Why Stronger Teams Struggle in the Postseason National Invitational Tournament
We cashed in with a pair of big 'Dogs in NIT action Tuesday when Oakland (+10.5) and Cal State Bakersfield (+8.5) won outright on the road vs. power conference teams Clemson and California. Both underdogs took money at the sports books, and while Oakland rallied from a 16-point halftime deficit, Cal State Bakersfield jumped out early on an uninterested Cal team and never looked back leading 44-19 at halftime. The Cal Golden Bears were awarded a No. 1 seed in the NIT, and the field of 32 teams features 21 teams with at least 20 wins.
Both Oakland and Cal State Bakersfield won their respective conferences but failed to win their conference tournaments for the automatic NCAA Tournament bid. They were experienced and capable teams, and the situation was right for them to take advantage of disappointed power conference teams not at their best emotionally or ready for a solid effort. Prior to tipoff, Cal's leading scorer, senior Jabari Bird was ruled out with concussion symptoms suffered in the Pac-12 tournament, and Ivan Rabb, the Bears leading rebounder and No. 2 scorer was also ruled out with a foot injury. The line fell even further and Bakersfield bettors buried the sports books. Recall Cal State Bakersfield made the NCAA Tournament last season, and this year's Roadrunners team was an experienced group but an unknown defensive dominator, ranking No. 3 in the country in defensive FG percentage (37.2%).
Emotion plays such a big part in college basketball, and the deflating emotion of having your NCAA tournament dreams not realized took a heavy toll on the Cal Golden Bears, who were 10-8 in the Pac-12 with 21 wins overall, but lost six of their last nine games. In Clemson's case, the rigors of the ACC schedule and too many close losses were part of a disappointing 17 win season with just a 6-12 record in the ACC.
Cal coach Cuonzo Martin had this to say after the Bears were left out of the NCAA Tournament field. "The players were very disappointed and that's the challenge now: to get guys' energy levels up to play a game Tuesday night. They're very disappointed, but it goes with the territory."
Unlike the NCAA Tournament when all the teams are excited to be at the Big Dance, the NIT can have a huge hangover effect with the emotional energy and letdown factors much more in play. Early round action is played on campus sites, but you saw that home court can mean much less when a disinterested teams takes the court. Along with California (-8.5) and Clemson (-10.5) losing outright, Utah (-12), Alabama (-8), Indiana (-3) and Monmouth (-1.5) also lost, with five of the six losing on their home court. NIT underdogs went 6-2 SU/ATS Tuesday with all underdogs winning the game outright and providing more profit for money-line 'Dog lovers.
As you analyze the NIT field and bracket, note that seven of the eight favorites are laying at least 5 points Wednesday with four teams laying double-digits on March 15. Note too that the 2017 NIT is being used for another trial of experimental rules.
The biggest rules change is that each team is limited to a team total of 4 personal and technical fouls (excluding administrative technical fouls) during each 10-minute segment of each half. When a team has reached the four-foul limitation, all subsequent personal and technical fouls (excluding administrative technical fouls) will be penalized by two free throw attempts. Team fouls will reset after 10 minutes in each half.
Another change is the NCAA Men's Basketball Rules Committee wants to see if resetting the shot clock to 20 seconds when the offensive team is taking the ball out of bounds in the front court will increase the number of possessions for each team over the course of a full game, which may also increase scoring.
The opening 8 games in NIT action averaged 146 points per game, which is a slight increase from the regular season. But the linemaker seemed to adjust and anticipate the scoring increase, as totals were just 3-5 over/under in the opening 8 games.
After the initial round of 16 games and then to the quarterfinals, we'll see teams play with more energy and emotion as they push towards a chance to play at Madison Square Garden in New York City for the semifinals March 28 and the NIT championship on Thursday, March 30.
Keep this information in mind as you handicap and analyze the NIT, and realize that there can be plenty of puppy chow to eat for 'Dog lovers who understand that their power conference pets may not be as interested in this tournament and training exercise.
FairwayJay is a leading national sports handicapper and is recognized as one of the sports industry's most insightful analysts. Follow him on Twitter: @FairwayJay