The Collegeinsider.com Tournament is exclusively for mid-majors, but the fledgling tournament—which debuted last year with Old Dominion emerging as the champion of a 16-team field—is still largely a mystery even to the fans of the schools that hope to participate in it.
In hopes of learning more about the CIT and the process by which its field is selected, we spoke Friday to CIT Selection Committee member Rich Zvosec, the former head coach at St. Francis (NY) and Missouri-Kansas City. Zvosec was a huge help in not only explaining the thinking of the Selection Committee but also in evaluating Hofstra’s chances of receiving a bid. Thanks to Rich for his time and for giving us a behind-the-scenes look at how the CIT works. (PS: Make sure to select the Flying Dutchmen, Rich!)
What does this week entail for the committee?
Basically, what happens is throughout the course of the year, you go see games. Anybody you see that you like that you think will be a potential participant, we’ll send the names to Riley Wallace, the chairman of the committee, just to kind of give a working background for it.
The tournament was set up with the idea of rewarding mid-major teams who have a good year and get left out of the NCAA or NIT. I’ll give you the perfect example: Keith Dambront, who is the head coach at Akron, is a good friend of mine. A couple years ago, they go 26-7. Miami of Ohio beats them on a last-second shot in a [MAC] championship game. They not only don’t get a NCAA bid, they don’t get an NIT bid. I called Keith on Monday [and said] ‘It was a shock seeing you guys are too good for the NIT, you turned them down.’ And he says ‘Rich, we never got a call.’
Another year, IUPUI won like 25 games and that was the last league I coached in, the Summit, with UMKC. So the whole premise of the tournament is to take somebody like Hofstra, who’s had a good year, has everybody coming back, their best players are coming back, and reward them. It’s not like the NIT. Texas Tech out of the Big 12 is probably going to get in. I primarily do Big 12 games for ESPN, so from what I’m hearing, they’re going to get in at 17-15. The whole premise of the tournament is not to take the seventh- or eighth-place team with a losing record from a power six conference. Last year the inaugural year, Old Dominion, obviously out of the Colonial, won the tournament. This year, they used that as a springboard [to the NCAAs]. That’s the whole premise.
About 10 days ago, everybody on the committee sent a tentative list—obviously not final, because you have to wait for conference tournaments to play out—and then it’s kind of a wait and see what happens with the tournaments, because of the change in the NCAA where a regular season champion that doesn’t get an at-large and doesn’t win their conference tournament automatically goes to the NIT. That helps Hofstra, because that’s [a number of conferences] that would have been prime candidates to [send] the second place team.
Right now, Hofstra is on the board. And what plays into their favor—obviously, 19 wins helps, they have a winning record in the conference, their best players are returning. So that all is in their favor. And then what will happen now is there’s a couple other teams that are on the board that are also on the bubble for the NIT. So basically, what will happen now is as soon as the NIT pairings come out, then we’ll have another conference call and kind of hash it out with the people on the committee.
When do you want to have the field settled?
It’ll be Sunday night. Possibly Monday. Probably more like Monday, although it helps us that Riley Wallace is the chairman of the committee. He lives in Hawaii, helps with the time change. It’s early out there. [Laughs] We want to have everything set by Monday. Another thing that has to be worked out logistically is who goes where. There are some places that, for whatever reason, they can’t host a game. Maybe they don’t play in their own gym on campus, that type of thing.
Schools such as George Mason and Creighton have already announced they will host a first round CIT game. How does that process work? Do schools seek you out and declare they want to play, or do you seek them out?
We’re talking to a lot of schools. A team like Creighton—especially Creighton, that’s out near my area—they were identified real early, because in Creighton’s case, two things work in their favor for our tournament. Not necessarily what they wanted. Wichita State got off to an unbelievable start in the non-conference and Northern Iowa has been ranked since probably early December, so it’s always looked like Creighton was going to be the third- or fourth-place team in that league. And they draw 18,000 a game. It’s unbelievable. So they were identified really early. That’s pretty much kind of where we’re at. The other 14 slots are still pretty fluid.
