suspension of last season’s MAAC newcomer of the year Edwin Ubiles (11.8 ppg, 4 rpg last season) extends beyond the preseason exhibition games, the Saints could struggle. “This decision was made with Edwin’s best interests in mind,” McCaffery said. “I’m hopeful that he can rededicate himself to his studies and make the necessary adjustments to return to our program. Siena has excellent support services and we will continue to assist him in every way possible.”to
The Syracuse game and the rest of the Preseason NIT could give the nation an early perspective on to which postseason McCaffery could have his Saints marching? Will it be the three-letter or four-letter dance?
After a trying 2007 season that ended with no postseason of any kind for the first time in six years, it was a fitting time for Hawks’ head coach Phil Martelli’s book on dealing with life’s challenges to be published. The basketball coach and now celebrated author has the perfect team motto for preseason tournament play: “one day at a time”.
The good news for this squad, which finished last season 18-14, is that they have four starters returning and the best group of four frontcourt players not only in the Atlantic Ten Conference, but possibly in the nation. The Hawks can give the ball to starters Ahmad Nivins, Pat Calathes or Robert Ferguson to get instant production (combined for 41.5 ppg, 19.8 rpg and 5.3 apg).
“I think they have to be considered winners, hard workers, and as guys, tangibly, who should be looked upon as the top five or six or seven best players in the league,” Martelli said.
Look for freshman power forward Idris Hilliard to be one of the first players off the bench. The three-star recruit from New Jersey rejected several Big East schools for immediate minutes at St. Joseph’s. “I think he contributes right away because of his energy,” the 13-year coach said.
However, a lack of consistency at the guard position was an obvious concern last season, as the Hawks started a pair of freshmen. The old saying on the best thing about freshman certainly applies to St. Joe’s in 2007-2008, as point guard Darrin Govens is now a sophomore. Martelli knows youth can still arise as a hindrance to this team’s quest to play deep into March, and he realizes his Hawks must improve in addition to coming of age.
“I don’t see just that all of those players coming back as the be all and end all,” Martelli said. “Older is not better-better is better.”
Midwest Regional – Value City Arena, Columbus, OH
The winner of Ohio State/UW Green Bay vs. the winner of Columbia/Delaware State
There’s no doubt the Buckeyes have the easiest road to Madison Square Garden and if head coach Thad Matta is honest with himself, he knows last year’s national runner-up, which just suffered an embarrassing 70-68 exhibition loss to Division II Findlay, needs it. As much as fans and alumni want to draw similar comparisons, this is not the same team and the results will certainly be different right from the start.
Matta’s 2007 recruiting class (ranked fifth-best in the country by Rivals.com) is being hailed as another ‘Thad Five,’ but instead of Oden, Conley and Cook, this new group includes Koufos, Diebler and Turner.
“The challenge for the team right now is trying to understand the system,” Matta told The Daily Herald. “I’m sure we’re going to hit some valleys. I’m sure we’re going to hit some peaks.”
McDonald’s All-American Kosta Koufos is already being called the next Dirk Nowitzki as his game consists of a inside sky hook and three-point range. Koufos was named MVP at the 18-and-under European championships for the gold medal winning Greece team over the summer. “He can put the ball on the floor and shoot threes,” OSU guard Jamar Butler told USA Today. “We’re trying to force him to go inside a little more. He loves to play on the perimeter and bring bigger guys out front and try to exploit them.” After deferring to Top 5 NBA Draft pick Mike Conley Jr. and sliding to the off-guard spot, Butler moves back to his more natural position at the point.
Two things to look for early are the Buckeyes using a lot of high ball screens in order to create opportunities for 3-pointers and to get out in transition. The x-factor is freshman wing player Jon Diebler. The Ohio prospect averaged 40.8 ppg last year (including single games of 77 and 60) while becoming the state’s all-time leading scorer (a state that’s produced legends from Jerry Lucas to Lebron James).
Matta and company endured a mighty fall in the rankings from number two in the country to unranked, but two easy wins at home could bring enough confidence for two more at MSG and then suddenly the forgotten Buckeyes would suddenly be back in the national spotlight again.
