A couple of weeks ago we broke down what will arguably be the top holiday tournament of the 2010-11 season, the Maui Invitational. The other Big Daddy of pre-conference tourneys, the Preseason NIT, released its brackets today, and at first blush, the field is not all that exciting this year. Take a look at the below bracket and tell us where you get a little tingly thinking about the downstream matchup possibilities?
The only legitimate national contender in the field is Villanova, with 105-point scorer Corey Fisher returning along with a whole cadre of talented inside players including Mouph Yarou, Antonio Pena and Isaiah Armwood. If the expectation is that productive freshmen become superb sophomores, then the Wildcats are a team with as much upside as anyone else in America next year. The dropoff in talent from VU to the next best squad, Tennessee, is significant, but the real precipice occurs after that point. The Vols lost Wayne Chism, JP Prince and Bobby Maze from their Elite Eight team, but they bring back star-in-waiting Scotty Hopson and add Tobias Harris to a solid cast of role players, so UT has a chance to be very good again. We’d expect these two teams to sleepwalk their way to the finals on Black Friday in Madison Square Garden.
The third and fourth seeds and regional hosts Wake Forest and UCLA are two of the weaker teams we’ve seen in this position in some time. Neither is a likely NCAA Tournament team next season, and it says here that both schools will have trouble getting out of their PNIT region despite the fact that it will be played on their home courts. Wake returns two promising sophomores in CJ Harris and Ari Stewart, but the loss of all-ACC players Al-Farouq Aminu and Ish Smith, not to mention head coach Dino Gaudio (replaced by Jeff Bzdelik), will be too much for the duo to bear so early in the season — expect the Deacs to crumble against a strong VCU team with something to prove. UCLA returns more than Wake Forest, but if you’ve somehow been in a fugue state for the past twelve months, the Bruin program has fallen on hard times due to poor recruiting, team chemistry and injury problems. The talented but enigmatic Malcolm Lee returns along with several other young players (Tyler Honeycutt, Reeves Nelson, Jerime Anderson), but the addition of five-star stud Josh Smith to the mix isn’t going to suddenly remind UCLA how to win games. A second-round matchup against Pacific, with its top four players returning, or Nevada, always looking for a Pac-10 scalp as a member of the overlooked WAC, will be difficult for UCLA, even in Pauley Pavilion.
The one thing we will continue to give the PNIT folks credit for, though, is that they actually still understand the meaning of the word “Tournament.” Yeah, yeah, we know that other entities get around it by using words like “Classic,” but a bracket is a bracket and it really only makes sense when a team advances into the later rounds by, you know, winning. There are no guarantees — Villanova, Tennessee, Wake Forest and UCLA will actually have to beat two visiting teams to earn the privilege of a trip to New York City during Thanksgiving week to play in the World’s Most Famous Arena. So from that perspective, we’ll still enjoy watching the Preseason NIT this November if for no other reason than they get it right.