Back to Hofstra for a moment: Last year, the CIT did its best to bracket teams geographically to limit travel expenses. So are you comparing Hofstra to teams in the northeast as much or more so than nationally?
That’s part of it. Regionally, we try and match teams—for example, an Iona-Hofstra might be a decent matchup. Even a Hofstra-Fairfield. So we’ll look at things like that. Even going down a little further south, another team that’s on the board is a team like Campbell. Campbell-Hofstra. We do try and keep it geographical.
The problem that we have right now is Fairfield is still on the board with the NIT. That’s obviously a team that we’ve identified. We don’t know, we're kind of in a holding pattern right there as well.
Hofstra and Fairfield already played this year. Would you be less likely to put those teams together because of that?
No, actually in a way, it could help, because you get a rematch, you get the revenge [angle]. Quite frankly, we don’t look at that.
How about conference foes? James Madison and Old Dominion played in the semifinals last year. Do you try to avoid pitting conference teams against each other until that point?
If it happens earlier, that’s just the way it is. You try and move teams geographically [so] if you’re taking more than one team from a league—for example, you could end up with a Hofstra-George Mason down the road—nothing you can do about that.
Hofstra finished 8-2 in its last 10 games and was the first team in CAA history to finish over .500 in conference after falling at least five games under. Does finishing well have an impact on the Selection Committee?
That’s big. That’s a criteria. A lot of it is when we’ll talk with teams—and without mentioning names—there’s some teams out there that we talk to, they just don’t want to play, you know what I mean? And you would look at them and say ‘You don’t want to continue?’ I think what happens is if you’ve got a group of seniors and they had higher expectations and it’s like ‘Ehh, you know what, we don’t want to do this.’
This isn’t the number one factor, but we really like the idea of a team that is on the rise, that has guys coming back—I keep going back to the Old Dominion example—that can use it as a springboard. And that’s why teams want to keep playing.
How do I put this: It won’t necessarily get you in, that you want to keep playing, but it’ll certainly eliminate you if you aren’t thrilled about the idea of continuing to play [laughs]. Hey, we want a good time, and we want kids excited about the experience.
Obviously we can’t reward everybody. That’s the type of thing we’re trying to reward. The kid Jenkins is a junior, that helps.
Has it been easier putting the tournament together now that you have a year under your belt and people are more aware of it?
It is. It is. I’ll give you the perfect example: If Tom was on the fence [about] should you do it should you do it, my first thing would be to call Tommy Dempsey at Rider and ask him what he thinks. There is a lot of that going on with, hey, if you’re not sure—because, quite frankly, the CBI is trying to get teams too—it’s like, hey, call Jim Les at Bradley, call, like I said, Tommy at Rider and ask them what they thought. We feel pretty good about it because we didn’t get any bad feedback from any of the teams. And it certainly helps.
Do you find more schools are interested now that inaugural CIT teams such as Old Dominion and Oakland have made the NCAA Tournament?
It has [helped]. A team that has guys coming back like Oakland, they had all those kids coming back. Anybody who was like ‘Ehh I’m not sure,’ hey, here you go, follow Greg Kampe and Oakland and he’ll tell you the benefit of it. So it certainly has helped us.
Is there a bigger scramble for CIT and even CBI bids because the NCAA bubble is so weak and fluid this year that a lot of BCS schools are going to get knocked into the NIT?
It may be more of a scramble this year than in the past, because the Pac-10 is so bad. You could always count on three to five teams out of the Pac-10 in the tournament. Hell, they may only get one. So a team like Fairfield, for example, who in a normal year may get into the NIT because [the NCAA Tournament is] taking five out of the Pac-10—they may not get in this year because the NIT will end up taking a 17-15 Texas Tech or a 17-14 Arizona or something like that.
In a sense it doesn’t affect us, partially because we’re not considering a Texas Tech or that type of team anyhow, whereas the CBI might be. But it does affect us indirectly through other teams that now all of a sudden don’t get into the NIT.