Three Man Weave’s NIT Betting Preview
Despite concerns about the pandemic, everyone’s second-favorite postseason college basketball tournament soldiers on in 2021, offering a consolation soiree to frustrated programs who missed out on the biggest of dances. Like the NCAA Tournament, all NIT games will be held in one geographic region as games will be played north of Dallas in Frisco and Denton.
Additionally, in an effort to make the bubble setup more manageable (and undoubtedly, to save money), only 16 teams will participate rather than the traditional 32. All 16 are of the at-large variety, meaning that regular season champions of smaller conferences did not receive automatic bids. It’s a disappointing rule change for teams like Wright State, South Dakota State, Texas State, and…
Snubs: Belmont. The biggest outcry I’ve seen here – insofar as “vocal NIT snub outcry” exists – is Belmont who won the OVC regular season title and produced a pristine 26-4 overall record. Two of the Bruins’ losses came without star big man Nick Muszynski, and though he returned healthy to end the year, the NIT apparently decided it could do without the nation’s co-leader in wins (Gonzaga 26-0).
Other non-NCAA Tournament squads that won’t be in attendance: Penn State, Indiana, and Kentucky, who all finished below .500 and thus were not eligible. Stanford, who finished 14-13 and won this event in both 2015 and 2012, was not invited. There were also a handful of big name teams who opted not to play, most notably Duke, Louisville, Seton Hall, and Xavier. The Blue Devils were the highest-ranked KenPom squad to not make the NCAA Tournament and were apparently available if the NCAA got “4 am last call at the bar” desperate. But in the end, Coach K pulled the plug on what obviously a disappointing campaign. It’s hard to criticize teams who choose not to play more games during a pandemic but it would have been fun to see Carlik Jones, Sandro Mamukelashvili, and Paul Scruggs play a few more games.
Favorites: According to William Hill, three teams are tied as the betting favorite at +450: Memphis, Saint Louis, and Ole Miss. Of that trio, Memphis appears to be the strongest entry. The Tigers are the most talented team in the bracket, have played extremely well of late, and are the highest-rated team in the field per KenPom at no. 38. There may be some risk that the talent-laden roster feels “above” a consolation event after narrowly missing out on the ultimate goal, but if Penny can keep them focused on the prize, the Tigers’ could ride their ridiculously effective defense (third per KenPom) to a championship.
SLU is a balanced squad with terrific veteran leadership and dominant two-way rebounding. Senior Javonte Perkins has announced that he’ll return to school next season but this is likely the last hurrah for Jordan Goodwin and Hasahn French. Fans of the program rave about both players and it would make sense that the Billikens view a NIT title as a worthy prize after a COVID shutdown essentially cost them an at-large berth thanks to a couple shaky losses.
Ole Miss is equal to SLU by most metrics but in my eyes the Rebels are a clear third. Yes, they did register several impressive wins during the season (vs. Tennessee, at Missouri), but it’s nearly impossible to trust this offense thanks to its horrific shot selection (13th-highest frequency of mid-range jumpers nationally, per Hoop Math) and bricky shooting (29.9% 3-pointers, 312th). Kermit Davis’ tricky zone defenses could squeeze out a few wins and I could envision them winning a rock fight against Memphis. But I just don’t think the Rebels have the firepower to win four in a row.
Darkhorses: The next tier of teams features NC State (+1000), Colorado State (+1200), Boise State (+1200), SMU (+1200), Saint Mary’s (+1200), and Davidson (+1500).
NC State rallied after losing star wing Devon Daniels (ACL) for the season. The young back court of Cam Hayes and Shakeel Moore has blossomed of late – especially on the defensive end.
Colorado State and Boise State got the shaft out of the Mountain West with the Rams losing what likely was an at-large elimination game in the MWC Tournament semifinals. They have no seniors on the roster which could lead to a mindset of “let’s build something for next year” or “who cares, we have next year.” Boise, meanwhile, announced that versatile forward Abu Kigab is undergoing surgery – that’s bad value without a full-strength roster.
Like Saint Louis, SMU lost a full month of its season to COVID, and it was even worse for the Ponies as they had to play a do-or-die AAC Tournament game immediately after having the virus rip through the program and halt practices. No warm-up, just elimination. That was brutal for a talented squad though perhaps it could be the rallying cry needed to make a deep run.
Saint Mary’s and Davidson are both tremendously coached teams that thrive in a half court setting. The main difference is that the Wildcats have offensive talent while the Gaels struggle to even get shots due to their long possessions.
Western Kentucky (+1800), who just played in the primary arena in Frisco during the C-USA Tournament, and Buffalo (+1800) could be enticing long shots thanks to their high-level athleticism. But both are too erratic to rely on for four straight games.
Other Angles: In a normal year, the most important part to handicapping the NIT is simply identifying which teams want to be there and which would rather be on Spring Break. This is especially true for teams that we right at the NCAA Tournament cut line. That, however, may be less of an issue this season. To play in this event, teams really have to commit to playing in a bubble in Texas. A team like Louisville – the first team out of the Big Dance and one most thought would get in – would have been the perfect fade. In the end, we’re going to assume that the teams that are here are willing participants.
Picks: I like both A-10 squads. I believe SLU, who pre-COVID pause was a top-25 caliber squad, will be fully engaged. Davidson is also intriguing at 12-1 as Bob McKillop’s myriad of offensive sets will be difficult to prepare for in a tournament setting and Kellan Grady can catch fire and score 25+ on any given night.
Follow Three Man Weave’s Jim Root @2ndChancePoints.