Not long after the NCAA field was announced Sunday, the National Invitation Tournament bracket was revealed — with far less fanfare. Don’t be influenced by the lack of media attention for the NIT. Even though these teams were left out of the NCAA tournament, college hoops junkies can enjoy plenty of action. Even more importantly for bettors, winning tickets are out there to be cashed.
To help handicap the “other tournament” starting this week, here is some relevant information about the NIT, which ends March 28. Instead of the usual 32 teams playing early-round games on campus and the final four meeting at Madison Square Garden, this year’s version has 16 teams playing in a Texas bubble in Frisco and Denton.
As a treat for bettors, for the first time since 2003, a third-place game will act as a lead-in to the championship.
This year all the spots are at-large and not filled automatically with regular-season conference winners that failed to win their postseason tournaments.
Books aren’t offering NIT futures to win it all, so use the nuggets here while making game-by-game decisions. If you see any line moves in NIT games, rest assured these are sharps making a statement, not the public. So you likely want to be on the side of the move.
Conference USA serves as the host of the tournament, and games will be played at the Comerica Center in Frisco and UNT Coliseum in Denton. The location in Frisco is not the Ford Center, the funky host of the C-USA tournament. That means the conference’s two teams in the field, Western Kentucky and Louisiana Tech, have no advantage. The Hilltoppers and Bulldogs are not slated to play at the UNT facility.
Just like those teams in the NCAA tournament, the NIT squads will be isolated from family, friends and their peers back on campus by staying in Texas hotels away from any crowds. The other tournament might be the light at the end of the tunnel for socially minded college students to get through such conditions. For some teams in the NIT, it might not be worth packing many changes of clothes.
Think about taking points as much as possible in the bubble since it helps create a certain leveling effect.
Those bubble conditions are why motivation should be the main variable in handicapping this field. It all starts with identifying the teams that want to play and those grudgingly making a spring-break trip to Texas. That is always the case in analyzing the NIT field, and it is even more profound in 2021.
Rest assured top seeds Colorado State, Memphis, Saint Louis and Ole Miss would rather be in the Hoosier state right about now. So look to fade the No. 1 seeds when possible. History is on your side. Of the 44 teams to make the NIT’s final four over the last 11 tournaments, only 11 No. 1 seeds advanced that far. That 25% rate is good fade material. These numbers are also skewed due to the outlier in 2014, when three made it that far. That year was the only time during this span when the No. 1 seed, Minnesota, won the tournament.
This year the No. 1s are even more fade-worthy since they are keeping one eye toward the NCAA tournament in case they are needed as last-minute replacements.
That is why you should attack Mississippi and grab Louisiana Tech + 6.5 and on the moneyline. Ole Miss was expecting an at-large NCAA bid and already has dismissed some players from the roster. This makes Louisiana Tech the best play of the first round.
The Bulldogs were never in the at-large conversation, so that should mitigate any NIT hangover. They also have a tough, physical defense (No. 34 in adjusted efficiency, according to KenPom) that allows just under 65 points a game. This will play well if Ole Miss is even slightly distracted. Louisiana Tech is 17-10 ATS, while the Rebels are 15-12.
Bookmakers are telling the public something about motivation by making top-seeded Colorado State just less than a two-point favorite over Buffalo. Same motivation ideas apply here, and you should get the Bulls while they are still catching points. I like riding lower-seeded Buffalo here, as it has won seven of its last eight games. The Bulls are 13-9-1 ATS and 6-0 ATS in their last six games after an ATS loss.
Keep the motivation train moving and get Dayton + 5 against Memphis. The Tigers got an NCAA snub after losing a heartbreaker to Houston in the American Athletic Conference tournament.
There is no overt reason to just fade Saint Louis, even though it is in the same predicament as Ole Miss, CSU and Memphis. The Billikens should be in the NCAA tournament, no doubt. But under one angle, they could fare well in the NIT. This upperclassman-dominated squad lost a month’s worth of games because of COVID-19 shutdowns. Javonte Perkins and Jordan Goodwin could use this stage as a way to display their skills for NBA scouts.
Travis Ford can motivate his team to make the NIT its “season.” Slow the roll of top-seeded fades when it comes to Saint Louis giving -5 to Mississippi State.
On a similar note, perhaps the most highly motivated team to play in the NIT is Davidson, another Atlantic 10 team that missed out on a number of games this season. The second-seeded Wildcats are a slight favorite (-1.5) against unpredictable NC State.
Rounding out the motivation angle, Western Kentucky + 2 against Saint Mary’s makes a lot of sense. The Hilltoppers have Charles Bassey, the best player in the tournament, and the Gaels have bounced around from their Northern California home to Las Vegas, then back home and now on to Texas. Add that travel to Saint Mary’s going 1-6 ATS in its last seven games and take the points and the moneyline as well.
Recent NIT action
Here is the performance of this year’s NIT teams that appeared in the last three tournaments. Keep in mind that the setup was different and games were played on campus. This year’s bubble is a wild card to which no teams or coaches are accustomed.
— 2019 NIT: Davidson (fourth seed, Bob McKillop coach, 0-1); Memphis (third seed, Penny Hardaway coach, 1-1); Dayton (fifth seed, Anthony Grant coach, 0-1).
— 2018 NIT: Saint Mary’s (first seed, Randy Bennett coach, 2-1); Western Kentucky (fourth seed, Rick Stansbury coach, 3-1); Mississippi State (fourth seed, Ben Howland coach, 3-1); Boise State (fourth seed, Leon Rice coach, 0-1).
— 2017 NIT: Boise State (sixth seed, Leon Rice coach, 1-1); Mississippi (fifth seed, Andy Kennedy coach, 2-1); Colorado State (fourth seed, Larry Eustachy coach, 1-1); Richmond (sixth seed, Chris Mooney coach, 2-1).
Final four predictions
Look for Davidson, SMU, Louisiana Tech and Saint Louis to make the final four.