West Regional – Bank of America Arena, Seattle, WA
The winner of Washington/New Jersey Institute of Technology vs. the winner of Utah/High Point
Imagine losing an NBA Lottery pick yet still becoming a better basketball team the next season. Welcome to basketball at the University of Washington. The Spencer Hawes era is over and while alumni weren’t exactly packing his bags to leave town, they aren’t exactly sobbing over his departure, either.
Washington head coach Lorenzo Romar said at Pac Ten Conference media day that he had no real issue with his team’s 8th-place conference selection, but he built this program from the ground up while flying under the radar, so this extra motivation can’t possible hurt a team with so much already to prove. “It’s a great spot for us to be in being the underdog and a team people don’t expect much out of because we are going to bring it this year and we are going to surprise a lot of people,” forward Jon Brockman said.
Romar has four double-digit scorers returning from a team that still has a foul taste in its mouth after an extremely disappointing 2007 campaign. The Huskies finished 18-13 but did not receive a postseason invite, surely due to a horrid 2-12 record away from Seattle. This is a team that beat NCAA Tournament teams Oregon and UCLA by a combined 22 points at home, but lost to those same two teams on the road by a combined 30 points.
Brockman (14.2 ppg, 9.6 rpg) will no doubt lead the team in scoring and rebounding this season, but the early-season problem will be replacing guard Ryan Appleby’s scoring punch and long-range shooting (10.3 ppg, 43.3 3PT%) off the bench. The fifth-year senior from Stanwood, WA will miss at least another month after he fractured his right thuumb during a rebounding drill last week. “It is unfortunate to have something like this happen, but the good news is that Ryan shouldn’t miss too many games,” Romar said in a statement to the press.
Any college basketball aficionado knew it was just a matter of time before Jim Boylen was hired as a head coach. His name would come up in every big-school coaching search and it was said he’d essentially get to pick his first job. Then he picked Utah, and those same people were left scratching their heads. Boylen, a Michigan native, had never coached or recruited heavily on the west coast and was taking over a program where the expectations couldn’t be considered realistic. He has described the program he inherited as “mediocre” and “average,” described the team’s guard play last season as “poor,” publicly called out just about every player, and suggested that fans who complain about removing players’ names from the backs of their jerseys this season should “buy a program.”
“He is a great person and a great friend who will do everything he can to make the entire Utah community proud of the Ute basketball program,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said in a March 27 statement. Let’s see; slam the previous administration, assert your authority on every returning player and completely change the culture of every fan and alumni member? Yes, this is Jim Boylen’s program all right, and don’t worry, his track record says that’s nothing but a good thing that will equate to a lot of wins.
With a starting five that consists of three juniors and a senior, and three double-digit scorers, one would think Boylen has one of the easiest transitions in the entire coaching carousel this season. Think again. His style is gritty and in your face. In their first exhibition game against Montana Tech last week, the Utes allowed only 29 percent shooting and just 40 points, and it still wasn’t good enough. “We have to become a team that believes in defense,” Boylen told the Salt Lake Tribune after the game. “Not because I say it, but because we know that’s how we have to do it.”
The fact remains that if this squad without a star and any previous postseason success can buy into a different style of play, they’ll make up for what they lack in talent and win a lot of games they technically shouldn’t win (i.e. a second round game at Washington in order to advance to the Garden). In two years, when recruits flock to Salt Lake to play for a great coach with NBA ties, they’ll be a perennially-Top 25 team, but for now don’t be surprised if this team sneaks into the field of 64.
South Regional – Reed Arena, College Station, TX
The winner of Texas A&M/Oral Roberts vs. the winner of UTEP/Texas A&M-Corpus Christi
No. 14 Texas A&M
Just because Texas A&M is the only ranked team in this field, don’t assume they are the prohibitive favorite to take home the hardware. The Aggies lost their coach on the sidelines (Billy Gillispie) and their coach on the floor (Acie Law) from the 2007 team that won 27 games and so expect some early season struggles for the 14th-ranked team in the country.
The good news for Texas A&M is that it will have easily the best frontcourt in the Big 12 Conference with forwards Joseph Jones (13.4 ppg, 6.8 rpg) and Josh Carter (11.8 ppg) and five-star center prospect DeAndre Jordan. Jordan is the highest ranked recruit in Aggie history and likely will reside in College Station for only one year. The Houston native is raw offensively, but he can be a shot-blocking threat on the inside along with being an instant force on the boards.
