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August 12, 2009

Teams hope for NCAA berths this season

Maybe some rebranding is in order for the NIT.

The joke about the once-proud postseason tournament is that it's nothing more than the Not-Invited Tournament.

Certainly, the NIT, the College Basketball Invitational and the CollegeInsider.com Tournament are consolation prizes for missing the NCAA tournament.

But for many teams, the NIT could be called the Soon-to-Be-Invited Tournament instead. Of the 32 teams in the 2008 NIT, 17 reached the 2009 NCAA tournament. And Washington and Utah made the NCAA field last season after playing in the inaugural CBI in 2008. The CIT began last season and doesn't have a track record of producing NCAA teams.

As for the teams relegated to the "lesser" tournaments in 2009, here is our list of teams that could parlay those appearances into an invitation to the Big Dance this season:

Looking good for a 2010 NCAA bid
Baylor: Good luck figuring out this team. Baylor collapsed in Big 12 play last season, finishing the regular season on a 2-10 skid. In the postseason, though, coach Scott Drew tweaked the lineup, and the team showed more commitment defensively in reaching the final of both the Big 12 tournament and the NIT. Curtis Jerrells and Kevin Rogers are gone, but LaceDarius Dunn, Tweety Carter and Josh Lomers, who all played key roles in the postseason, are back.
Creighton: The Bluejays had the best overall record in the Missouri Valley and tied for the regular-season title last season, but a second-round loss to Illinois State in the league tourney knocked them out of the running for the NCAA tournament. Creighton, the MVC's most consistent program, should make another run for the league title despite the loss of MVC player of the year Booker Woodfox. P'Allen Stinnett, Kenny Lawson and incoming four-star recruit Andrew Bock are the players to watch.
Georgetown: The Hoyas won the Big East title in 2008, then tumbled to a tie for 11th in the league last season. The Hoyas should make a similarly dramatic trip back up the standings this season. First, the conference shouldn't be as tough. Second, sophomore Greg Monroe should continue to develop into one of the best centers in the nation. And the "key departures" won't hurt too much. DaJuan Summers' decision to enter the NBA draft wasn't devastating, and point guard Jessie Sapp had lost his job by the end of the season.
Jacksonville: The Dolphins won the Atlantic Sun regular-season title before losing in the conference tournament final to East Tennessee State. That's still an accomplishment, as JU was 1-26 as recently as 2005-06. Entering his fifth season as coach, Cliff Warren has completed the rebuilding process. He returns his top three scorers, including first-team all-league guard Ben Smith.
Kansas State: The Wildcats remained in the NCAA tournament discussion until the final days of the season. Ultimately, a weak non-conference schedule and a first-round loss to Texas in the Big 12 tournament did them in. Darren Kent is the only major loss, and there's a good recruiting class coming in.
Kentucky: Maybe you've heard about the Wildcats this offseason. John Calipari is the new coach and the Wildcats landed the top signing class led by the nation's top overall recruit, John Wall. Kentucky will open the season as a top-three team, and the NIT shouldn't see the Wildcats for years to come.
Tulsa: Has Memphis' domination of Conference USA ended with Calipari's departure? Tulsa returns four starters to a 25-11 team. Behind 7-footer Jerome Jordan and guard Ben Uzoh, the Golden Hurricane could end Memphis' streak of four consecutive C-USA titles.
Washington State: The Cougars lost coach Tony Bennett to Virginia, and Taylor Rochestie and Aron Baynes ran out of eligibility. That's the bad news. But Ken Bone was a home-run hire as coach. He'll be able to rebuild around sophomores Klay Thompson and DeAngelo Casto. The Pac-10 won't be as strong this season, giving Bone's new team a solid shot at an NCAA bid.
An NCAA bid is possible
Niagara: The Purple Eagles need to beat MAAC pace-setter Siena (they went 1-2 against the Saints last season), but returning seniors Tyrone Lewis and Bilal Benn give them reason for optimism. Niagara finished second in the MAAC last season, thanks to a high-powered offense.
Notre Dame: Luke Harangody's return gives the Irish NCAA hope, but they must replace 3-point threats Kyle McAlarney and Ryan Ayers.
Penn State: Talor Battle is the only key component of Penn State's "Big Three" to return. Jamelle Cornley and Stanley Pringle will be missed by the defending NIT champs.
San Diego State: The Aztecs were in the at-large mix last season and must replace three of their top four scorers. But a big-time recruiting class will keep them in the hunt in the Mountain West. Malcolm Thomas, Tyrone Shelley (a transfer from Pepperdine who will be eligible this season) and Kawhi Leonard are the newcomers to watch.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks couldn't make the NCAA tournament out of a weak SEC last season, but the bulk of the team returns to try again this season. It will be tougher this season because of a vastly improved Kentucky team.
UNLV: Don't count out Lon Kruger's Rebels, but UNLV needs to find the right mix in the starting lineup. Three transfers and five freshmen are expected to make an impact.
Virginia Tech: Malcolm Delaney is an underrated guard, but the Hokies have to recover from the loss of A.D. Vassallo. They look to be about the sixth- or seventh-best team in the ACC, but that might be enough to get them an NCAA bid.
