Betting a Very Volatile NIT Field, Plus One Intriguing CBI Matchup
© Michael Shroyer-USA TODAY Sports
As is the case with all of these “other tournaments,” predicting the NIT bracket can be incredibly difficult. The field is littered with teams that are heartbroken (Vermont), bitter (St. Mary’s), and unmotivated (Louisville). You also have teams dealing with rumored coaching changes (MTSU).
Also, keep in mind that these NIT games will have new rules, featuring four quarters rather than two halves, a deeper 3-point line and a wider lane. While I like these rules going forward, they shouldn’t have as noticeable of an effect on the games as the 30-second shot clock did a few years ago in the NIT.
Let’s take a look at the following three Tuesday NIT matchups to determine if we can find any value in a volatile field.
- Northern Kentucky at Louisville -8 (7 p.m. ET on ESPN)
- Boston College at Western Kentucky -5 (8 p.m. ET on ESPN3)
- Vermont at Middle Tennessee State -6 (8 p.m. ET on ESPNU)
I will also take a look at the following CBI game that could feature a massive mismatch in motivation and on paper.
- Eastern Washington at Utah Valley -7.5 (9 p.m. ET)
Follow me on twitter @jorcubsdan for in-game analysis, injury updates (always unexpected injuries this time of year in the lower-level tournaments), and second half predictions.
Northern Kentucky at Louisville (-8)
7 p.m. ET on ESPN
Louisville represents perhaps the most transparent case of unmotivated players I’ve seen in the NIT in years. From the excellent Jeff Greer at the Louisville Courier Journal:
Louisville basketball players initially voted against playing in the NIT but were later persuaded to accept an invitation when faced with the alternative of forfeiting in the tournament.
Multiple sources who have knowledge of the players’ wishes but were not authorized to speak publicly about them told Courier Journal the players prior to the ACC Tournament voted against playing in the NIT and then held a players-only meeting on Sunday night after they were left out of the NCAA tournament.
Since the school had already filed its acceptance paperwork with the NIT, interim Louisville athletic director Vince Tyra said Monday afternoon he had to explain to the players that they couldn’t withdraw from the tournament. They’d have to forfeit or play.
While the program is trying to put makeup on this situation, the Cardinals clearly didn’t want to play. That could spell trouble against a motivated Northern Kentucky squad, which would love to knock off one of its in-state rivals.
NKU is still trying to establish a presence at the D1 level, and it did compete with Kentucky for nearly 40 minutes in the NCAA Tournament last year. The Norse have an outstanding senior PG in Lavone Holland II (13.8 ppg) and the type of floor-stretching big in Drew McDonald who can move Louisville’s shot-swatting bigs away from the rim. However, the Norse will be at a severe athletic and length disadvantage. If the Cardinals have turned the negative attention received from voting against playing in the NIT into a rallying point, they should roll. After opening at -11.5, the line value on NKU has evaporated at this point. I think I have to side with Louisville at the current price.
THE PICK: Louisville -8
Boston College at Western Kentucky (-5)
8 p.m. ET on ESPN3
WKU comes off a disappointing loss to Marshall in the Conference USA championship, but Diddle Arena should have one of the better home court advantages in the NIT’s first round. WKU has extremely passionate fans in Bowling Green that are happy to have their program back in the postseason, which hasn’t happened since the Tops joined CUSA in 2013.
We should see plenty of points tonight, as neither team can really guard the other. WKU head coach Rick Stansbury likes to use a morphing 1-3-1/2-3 zone, but BC head coach Jim Christian’s offenses have always shredded zones (no matter where he has coached). This BC team is no exception. led by outstanding scoring PG Ky Bowman. The Eagles also have long wings in Jerome Robinson and Steffon Mitchell that provide lethal perimeter shooting.
BC plays excellent post defense, as big man Nik Popovic has really improved on that end in his sophomore season. However, the Eagles can’t defend in pick and roll, which WKU will take advantage of with its outstanding pick-and-roll offense. WKU’s guards can exploit this area of weakness at the point of attack with Darius Thompson at the top of the key and Lamonte Bearden in side pick and roll. Plus, 6-foot-7 forward Justin Johnson and 6-foot-9 forward Dwight Coleby have both been devastatingly efficient as rollers. Expect a shootout.
