NIT Season Tip-Off Preview: OU, Davidson, Purdue, Arizona

November 18th, 2008

Usually, with all the hope and excitement that naturally accompanies the start of yet another great season, college basketball fans anxiously gather around their sets in November to take in all the...blowouts. 

Whether you're awaiting Duke's season opener against the always dangerous Presbyterian College Blue Hose, or mighty UConn testing their mettle against the likes of Bryant and Delaware State, there doesn't seem to be much to look forward to in the very early season.

But there is.  The early season tournaments are getting better and better, and this year's might be the best in a long while.  So here's a preview of what's to come, and proof that November basketball might not be so bad after all.

2008 Dick's Sporting Goods NIT Season Tip-Off Tournament (Regionals Nov 17-18, Semifinal and Final Nov 26 and 28)

Key Games (assuming no unexpected upsets in the first round):

Oklahoma vs. Davidson
Arizona vs. UAB / Santa Clara winner
Purdue vs. Georgia
Boston College vs. St. Johns / Cornell winner

Possible Semifinals:

Purdue vs. Boston College
Oklahoma vs. Arizona / UAB

Call this the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately tournament.  Just about every participating team was a complete surprise last season...or a disappointment. 

Arizona, ranked 17th in the preseason polls, ended up with a 19-15 record, a NCAA Tournament berth, and their very own reality show when it came to their head coach.  First, Hall of Fame Coach Lute Olson took a leave of absence from the program just before the start of the season, catching the entire University by surprise.  Turns out he was battling a particularly ugly divorce.  He left assistant Kevin O'Neill in charge, going so far as to label him the "coach-in-waiting" for when the 74 year old legend decided to gracefully exit the stage, to try to create some semblance of stability. 

Then things got interesting.  After the Wildcats got off to a mediocre start, several credible reports claimed that Olson was holding private team meetings with the players, more or less to tell them that their "coach-in-waiting" couldn't coach.  Olson all but confirmed his impression of O'Neill by refusing to let him have his old job back on the sideline as an assistant when he returned. 

But hope was running high in Tucson.  Chase Budinger decided to come back.  Arizona received commitments from some of the top prospects in the nation to come to Tucson.  Lute Olson said he was "excited" and energized to be coaching again (and getting married again).  Then, just as practice was underway, Olson abruptly retired due to health reasons, once again throwing the program into disarray right before the start of the season. 

Three of Olson's top recruits immediately de-committed.  Assistant coach Mike Dunlap turned down the top job because he didn't want the "interim" label, so the school went instead with assistant coach Russ Pennell.  The best part? Before joining Olson's staff, Pennell was an assistant coach for the hated, arch-rival Sun Devils for eight years, and actually provided color commentary for the Arizona State University radio network last season. 

Suffice it to say, this tournament will be more than just a challenge for the Wildcats.

Davidson and Purdue were both unranked in the preseason polls, with Purdue not even picked to contend in the Big 10, yet ended the season in the Top 25 (Top 10 for Davidson).  As a result, both enter the current season on everyone's radar.  For Davidson, they have to manage simply unheard of expectations for them following their Elite Eight run and the surprise return of Stephen Curry.  Big 10 Coach of the Year Matt Painter has a loaded team coming back, led by Robbie Hummel, and fans are looking for a breakout year from JaJuan Johnson.   

Oklahoma is coming off a 20 win season, but a 30-point thrashing to Louisville in the NCAA Tournament still lingers.  However, the unexpected decision by Blake Griffin to turn down NBA lottery riches to return to Oklahoma, in addition to the fanfare surrounding incoming freshman Willie Warren, has created a buzz not felt in Norman since their Final Four season seven years ago.  With virtually the entire Kansas national championship team now playing in the NBA, the Sooners are the favorites to win the Big 12 regular season and tournament titles, something they haven't done in 20 years, when the conference was still called the Big 8. 

Georgia won the SEC tournament, right after losing 11 out of their last 13 games, and finishing with a 4-12 conference record.  To win that automatic bid, all the Bulldogs had to do was beat Ole Miss on a banked buzzer-beater in overtime, and then go on to beat Kentucky and the SEC West's #1 seed Mississippi State on the same day, thanks to a tornado ripping apart the Georgia Dome and sending the tournament to Alexander Coliseum at Georgia Tech.  They then beat Arkansas in the final with what seemed to be a formality at that point.  With Dave Bliss and Sundiata Gaines gone, this figures to be another long season for the Bulldogs.  But hey, there's always the SEC Tournament.

UAB is coming off a disappointing loss in the second round of the NIT, after watching their bubble burst on Selection Sunday.  The Blazers are looking for redemption, and a ticket back to the NCAA Tournament, but all that depends on Robert Vaden.  He needs to be able to continue his school-record setting ways while staying clear of trouble off the court.  Whether or not C-USA is once again a one-bid conference could depend on it.

Boston College posted a 14-17 record last season, and the last time we saw them they were nipped by Clemson in the ACC Tournament 82-48.  Yet, with four sophomores returning, the arrival of freshman guard Reggie Jackson, and more importantly, all-everything senior Tyrese Rice, team expectations are focused squarely on a winning ACC record.

An Oklahoma - Purdue title game would obviously be the most anticipated matchup of the NIT, but it will be especially interesting to see whether the much-hyped Warren can hold his own against Curry and the speedy Wildcats should the Sooners face Davidson in the earlier game.