My look at the Early-Season NCAA Tournaments continues with a look at the NIT Season Tip-Off. With its Final Four playing at Madison Square Garden, the Season Tip-Off (formerly the Pre-Season NIT) has been the site for some great November basketball moments. The winner of this tournament usually has great momentum heading towards the beginning of conference play.
16 Teams in a Single Elimination format, I will be looking at the 8 seeded teams here, including Villanova, Tennessee and UCLA. Let’s take a look at the NIT…
NIT Tip-Off Pre-Preview
Scottie Reynolds is now in Europe, but Jay Wright has the weapons to get the Wildcats to a second Final Four in 3 seasons. This is a typical guard-heavy Wright team, led by seniors Corey Fisher and Corey Stokes. Fisher, who recently scored 105 points in a summer league game, will be the primary scorer and late game go-to guy. Fisher is capable of playing either guard spot, has the ability to score from long-range or take the ball to the hoop, and he has very good court-vision. His decision-making needs some work, as does his on-ball defense. Stokes is also an excellent shooter, though he doesn’t have the ability Fisher does to create his own shot. He is a very good defender, especially on the perimeter and provides help on the boards. The potential breakout players this season are Maalik Wayns and Mouphtaou Yarou. Wayns does an excellent job at the point, controlling the tempo of the offense as well as seeing the floor very well. He is extremely quick and has little problem finding holes in the defense to get his shot off. He is a good defender, though he has a tendency to gamble too often and end up out of position. Yarou will man the middle, and if his development continues, he has the ability to be a double-double player. He is much better playing with his back to the basket and he has a few go-to moves with nice touch on his shot. The biggest areas he needs to improve are his lack of aggressiveness, which should improve in time, and developing a face-up game to compliment his post play. The rotation will be filled out by Dominic Cheek, a solid shooter on the wing, Antonio Pena, a forward who has developed into a decent scorer and rebounder, and freshman JayVaughn Pinkston who’s skill set right now is more of an under-sized power forward, but he projects to eventually play on the wing. He has very good range on jumper, though he is very inconsistent, especially with the timing of release.
The Volunteers overcame a tumultuous early part of the season to come within 2 points of making the Final Four. Now they will need to overcome the loss of team leaders Wayne Chism and J.P. Prince to find similar success this season. The team leader this season will undoubtedly be Scotty Hopson. Hopson, a junior shooting guard, has great size, long arms, and great leaping ability. He has the ability to shoot from three and has a nice first step to take his man off the dribble. One area where he needs to improve is working without the ball, especially coming clean off of screens. Defensively, he is an above average defender who uses his long arms well to disrupt passing lanes. I also expect big things out of Brian Williams this season. The senior is a massive presence in the middle and has improved steadily since coming to Tennessee. He has good instincts around the rim and goes hard after the ball. More should be expected of him on the offensive end this season, and he will need to become more aggressive getting position. Freshmen Tobias Harris and Jordan McRae will provide an offensive spark off the bench. Harris has the ability to play both inside and out, is a good offensive rebounder and plays well without the ball. Defensively, he will need to improve his agility to cover on the perimeter. McRae is a great scorer, especially in transition, though he will need to get much stronger to play regular minutes at the NCAA level.
After a run of Final Four appearances under Ben Howland, the Bruins have stalled the last couple of years. I think this year that they will find their way back into the Tournament once again. Malcom Lee can play either guard position, though he is still much more effective in the open court rather than the halfcourt. He does a good job breaking down defenders, though his shot selection can use work, as well as his jumper. He is a good defender, especially pressuring the ball, but his effort can be consistent. Reeves Nelson had a successful freshman year, and will provide some much needed toughness down low. I would like to see him expand his offensive game out to 10-12 feet this season. On the defensive end, he needs to be more aggressive, especially going after rebounds and contesting shots. Freshman Josh Smith is a monster for an 18 yr old at 6’10, 305 pounds. If he can control his weight and improve his conditioning, he can be one of the top big men in the country. He is extremely skilled on offense, using his body well to shield defenders, good hands and a nice touch. He needs to develop more moves in the post, but he seems to adjust quickly. Defensively, he moves well for his size, but his lack of leaping ability doesn’t make him a huge block threat. Tyler Lamb, a freshman shooting guard, has the ability to be a game changer eventually for the Bruins. He can score and defend, plays well in both fast-paced and slower offenses, and is a good rebounder for a guard. He will need to add some strength to get to the basket, and become more consistent with his jumper.
