Potential SEC Matchups to Watch: the NIT’s Best Games

Posted by Christian D'Andrea on March 19th, 2013

Christian D’Andrea is a SEC Microsite contributor and an editor at Anchor of Gold and Nashville Sports Hub. You can reach him on Twitter @TrainIsland.

After a down year for conference basketball, SEC fans might be paying more attention to the NIT than the Big Dance this week. That’s because two of its most traditionally successful teams, Kentucky and Tennessee, are stuck playing in March’s second-biggest tournament. They’ll be joined by Alabama, another high-profile program that ended up on the wrong side of the bubble. While mid-major darlings like Middle Tennessee State, Saint Mary’s, Boise State, and La Salle earned at-large invitations, the SEC’s weak profile helped separate these former powerhouses from the NCAA Tournament.

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Kentucky and Tennessee Were On the Outside Looking In

Instead of kicking off the second-season on Thursday and Friday’s glorious start to March Madness, half of the SEC’s postseason teams will get to work on Tuesday and Wednesday in the opening round of the NIT. However, just because they aren’t playing on the big stage doesn’t mean that all of the must-watch games in the conference are confined to Florida, Ole Miss, and Missouri. A deep NIT field means that there are plenty of high-level match-ups waiting to fill in the gaps between NCAA Tourney play. Three different SEC teams will look to redeem their seasons with a deep run in the country’s second-most-prestigious basketball tournament. Here are the potential games to keep an eye out for once NIT play begins, assuming that the basketball gods pair up these teams in the best possible manner:

  1. Kentucky vs. Providence (NIT Second Round): Two teams that were forsaken by Rick Pitino in the past three decades will try to build their case for 2014 in a second round match-up built for basketball purists. Providence will be playing its last games in the Vincent Council era, but a young core led by Bryce Cotton and Kadeem Batts has Ed Cooley’s Friars trending upward. Of course, no team may have more unrealized potential in the NCAA right now than Kentucky. The Wildcats missed out on the NCAA Tournament thanks to a late-season fade brought on by Nerlens Noel’s season ending knee injury. If Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin decide to jump to the NBA this summer, this could be their last chance to make an impact as Blue Bloods. Despite playing in the NIT, each program has a ton to prove in this potential second round game.
  2. Kentucky vs. Baylor (NIT Quarterfinals): A rematch of the game that snapped the Wildcats’ 55-game winning streak at Rupp Arena? Yes, please. Baylor went to Lexington and came away with a win back in December despite giving UK 20 offensive rebounds and committing 19 turnovers. Now, they’ll get the chance to face the ‘Cats again, this time without Noel locking down the paint. Baylor and Kentucky could pair up to give the NIT one of its most athletic showdowns of the postseason. Isaiah Austin and Willie Cauley-Stein will battle in the paint to prove who is the better freshman big man. Alex Poythress will have to show that he’s matured on defense to keep Cory Jefferson from getting to the rim. Two teams with one final chance to redeem a disappointing season could end up duking it out once more in Lexington. This might be the NIT’s true headliner.
  3. Alabama vs. Iowa (NIT Semifinals): Iowa put together a 9-9 season in what may have been the NCAA’s toughest conference, and they were a late-game meltdown from beating Michigan State in the Big Ten Tournament and likely clinching an at-large berth. Instead, they’re a #3 seed in the NIT, where they’ll have to (theoretically) dispatch Indiana State, Massachusetts and Virginia to set up a potential showdown with the Crimson Tide. Alabama won’t have an easy path to this match-up either. Maryland and potential lottery pick Alex Len stands on the other end of their bracket, and the Terps’ presence is bolstered by top-50 teams like Denver and Stanford. Still, if the Tide and the Hawkeyes can survive for this long, they’ll set up a slugfest between two defensively-oriented and staunchly talented teams. Anthony Grant will rely on his Trevors (Lacey and Releford) against a Hawkeyes’ defense that held opponents to less than 39 percent shooting from the field. A match-up between the two teams would pair a couple of perimeter-oriented, even opponents in what would likely be a low-scoring but exciting affair.
  4. Tennessee vs. Washington (NIT Second Round): Despite being a #2 seed, the Volunteers may have the easiest path to the NIT Finals. Their eight-team region is filled with underachievers and unproven programs. Southern Miss ran out to 25 wins but didn’t notch a single victory against a top 50 team. Louisiana Tech’s biggest win is over Southern Miss, and they’re coming off an inexplicable loss to UT-San Antonio. Like USM, BYU hasn’t beaten anyone this season. And Florida State lost to Auburn. That leaves Washington as the most compelling match-up for the Vols in the first three rounds of their NIT. The Huskies have 15 losses and a low RPI, but they’ve proven that they can beat talented teams in 2013. They’ve recorded big victories over Saint Louis, Colorado, California, and Stanford this season. That’s not a murderer’s row of opponents, but it’s enough to showcase the kind of talent that can push Tennessee to the limit. If Cuonzo Martin’s team can’t reclaim the heat that drove UT to a 9-1 record down the stretch in SEC play, the Volunteers’ season might end with an early-round upset.
Christian D'Andrea (20 Posts)

Christian D'Andrea is a SEC microsite contributor. He also manages and writes for the Vanderbilt blog Anchor of Gold. You can find him on Twitter at @TrainIsland

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