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April 19, 2011

Often-ignored tourneys can be valuable

Santa Clara coach Kerry Keating's mock bracket probably didn't fool his players, but doing one didn't hurt, either.

After his team defeated Northern Arizona and Air Force in the first two rounds of the CollegeInsider.com Tournament, Keating hung a bracket in the locker room. He told his players that if they defeated West Coast Conference rival San Francisco in the CIT quarterfinal, they'd be West Region champions and bound for the Final Four.

So it wasn't the Final Four, but it was a final four. The Broncos defeated SMU in a national semifinal March 25, then downed Iona on March 30 to win the CIT championship.

It was Santa Clara's first postseason appearance since Steve Nash led the Broncos to the second round of the 1996 NCAA tournament.

"We got the experience of playing and winning games in March," said Keating, a former assistant at UCLA, Seton Hall, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Tulsa. "There's always uncertainty with those tournaments [the NIT, CBI and CIT] in terms of how you get guys ready. ... We knew we had a good chance to play well."

The title really wasn't major news outside of the West Coast Conference, but if Santa Clara follows the path of other CIT champions, Keating might not need to fake his bracket next season.

Though the CIT is only three years old, its champions have good track records. Old Dominion won the first CIT in 2009. The Monarchs followed that by reaching the NCAA tournament in 2010 and '11, advancing to the second round in '10. Missouri State won the CIT in 2010 and won the Missouri Valley Conference regular-season title this past season, when it went on to the NIT.

Fans may ignore the "other" postseason tournaments, but the experiences can be invaluable for the teams that participate. Teams that reach any postseason tourney are able to practice as a team, while teams that don't participate move on to individual workouts.

Perhaps the best example of a team taking advantage of extra practice and competition is VCU. The Rams won the College Basketball Invitational in 2010, then reached the NCAA Final Four this past season.

Including VCU, six teams from the 2010 CBI reached the 2011 NCAA tournament. That's the same amount of teams that advanced from the NIT to the NCAA tournament, though the NIT invites twice as many teams as the CBI.

Meanwhile, two of the 16 teams in last season's CIT reached the NCAA tournament this season. Santa Clara is hoping to make that same jump next season. The Broncos will return their top three scorers, including junior guard Kevin Foster, who averaged 20.2 points and 3.7 assists last season.

"Everyone is motivated more now than we were before to work harder this summer," Keating said. "We're kind of springboarding into the offseason with a different motivation."

What other teams could benefit from the extra practice and postseason tournament experience? Here's a look at teams from the NIT, CBI and CIT that could be in position to move up to the NCAA tourney in 2011-12.