Weber State: The Wildcats dominated the Big Sky Conference last season, winning the regular-season title by four games. But they were shocked in the semifinals of the league tournament on their home floor. Led by sophomores Damian Lillard and Kyle Bullinger, Weber State will be the favorite in that one-bid league.
Looking good for a 2010 NCAA bid
College of Charleston: The Southern Conference is wide open now that Davidson's Stephen Curry is gone. Actually, the College of Charleston beat Davidson twice last season. The Cougars went 27-9 and return three starters. Coach Bobby Cremins hasn't taken a team to the NCAA tournament since 1996 (Georgia Tech), and Charleston hasn't gone since 1999. Both droughts could end this season.
Nevada: The Wolf Pack have a new coach; David Carter was promoted after Mark Fox left to become coach at Georgia. Nevada was inconsistent last season, finishing three games behind Utah State in the WAC race. That could change this season because Nevada's two best players - Luke Babbitt and Armon Johnson, who also happen to be two of the league's best players - are a year older.
Oregon State: The CBI champions are ready to start thinking about NCAA appearances. The Beavers improved from 0-18 in the Pac-10 in 2007-08 to 7-11 last season, their first under coach Craig Robinson. Those seven wins included two over California, which is projected to win the Pac-10 this season. The Beavers return their four leading scorers and add a top-25 recruiting class. With coaching changes at Arizona, USC and Washington State and a lot of roster turnover at UCLA, the Beavers could make dramatic improvement in a weakened Pac-10.
It's possible
Northeastern: The Huskies' win total has increased each season under coach Bill Coen, who is entering his fourth season. Led by guards Matt Janning, a junior, and Chaisson Allen, a sophomore, they will be squarely in the mix for the Colonial Athletic Association title.
Richmond: The Spiders are a sleeper pick in the Atlantic 10, thanks to a top-notch backcourt of Kevin Anderson and David Gonzalvez. And with junior Dan Geriot healthy, Richmond should have more stability in the frontcourt.
UTEP: The Miners were the CBI runners-up and are another C-USA team looking to take advantage of the changes at Memphis. Transfers Derrick Caracter (Louisville) and Christian Polk (Arizona State) join a core that includes Memphis natives Arnett Moultrie and Randy Culpepper.
Looking good for a 2010 NCAA bid
Mount St. Mary's: The Mountaineers were a game away from reaching their second consecutive NCAA tournament before losing to Robert Morris in the Northeast Conference tournament final. This season, Mount St. Mary's should be the league's preseason favorite because of the return of the team's top four scorers. Jeremy Goode, a 5-9 guard, might be the best players in the league.
Oakland: The Golden Grizzlies won 23 games and finished third in the Summit League last season; they were eliminated in the CIT and league tourney on last-second shots. Forward Derick Nelson returns after taking a medical redshirt last season; he averaged 17.3 points in his last full season. Oakland also adds guard Larry Wright, a former starter at St. John's. Those two and standout point guard Johnathon Jones make Oakland the Summit favorite.
Old Dominion: The departures of coach Anthony Grant and guard Eric Maynor from VCU will help open the door for the rest of the Colonial Athletic Association, and ODU should be ready to barge in. ODU won the CIT and the top six scorers return to the team, including All-CAA first-teamer Gerald Lee (15.7 ppg, 5.7 rpg) and CIT MVP Frank Hassell (three double-doubles in four tourney games).
Looking good for an NCAA bid:
Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets were good enough to beat ranked Clemson and Wake Forest teams, but they also were bad enough to lose 15 ACC games (including the league tourney) last season. Other than Kentucky, Tech might have the biggest ceiling for improvement in the country. Gani Lawal (15.1 ppg, 9.5 rpg) decided to stay in school rather than enter the NBA draft. The Yellow Jackets also bring in the No. 4 signing class, led by center Derrick Favors. Favors and Lawal could be gone after this season, especially if Tech gets into the NCAAs. On the other hand, coach Paul Hewitt almost certainly would be gone if Tech misses the postseason again.
Ole Miss: The SEC West is wide open, giving Ole Miss a chance to win the division and reach the NCAA tournament. The Rebels went 16-15 last season and 7-9 in the SEC, but they were hammered by injuries. Losing point guard Chris Warren was the biggest hit. Warren will be back this season, but the Rebels are guard-heavy and lack frontcourt players. True freshman Reginald Bucker could be the only big man of note. But, hey, teams with good guards usually make some noise in March.
Vanderbilt: Vanderbilt returns every key player form a team that went 19-12 overall and 8-8 in the SEC last season. Junior A.J. Ogilvy and sophomores Jeffery Taylor and Brad Tinsley should improve, and the Commodores also add highly touted guard John Jenkins.
It's possible
Cincinnati: Mick Cronin oversaw a rebuilding project in his first three seasons, and the Bearcats may be ready now. Yancy Gates, Cashmere Wright and freshman Lance Stephenson should take some of the pressure off overworked senior guard Deonta Vaughn.

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.

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