It’s finally mid-March, which means you’ve set aside your textbooks and notecards in favor of something much more important than finals: March Madness. You’ve been poring over the bracket in front of you, figuring out which low seeds can find a way to knock off the big boys and which four teams will outlast the rest to take the coveted spots at the end.
You’ve probably heard all the wisdom of past years: the team that wants to be there more is the more dangerous team, where you play the games matters and seedings don’t mean nearly as much as individual matchups.
You might even have scouted some of the teams. Drexel has won 25 of its past 27, Iowa will be an underdog despite playing its first game at home and Middle Tennessee State shoots 50 percent from the field as a team.
Wait, those don’t sound right to you? Silly you. You’re probably thinking of that other tournament, the one with 68 teams and all that media hype.
I’m talking about the real March Madness: the NIT.
I mean, seriously, the “Big Dance” was dumb enough to leave Stanford out for the fourth year in a row, which shows you how flawed that tournament is. But as Stanford fans, it’s probably better this way.
Think about it: The NIT doesn’t have any teams with losing records, but that other tourney does. The champion of Stanford’s conference isn’t wasting its time in that 68-team field; it’s in the NIT. Fans of schools in the NIT get to watch their teams play on campus instead of paying hundreds of dollars to follow them around the country like those supporters of other schools. And you want the toughest competition? Stanford is 5-3 against teams in The Tournament That Must Not Be Named, but the Cardinal is 0-4 against NIT teams. Challenge accepted.
So with all the media idiotically focused on You Know What, you probably haven’t gotten a real sense of what March Madness is all about. Luckily for you, here’s a glimpse at what the NIT has in store for true college basketball fans this month.
The format is simple. Rather than having crazy play-in games and regional sites, the NIT works like this: 32 teams are split up into four brackets of eight teams each, and the teams are seeded one through eight. For the first three rounds, the games take place at the home of the team with the better seed (except Dayton, which unfortunately sold out to The Man and has to play all its games on the road because its arena is hosting the other tournament). The real Final Four teams will square off in the most famous arena in the world: Madison Square Garden. Yep, the NIT plays its basketball games in a basketball arena, not a football stadium.
Washington, Tennessee, Seton Hall and Arizona are the four No. 1 seeds, with Dayton, Miami, St. Joseph’s and Ole Miss as the No. 2 seeds. Stanford checks in at a No. 3 seed, giving the Cardinal a first-round home game Tuesday against sixth-seeded Cleveland State. Oregon is also a No. 3 seed, giving the Pac-12 four bids, tied with the Atlantic-10 for the most in the tournament.
In order for any team to hoist the trophy, it will need to win five games. For Stanford, if seedings hold, that would mean a home win over Cleveland State, road wins over Ole Miss and Arizona and neutral-site wins over Seton Hall and either Washington or Tennessee.
Of course, as in any tournament, upsets will greatly alter the expected matchups. Ole Miss could have its hands full with Illinois State, a team whose 13-loss record is skewed by five losses to Wichita State and Creighton. Oral Roberts will be a very difficult second-round matchup for Arizona after winning 20 of its past 22 contests. Either of these potential upsets could pave the way for Stanford to play more home games and possibly advance all the way to the finals.
In other parts of the bracket, teams are lurking for a potential run to the title. Northwestern, sporting a well-known drought of never having reached the NIT semifinals, could ruin Washington’s tournament in the second round, while Tennessee could face a daunting challenge from in-state rival Middle Tennessee State, which enters the tournament at 25-6 on the year. And don’t sleep on Mississippi State. The fourth-seeded Bulldogs have lost six of their past eight, but they still boast wins over No. 1 seeds Arizona and Tennessee.
So there are some hints for all your bracket competitions. This seems like a year of upsets, so I envision only one No. 1 seed reaching Madison Square Garden, with a team from a smaller conference eventually winning the crown.
No matter who wins, though, the NIT will surely make college basketball fans forget about that other tournament.
Jacob Jaffe is not all about the U. Give him reasons why Miami will win the NIT at jwjaffe “at” stanford.edu and follow him on Twitter @Jacob_Jaffe.