It's not a rigorous field that makes the NIT difficult to project, but the motivation factors of major and mid-major conference teams deflated over missing the NCAA Tournament. Many teams who don't refuse an invitation to the NIT often fall flat, opening the door for a more motivated middle of the road team to make a run at the NIT Final Four in Madison Square Garden.
Projecting the NIT would be straightforward and easy if not for the distinct possibility that many of the top teams will likely phone in their first and/or second round games and take a quick exit. The challenge is figuring our which of the favorites and dark horses will come to play... and which of the favorites may not be up to the task.
So rather than weigh the odds (and, since you're wondering, those odds all say the #1 seeds are at least 2 to 1 favorites on paper, though that assumes the teams will play at full speed), let's play media psychoanalysis for a bit and examine the reactions of key teams to gauge who's going to geek up for the NIT and who's probably going to go through the motions and take a quick exit.
Illinois: Whether or not they're disappointed, the Illini have already run into a hubris-related problem. They can't play their 1st round game with Stony Brook in Champaign because the school booked Cirque du Soleil to play the home gym that night, obviously anticipating the Illini would make the NCAA Tournament and not need it. Though the Illini remain a favorite to beat the lowly Seawolves, the America East regular season champs, it's not a good start for a team many figured would roll into the NCAAs in March.
Money quote: "The guys were extremely disappointed in the locker room. It'll be tough to get out of the mindset of disappointment." - Bill Cole, Forward
Mississippi and Mississippi State: Both Mississippi teams came into the SEC Tournament on the outside of the NCAA Tournament bubble looking in, and neither managed to do enough to get in according to the committee. Both coaches (Andy Kennedy for Ole Miss, Rick Stansbury for Mississippi State) tried to downplay their teams' disappointment and insist they were upbeat for the NIT. But Mississippi State is likely gassed physically and emotionally after taking Kentucky to the wire in the SEC Final, and Ole Miss probably isn't feeling hot after following an easy four game win streak to close the regular season with a thud-loss to Tennessee in their opening SEC tourney game. It's doubtful either loses their opening round NIT game: Ole Miss should be able to handle Troy, and Mississippi State can take care of Jackson State. But each faces matchup problems in the next round with possibly motivated foes.
Money quotes: "We had our opportunities to close it out (the SEC Final vs Kentucky). That's part of the game," Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury said. "And I can promise you, there's not one ounce left in them."
"Although we are obviously disappointed in not reaching the NCAA tournament, we're looking forward to continuing our season against Troy," said Rebels coach Andy Kennedy.
Note the political clean-ness of the last quote by the head coach. This is typically code for, "Yeah, we're phoning this bad boy in."
Virginia Tech: They got screwed by the Selection Committee to the benefit of marginally deserving Florida, and at this point Seth Greenberg's working as hard to get his team motivated for a tournament run as he is to assemble footage of his opponents. Tech's laid enough eggs to show they don't have the pedigree to just flip on the cruise control and ride into MSG, so they need to play with passion to get there and indications are that... it's not there.
Money quote: “We’ve got a chance to play,” said Seth Greenberg. “We have a chance to go to New York and cut down the nets. That’s going to be the vision we’re going to sell to our team and you know, we’re playing against a team that won 23 games so you know, we’re playing against a team that’s used to winning. We’ve got to get ourselves ready to play and that’s my job.”
Money Quote #2: "Obviously, they were disappointed, why wouldn't they be disappointed?" Tech coach Seth Greenberg told reporters Sunday night. "But as I told them before we started practice today, whether we get in or do not get in, it shouldn't take away from what we have accomplished this year. This team showed tremendous resiliency and they should be really proud of what they accomplished and feel good about themselves."
Reflective quotes on the season are sign #2 that a team is tuning out for the NIT.
Coming to play:
Cincinnati: Despite losing junior forward Rashad Bishop to team-rules suspension, the Bearcats gave a spirited effort in the Big East Tournament, upsetting Louisville before suffering defeat to West Virginia, and appears geeked up for the NIT. They shoot bricks from anywhere outside hook-shot range, but rebound well and play decent enough defense to make a serious run at MSG if Illinois doesn't want it.
Money quotes: The Bearcats said they’re excited about playing in the NIT. “It ain’t the tournament that I wanted,” said senior guard Deonta Vaughn. “But what can we say? We lost a tough one (to West Virginia). That kind of hurt us deep down inside. But the NIT is better than the CBI.”
“It would mean that we made a lot of progress,” Vaughn said. “First we got the CBI, now we got the NIT, then hopefully next year they’ll go to the NCAA.”
“The NIT will help us build on what we’re going to be next year,” said junior forward Ibrahima Thomas. “Our next season is going to start with the NIT.”
Arizona State: The Sun Devils kind of knew after losing to Stanford in the Pac 10 Tourney that they were probably out of the big dance despite finishing 2nd in an admittedly weak Pac 10. Still, any disappointment appears to be more with their inconsistent season as a whole rather than being left out of the dance. Signs point to the Sun Devils taking the NIT seriously as they earn their second #1 NIT seed in three years.
Money quote: “The season isn’t over,” Eric Boateng said. “We’re still in the NIT and there’s still great competition, players and teams. That’s where my focus is now. The season’s not over until it’s over. We still have basketball to play and hopefully a championship to win.”
North Carolina: Coach Roy Williams is a man of pride, and even amidst one of his worst seasons as a major college head coach leading to a disappointing miss from the NCAAs and his first ever trip to the NIT, he's not about to let a team of his pack it in and lay an egg in the NIT under his watch. He gets a good but beatable William and Mary squad at home in round one, then likely travels to Mississippi State against a deflated Bulldogs squad ripe for the picking. Dadgumit, this team might actually win a title yet... even if it is the NIT title.
Money quotes: "I'm just really excited for another opportunity to play," fifth-year senior Marcus Gilyard said. "I'm just hoping we finish this off better than we did the regular season."
"I'm playing for this year," Roy Williams said. "I don't think I can cheat (seniors) Deon (Thompson) and Marcus, that's not fair. ... I'm coaching for this year, this team, trying to get this team to win one more game. And if we do that, I'll try to get them to win one more game. I think that's the best way I can do it."
UAB: UNC's biggest obstacle might not be top seed Mississippi State, but Mike Davis' Blazers, who came into this season hoping for the NCAA's but appear very enthusiastic about playing in the NIT. They certainly have the pedigree to get to MSG, mixing solid shot-contesting defense with an uncanny ability to draw fouls and get to the line.
Money quote: UAB point guard Aaron Johnson still was excited about the team’s postseason opportunity. “I just think about being able to play basketball again,” Johnson said. “I know we were very close to making the NCAA Tournament but that was on us. We let ourselves down, nobody else let us down. We just are happy to be able to play some more basketball.”