Wednesday, December 10, 2008

NIT-picking Stony Brook

Marcus Henry of Newsday gave me a run for my money as the most optimistic person about a Long Island basketball program last week when he surmised in a blog that Stony Brook—whom the Flying Dutchmen play tonight at Pritchard Gymnasium—could parlay a win over Hofstra into a breakout season and a possible berth in the NIT.

But while the Seawolves are shaping up to be much better this year—and not a moment too soon for coach Steve Pikiell, who entered this season 20-67 in his first three seasons—they’d have to go from (almost) worst (Stony Brook finished eighth in the nine-team America East last year via a tiebreaker over Maine) to first, and then lose in the conference tournament, to make the NIT.

When it invited 40 teams from 2002-2006, the NIT was a viable alternative for low-major teams left out of the Big Dance. Those fields featured little-known schools such as Tennessee Tech, Wagner, Eastern Washington, Austin Peay, Fairfield and Denver as well as America East schools Boston University and Northeastern and former Atlantic Sun member Georgia State. The NIT took another step towards including deserving low-majors in 2006, when it began to award an automatic bid to regular season conference champions who didn’t win their conference tourney.

But 2006 was also the year the NCAA bought the NIT to end a five-year legal battle between the two sides. Not surprisingly, the NCAA didn’t wait long to begin pushing around the little guy. The NCAA dropped the field back to 32 teams in 2007, ostensibly because it’s easier to schedule four eight-team brackets.

Of course, the teams left on the outside looking in are the smallest Davids. Counting automatic bids, the NIT invited 17 non-BCS schools in 2007 and 20 in 2008, right in line with the average from 2002 through 2006, when 116 of the 200 invitees were non-BCS schools. But the at-large bids to the NIT the last two years—12 in 2008, 10 in 2007—have come almost exclusively from the power mid-major conferences.

(As an aside, I hate further breaking down the mid-major conferences and schools into major mid-majors and mid mid-majors, because that just further encourages the BCS schools to take bigger and bigger pieces of the pie and softens the impact of the inevitable day that the NCAA Tournament is for the Big Six only and the rest of us are rooting for our alma maters to win the I-AA national title in the NIT. So please forgive me and let’s move on.)

So even before taking into account the minimal preseason expectations for Stony Brook, the Seawolves have a long way to go—even longer than Hofstra, which plays in one of those power mid-major conferences and reached the NIT despite sputtering to the finish line in 2007—to sniff the NIT.

On the other hand… those of us who went to school in western Nassau should be familiar with the encouragement Stony Brook fans are feeling right about now. Like Hofstra, Stony Brook has proven far better than initially expected in producing the best non-conference record in its conference. And like Hofstra, Stony Brook is clicking with a handful of new faces.

I’m not sure if tonight’s game is the beginning of an authentic rivalry—even after last year’s win at Hofstra, Stony Brook is 4-17 all-time against the Flying Dutchmen—but it should be an entertaining contest between a pair of teams eager to prove their early success is not a fluke.

This may just be blog bias talking, but Hofstra would seem to have more at stake: In addition to the historic dominance of the Seawolves, the Dutchmen made the leap from the hunters to the hunted with the impressive win over Towson Saturday. The Dutch debuted in the mid-major top 25 at no. 19 this week, a 22-spot jump from a week ago. People are watching. Another win tonight and the bandwagon may even begin to get a little more crowded.

If you’re going, see you there. I’ll be the guy yelling about Setauket native Rob Ogden. It’ll just be me and the wife as Sully Ray had to cancel. Apparently, he’s swamped with work at his job and in his house. Employed AND a home owner. What year does he think this is, 2005?

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