Looking good for an NCAA bid in 2011-12
Alabama (25-12 overall, 12-4 in the SEC): The Crimson Tide didn't carry a Selection Sunday hangover into the NIT. The Tide reached the NIT final and had a 20-6 record after Dec. 21. Leading scorer and rebounder JaMychal Green announced he will return for his senior season, meaning Alabama's top three scorers return. The Tide must replace three senior role players (guards Charvez Davis and Senario Hillman and forward Chris Hines), but coach Anthony Grant is building a healthy foundation. Point guard Trevor Releford was a revelation as a freshman this past season, and Alabama adds the nation's No. 17 recruiting class, led by combo guard Levi Randolph.
California (18-15, 10-8 in the Pac-10): After winning the Pac-10 regular-season title in 2009-10, Cal was in a rebuilding mode this past season. Cal got hot late and won five of seven before falling in the NIT second round to Colorado. The Golden Bears lose only one senior (Markhuri Sanders-Frison). While other teams in the league -- Arizona, UCLA, USC and Washington -- are losing key players early to the NBA draft, Cal will return its top three scorers. Jorge Gutierrez, Harper Kamp and Allen Crabbe combined to average 41.4 points this past season.
Cleveland State (27-9, 13-5 in the Horizon): Butler was the Horizon League's only NCAA tournament representative, but could the Vikings have taken Butler's place if all their players were healthy? Swingman D'Aundray Brown, who averaged 8.5 points and 5.6 rebounds as a junior in 2009-10, redshirted this past season as he recovered from a torn tendon in his finger. Cleveland State will lose star point guard Norris Cole, but every other major contributor returns. With Brown's return, the rotation will feature four seniors and three juniors.
Fairfield (25-8, 15-3 in the MAAC): Coach Ed Cooley left for Providence after leading the Stags to the MAAC regular-season title. Fairfield replaced him with Sydney Johnson, who won 47 games at Princeton in the past two seasons. Johnson inherits nice building blocks in point guard Derek Needham and 7-foot center Ryan Olander. Guard Rakim Sanders transferred from Boston College, where he averaged 12.0 points and 3.8 rebounds in three seasons, to play for Cooley, a former BC assistant. Sanders could give Johnson a boost instead.
Harvard (23-7, 12-2 in the Ivy): The Crimson missed the NCAA tournament when Princeton's Doug Davis hit the winning jumper as time expired in a one-game playoff for the Ivy League's automatic bid. Harvard then lost 71-54 to Oklahoma State in the first round of the NIT. At least the Crimson scored one victory in the offseason as coach Tommy Amaker resisted overtures from Miami. Harvard didn't have any seniors last season, so the Crimson will be favored to reach their first NCAA tournament since 1946.
Long Beach State (22-12, 12-2 in the Big West): Long Beach State won its league regular-season title by four games but was upset by UC Santa Barbara in the Big West tourney final. Long Beach State should get a second shot at the NCAA tournament as it returns four senior starters, led by Casper Ware (17.2 points per game) and T.J. Robinson (13.5 points, 10.1 rebounds).
New Mexico (22-13, 8-8 in the Mountain West): Point guard and leading scorer Dairese Gary is gone, but almost everyone else is back. Drew Gordon averaged a double-double in his first season after transferring from UCLA. Guard Demetrius Walker also will be eligible after his transfer from Arizona State. More good news for New Mexico: BYU is heading to the West Coast Conference and San Diego State is losing its starting frontcourt.
Others to watch
Colorado (24-14, 8-8 in the Big 12): The Buffaloes' fortunes in their first season in the Pac-12 depend on guard Alec Burks. He has not announced a decision on the NBA draft. If he leaves, Colorado will be without its top four scorers from 2010-11. If he returns, Colorado at least will have a solid scoring tandem in Burks and Utah transfer Carlon Brown (12.6 points, 4.1 rebounds, 2.5 assists as a junior with the Utes).
Florida Atlantic (21-11, 13-3 in the Sun Belt): The Owls were one of 11 teams to earn an automatic NIT bid by winning an outright conference title but losing in a conference tournament. Coach Mike Jarvis won the Sun Belt with a young team -- three of his top four scorers were sophomores. The Owls do need to replace leading rebounder Brett Royster.
Miami (21-15, 6-10 in the ACC): As with Colorado, Miami's fortunes largely depend on the draft decision of a key player. The Hurricanes also need a coach after Frank Haith left for Missouri. If sophomore center Reggie Johnson pulls his name out of the draft, he'll return to a team that also returns Malcolm Grant and Durand Scott. The Hurricanes finished the season well, taking North Carolina to the wire in the ACC tournament and defeating Sun Belt champion FAU and Missouri Valley champion Missouri State in the NIT before falling to Alabama.
Kent State (25-12, 12-4 in the MAC): First-year coach Rob Senderoff inherits most of the key players from the MAC's regular-season champions. The Golden Flashes lose second-leading scorer Rodriguez Sherman but return seniors Justin Greene, Carlton Guyton and Michael Porrini. Senderoff had spent the past three seasons as the lead assistant for Geno Ford, who took the job at Bradley.
