The NIT Season Tip-Off certainly gives four teams the best shot for the trip to Madison Square Garden, but it's no guarantee this year's top quartet will get there as in other tournaments. Stillman College and Metro State could ultimately pull off an upset of Chaminade-esque proportions, but will more likely join 10 others as glorified scrimmages for the four hosts who are expected to arrive in New York City over the Thanksgiving holidays.
The potential is certainly there for a Final Four matchup in late November. Duke headlines the event with the Arizona Wildcats expected to meet the Blue Devils in the championship game. The Blue Devils and Wildcats are each favored to with their conferences with +175 prices on the NCAA basketball odds, Duke also sporting 8/1 odds to win the 2014 NCAA Men's Championship while Arizona checks in at 15/1.
Alabama and Rutgers complete the four regional hosts in the NIT Tip-Off, with that action commencing November 18.
Coach K & Blue Devils Reload For Another Run
Reaching the Elite Eight is quite an accomplishment for most schools and coaches. But for Mike Krzyzewski and Duke, doing so in 2012-13 was something of a disappointment. The Duke Blue Devils were ranked second in the country when they bowed out of the ACC Tournament after just one game, and like that loss to Maryland, it was cold shooting from outside that cost them in an 85-63 setback to Louisville in the Elite Eight, the Cardinals laying 3.5 in that game.
The top three scorers are gone from last year's squad, and the two tough holes to fill will be in the frontcourt where Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly are missing. That is where Marshall Plumlee and Amile Jefferson will have to make huge strides and stay healthy to man the posts.
Duke did bring in forward Jabari Parker, part of our One-&-Done discussion earlier this week, but the heralded freshman isn't going to replace the big bodies of Mason Plumlee and Kelly. Two players who sat out last year, 3-point sniper Andre Dawkins and Rodney Hood, will be key, plus the development of freshmen Matt Jones and Semi Ojeleye.
In the South Region of this year's NIT Tip-Off, the Blue Devils host UNC-Asheville for starters before meeting the winner of the Norfolk State-East Carolina game.
Are Wildcats For Real This Season?
All things pointed to Arizona making a big splash last season, Sean Miller's fourth at the helm. A 14-0 start had the Wildcats ranked fourth in the country, but that was the high point. The 'Cats finished the regular season 11-6 and were just barely in the top 25 come NCAA Tournament time when they lost a tough 73-70 contest to 2nd-seeded Ohio State in the West Sweet 16.
This year's team should be better, and a Final Four appearance is definitely in Arizona's reach despite having only one starter back. Point guard Nick Johnson is that returnee after averaging over 11 points and more than three assists in 2012-13. The Wildcats will have Kaleb Tarczewski clogging the lanes with a year under his belt and a little more beef on his 7-foot frame. But it's freshman forwards Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Aaron Gordon, along with sophomore Brandon Ashley, who could turn this team into a national champ.
One big key will be finding backcourt help for Johnson. Arizona travels to face San Diego State early before hosting the NIT Tip-Off West Regional; Farleigh Dickinson will get the first crack at the Wildcats, followed by either Metro State or what could be a pesky Rhode Island team.
'Bama Presents Toughest Challenge For Duke, Arizona
Rutgers should make it to New York, but this isn't a very good team that former Scarlet Knights player Eddie Jordan inherited for his first year on the job. Jordan has done a great job by all accounts following the scandalous end to Mike Rice's tenure as head coach, but it's a tough task having to replace a depleted roster with juco transfers and last minute recruiting.
The Scarlet Knights should sail past Canisius in their NIT Tip-Off opener at home, but they will likely have to face a fairly tough Drexel team in the next game, assuming the Dragons can get past Elon. Bruiser Flint has an experienced Dragons backcourt to fall back on, and it would not surprise me to see Drexel playing at Madison Square Garden on Thanksgiving Eve.
Alabama presents the biggest hurdle for either Duke or Arizona. The Crimson Tide are lurking behind Kentucky and Florida as 8/1 picks on the NCAA odds to win the SEC, and head coach Anthony Grant knows he's always got a chance with senior guard Trevor Releford on the floor. This is an experienced 'Bama squad overall, with forwards Rodney Cooper and Nick Jacobs back, giving Grant time to work in big freshman Jimmie Taylor.
The Tide is going to start the season without Levi Randolph who is nursing a sore knee, so his status throughout November is a question mark. Alabama starts its region with a matchup vs. Stillman before taking on either Georgia State or McNeese State.
I'm liking Arizona overall at this time, just think this is the year for the Wildcats to lead the Pac-12 and go deep in the NCAA Tournament. We'll be back with game previews and free NCAA basketball picks once the Nit Tip-Off cranks up.