THE PICK: Over 160
Vermont at Middle Tennessee State (-6)
8 p.m. ET on ESPNU
This is perhaps the most interesting first-round NIT matchup, but MTSU has a lot of “extenuating circumstances” at play. First, the Blue Raiders were egregiously snubbed by the selection committee, which didn’t even have MTSU among its “First Four Out”. That’s simply a grievous error that should carve out a significant chip on MTSU’s collective shoulder. However, rumors have started to swirl that head coach Kermit Davis has essentially agreed to take the Ole Miss job.
[WARNING: SOAP BOX RANT]
Davis leaving MTSU is emblematic of all that’s wrong with D1 hoops. Egregiously wrong committee decisions continue to phase out the idea of “mid-major” basketball. MTSU went above and beyond to earn an at-large bid, but were essentially not even considered. The tournament field is now power conference teams and whichever plebes happen to win the other conference tournaments. Excellent coaches like Keith Dambrot, Kermit Davis, etc see the writing on the wall. There is literally nothing they can do to earn an at-large bid, so what’s the point? As the great Kyle Whelliston used to say, “It always ends with a loss.”
Vermont fans had to be happy to read these words from head coach John Becker and point guard Trae Bell-Haynes in Alex Abrami’s piece in the Burlington Free Press:
[Becker]: “I’m certainly not going to let our players lose perspective — it’s a privilege to be in the postseason and to be in the NIT. We need to move past Saturday, and I’m confident that the guys will.”
Senior point guard Trae Bell-Haynes said the seniors are motivated to “prolong our careers as much as we can” and make a run in the NIT.
“It’s tough, but that’s why we play. We don’t come out here to run around and just do stuff for fun,” Bell-Haynes said. “We play to win and we’ve worked too hard … to just go out there and lay an egg.”
This is an interesting schematic matchup if both teams are fully motivated. Vermont’s excellent zone offense should have success against MTSU’s 1-3-1 zone defense. The Catamounts work inside out, but their bigs have spectacular passing skills, particularly 6-foot-8 forward Drew Urquhart. MTSU has surprisingly struggled against teams that can work the baseline behind the zone and back down Nick King at the 4. Forward Anthony Lamb, now healthier, can accomplish just that for Vermont.
On the defensive end, Vermont will have to face-guard King in the paint and front Brandon Walters in the post. Urquhart and 6-foot-8 forward Payton Henson can’t match the athleticism of King and Walters, but Urquhart is a fundamentally sound post defender and Henson at least has the mobility to stay with King. UVM had the best 2PT% defense in the America East for a reason. The Catamounts are also one of the best defensive rebounding teams in the country (as are the Blue Raiders), which will help against an MTSU team that loves to crash the offensive glass.
UVM will have a massive backcourt advantage, as shaky point guard play has cost MTSU in nearly all of its losses. UVM meanwhile has one of the nation’s steadiest mid-major point guards in Bell-Haynes.
THE PICK: Vermont +6
Eastern Washington at Utah Valley -7.5
9 p.m. ET
Rumors are swirling that UVU head coach Mark Pope is the top choice for the open job at Utah State. That could have an effect on the Wolverines’ mindset, but they were beyond excited to participate in last year’s CBI, nearly winning out on the road before losing to eventual champion Wyoming. The program seems to once again be enthusiastic at another postseason berth. Plus, UVU actually gets to host a game this year, which it will tonight. EWU probably had bigger aspirations, given its past program success. They might not be the most motivated team tonight.
UVU doesn’t really matchup well defensively against the Big Sky’s all time leading scorer in Bogdan Bliznyuk, but neither do most mid-major teams. However, if Mark Pope watched the Big Sky championship game, he saw Montana head coach Travis DeCuire make a key adjustment on the 6-foot-6 point-forward. The Grizzlies stopped hard hedging on ball screens. They decided to trap Bliznyuk on every touch instead, which forcing the ball out of his hands. UVU has the backcourt length with the Toolson brothers, 6-foot-7 guard Kenneth Ogbe, and 6-foot-5 guard Jerrelle DeBerry UVU to copy this same game plan. Additionally, 7-foot center Akolda Manyang can exploit a poor EWU interior defense. EWU will counter with a zone, but UVU has multiple long wings that can shoot. Tough matchup for EWU.
THE PICK: UVU -7.5
Editor’s note: The opinion on these games is from the individual writer and is based on his research, analysis and perspective. It is independent of, and may not always match with, the algorithm-driven Best Bets from Sports Insights.
Louisville guard Quentin Snider and forward Deng Adel pictured above; photo credit: Michael Shroyer-USA TODAY Sports