The key for new head coach Mark Turgeon will be finding a point guard that can adjust to his motion offense and handle the responsibility of running the new halfcourt sets. Guards Donald Sloan (5.2 ppg, 1.9 rpg) and Dominique Kirk (7.2 ppg, 3.0 apg) will be called upon to lead the offense, although both could be classified more as combo guards and neither has experience as a primary distributor.
The most intriguing aspect will be how Turgeon adjusts to going from the hunter at mid-major Wichita State to being the hunted in a BCS conference. This team best be on its toes early in the Preseason NIT, as the other three teams in its region have at least a decent chance at an upset on the Aggies’ home floor.
Believe or not, Oral Roberts’ first opponent (Texas A&M) lost fewer players to professional basketball than did the Eagles. The Aggies lost Law IV while ORU lost three-time Summit League (formerly the Mid-Continent Conference) player of the year Caleb Green (playing professionally in Germany) and Ken Tutt (playing professionally in France). “Last year, we knew that Caleb Green and Ken Tutt were going to score anywhere from 35 to 45 points every night,” head coach Scott Sutton told the Tulsa World.
Three starters will return from last year’s team that nearly upset Washington State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Sutton will look to 7-foot center Shawn King, who must develop into an offensive power to combine with his rebounding and shot blocking skills.
Two years ago ORU blew out Southern California by 20 in early November, and last year the Eagles upset No. 3 Kansas in Allen Fieldhouse before Thanksgiving. Sense a pattern? Trust me, even without the stars Green and Tutt, Sutton will have his team believing they can get to New York. Maybe they can.
Texas A&M-Corpus Christi
This team was 15 minutes away from being remembered for pulling the biggest upset in the 2007 NCAA Tournament. The Islanders were up on second-seeded Wisconsin 40-28 before being outscored 48-23 and suddenly becoming a March afterthought.
This season Corpus Christi boasts the Southland Conference Preseason Player of the Year in Chris Daniels and, if you believe the competition, it could have the best coach in the league after hiring Perry Clark. “He’s a tremendous coach and a tremendous recruiter, and so Corpus Christi got a good hire right there,” Texas State head coach Doug Davalos stated to KRIS NBC News in Corpus Christi. “I expect there to be a continued momentum in what they established last year.”
Texas A&M-CC was left without a man to roam the sidelines after Ronnie Arrow left for South Alabama and with the hire of Perry Clark it arguably made an upgrade. Clark has been out of coaching for three years, working as a TV analyst for Fox Sports Net after being fired at Miami following the 2004 season with three years left on his contract. He went 65-54 in four seasons with the ‘Canes, but 25-33 in the last two. “Perry Clark is a proven winner, on and off the basketball floor, and we are fortunate at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi to have a man of his knowledge, experience and integrity leading our basketball program,” said A&M-Corpus Christi athletic director Brian Teter.
The problem for Clark is a young, inconsistent backcourt and being able to give Daniels enough touches to make a difference on the offensive end. However, the one aspect that even solid mid-major programs always fail to overcome is a deficiency in size and strength. This will not be a problem for the Islanders at all. For those of you who love physical battles in the post and seeing two giants dominate down low, pray that the Islanders can beat UTEP on a neutral floor (they could be the favorite) because there’s no doubt NBA scouts will be watching Daniels match up with Texas A&M’s DeAndre Jordan. Sure, one Texas A&M is going to get through this region, but don’t be shocked if it’s not the Aggies.
Matt Stevens’ predictions for the 2007 Preseason NIT
East Regional Winner: St. Joseph’s (UPSET) – Farleigh Dickinson will not be a issue and then Idris Hilliard shows why several Big East schools (including Syracuse) wanted him as he explodes for a double-double in a upset win over the Orange in the Carrier Dome. C’mon, if you had to pick an upset victim at home in November, wouldn’t you pick Boeheim’s squad?
Midwest Regional Winner: Ohio State – Findlay just made the Buckeyes mad enough for two blowouts.
West Regional Winner: Washington – Huskies will win by scoring 100+ against NJIT and then could win a game over Utah in which the two teams don’t even combine for 100 points.
South Regional Winner: Texas A&M - The Aggies will be down at half in one of their first two games, with they’ll come back and win it…perhaps in overtime.
Preseason NIT Winner: Washington – Huskies ride tournament MVP Jon Brockman to a huge pre-season championship.