With 4 starters gone and a new head coach in Jeff Bzdelik, the Deamon Deacons will have a new identity this season. The team leader will be point guard CJ Harris. Harris was very effective last season playing both guard positions. While he needs to improve his jumper, he does a great job getting to the rim and is strong enough to handle contact. He is a decent defender, though he needs to close better on shooters. Ari Stewart should become a much greater part of the offense this season, especially with his ability to hit the three. He uses his size well and even has the ability to score inside. Defensively, he needs to improve his footwork and keep his man in front of him. Center Tony Woods will need to make a big improvement this season if Wake is to stay in the top half of the ACC. Woods runs the floor well for a big man and can finish strong. He needs to improve his energy level if he wants to stay on the floor for Coach Bzdelik. He is very efficient when he gets the ball on offense, though he doesn’t shoot often. The Wake freshmen class is going to be a very good one, led by JT Terrell and Travis McKie. Terrell will provide instant offense, though he will need to make sure he operates within the team’s offense. He has an excellent jumper and great range, though his shot selection is suspect. McKie is a much more efficient scorer, taking the ball to the basket with the ability to finish. He will need to add more muscle to be an offensive threat in college.
Coach Karl Hobbs has put together a team that could make a run at the upper level of Atlantic 10 teams, if not this season, then next. Lasan Kromah stepped up in his first season last year to be a double figure scorer. Primarily a jump shooter, he will need to become much more of a slashing threat this year. He also needs to add some muscle to help him on the defensive end. Point guard Tony Taylor is a good floor leader, plays strong defense, and has the ability to penetrate or hit the 3. Big man Joseph Katuka is a strong defensive presence with good instincts and shot-blocking ability, though he is still very raw on the offensive end. If he can become a semi-legitimate threat on the blocks, it should open up the floor for the rest of the team.
Larry Sanders has moved on to the Milwaukee Bucks, but Coach Shaka Smart returns the next 4 leading scorers, rebounders and playmakers. Joey Rodriguez runs the point for Rams, and he does an excellent job controlling the offense. He is not flashy, but he makes great decisions and knows how to get his teammates the ball in opportune positions. He is an average perimeter shooter, but he does a good job penetrating and drawing fouls. He is the catalyst on defense, doing a great job pressuring the ball. His main weapons will be Bradford Burgess and Brandon Rozzell. Both are excellent long-range shooters who will need to adjust to creating shots without Sanders drawing double-teams in the middle. Jamie Skeen will be the muscle down low and may be joined by freshmen Juvonte Reddic and DJ Haley. Look for the team to create opportunities in transition with the lack of main post presence.
The Wolfpack will look much different this season with Luke Babbitt and Armon Johnson in the NBA, and the graduation of two other starters. Dario Hunt is the only player back who played significant minutes. A strong forward with the ability to use his body well to rebound, Hunt will play a similar role this season, though he may be called on to contribute on offense a bit more. Defensively, he can improve his footwork, which is a bit slow, but he does a good job forcing players off the blocks. Marko Cukic will play a similar role and will be called on the man the center position. Cukic is much more offensively skilled than Hunt, especially playing with his back to the basket. Freshmen Deonte Burton and Jordan Burris both have the ability to contribute immediately for Nevada. Burton is a small shooting guard, but he will force his way on the court with his ability to score a variety of ways. His decision making needs work, but he should adjust over time. Burris is an athletic wing who is still a bit raw on the offensive end, but has the ability to make plays and to be a solid defender.
Coach Cuonzo Martin has back some very good players and may be looking at a NCAA bid this season. The Bears are led by forward Kyle Weems and guard Adam Leonard. Weems is an undersized power forward, but he plays bigger than his 6’6. He uses his body well, makes himself wide and creates space to get his shot off in the post. He is an excellent offensive rebounder and does a good job drawing fouls. Defensively, he has trouble guarding larger forwards, but he does work hard and is never out of a play. Leonard is a good shooter, but he needs to improve his shot selection. He is an undersized shooting guard, though he does have the ability to run an offense. On defense, his lack of strength causes him problems dealing with screens on the perimeter, and he can be slow to close on shooters.