Nebraska (19-13, 7-9 in the Big 12): At first glance, the move to the Big Ten looks like trouble for the Huskers. But maybe Nebraska is better-suited for the Big Ten. After all, the average score of a Huskers game last season was a Big Ten-like 66-60. LSU transfer Bo Spencer will be eligible, and center Jorge Brian Diaz and three seniors lead the key returnees.
Saint Mary's (25-9, 11-3 in the West Coast): The Gaels were in the NCAA tournament discussion for most of the season, but they ran out of steam at the end of the season. They lose guard Mickey McConnell but retain most of their other key players plus coach Randy Bennett. Saint Mary's was able to remain competitive without center Omar Samhan this past season and will look to do the same without McConnell next season. The Gaels need Stephen Holt and Jorden Page, who played only seven games because of injury, to emerge as productive players.
Looking to move up
Austin Peay (20-14, 13-5 in the Ohio Valley): The Governors finished second in the Ohio Valley last season, tied with Morehead State, which defeated Louisville in the NCAA tournament. Austin Peay did that with just one senior and despite getting just 10 games out of one of its best players. Anthony Campbell was a preseason All-OVC first-teamer after averaging 15.5 points in 2009-10, and Austin Peay coaches hope he returns at full strength from a torn ACL. He could be part of a formidable duo with TyShawn Edmonson (17.1 points per game).
Creighton (23-16, 10-8 in the Missouri Valley): Creighton fell to Oregon in the CBI final, but the Bluejays should have bigger aspirations next season. They return four of their top five scorers, lead by first-team All-MVC guard and league freshman of the year Doug McDermott.
Davidson (18-15, 10-8 in the Southern): SoCon rivals Wofford and Charleston lose their senior leaders and Davidson should be getting stronger. The Wildcats were led by sophomores and freshmen last season. The only major loss is guard Brendan McKillop.
Oregon (21-18, 7-11 in the Pac-10): The Ducks played well late in the season on the way to a CBI championship. Forward E.J. Singler will be a leader on a team that adds five-star guard Jabari Brown and Minnesota transfer Devoe Joseph. The Ducks will look to continue the good track record for CBI champs.
St. Bonaventure (16-15, 8-8 in the Atlantic 10): The Bonnies gradually have overcome the effects of 2003 NCAA sanctions. This season, they were in the postseason for the first time since the 2002 NIT. St. Bonaventure's next goal is a winning conference record. The Bonnies return four players who started every game last season, led by Andrew Nicholson (20.8 points, 7.3 rebounds).
Weber State (18-14, 11-5 in the Big Sky): Guard Scott Bamforth and forward Kyle Bullinger were first-team all-conference performers, but the biggest returnee is Damian Lillard. He was the Big Sky player of the year in 2009-10, but he was limited to 10 games with a foot injury this past season. In those 10 games, he averaged 17.7 points, 3.8 rebounds and 3.3 assists.
Looking to move up
Iona (25-12, 13-5 in the MAAC): First-year coach Tim Cluess continued to build on the foundation set by Kevin Willard, who took over at Seton Hall before last season. The Gaels had their best MAAC record since 2005-06 and reached the CIT final. They will be eying more because of the return of their top four scorers, including forward Michael Glover (18.4 points, 10.1 rebounds).
Marshall (22-12, 9-7 in Conference USA): The Thundering Herd were good enough to defeat West Virginia and Memphis during a 10-day span in January, but Marshall couldn't keep that momentum. In Tom Herrion's second season, he'll have star sophomore guard DeAndre Kane surrounded by seniors.
Oral Roberts (19-16, 13-5 in the Summit): Either Oakland or Oral Roberts has represented the Summit League in six of the past seven NCAA tournaments. Now that Oakland star Keith Benson is gone, Oral Roberts hopes the pendulum swings back its way. Oral Roberts returns its entire starting lineup, which includes Dominique Morrison (19.5 points per game) and the past two conference newcomers of the year.
San Francisco (19-15, 10-4 in the West Coast): After a 4-9 start, the Dons went 15-6 the rest of the way, including an overtime win at home over Gonzaga. San Francisco loses just one senior who averaged 16 minutes per game. The pieces seem to be in place for the Dons' first 20-win season since 1981-82.
Santa Clara (24-14, 8-6 in the West Coast): Santa Clara won the CIT by winning three consecutive road games, including a quarterfinal victory over conference rival San Francisco. The Broncos return the WCC's leading scorer, guard Kevin Foster (20.2 points per game).
Western Michigan (21-13, 11-5 in the MAC): The Broncos have won or tied for first in the MAC West in three of the past four seasons. But because they're the MAC's weaker division, those West titles have translated to just one postseason appearance -- the CIT this past season. Western will look to improve that track record with its top six scorers returning, including Juwan Howard Jr.
Looking to return
Baylor (18-13, 7-9 in the Big 12): Baylor must replace prolific scorer LaceDarius Dunn, but the Bears got a surprise with the decision by forward Perry Jones to stay in school. Quincy Acy, Anthony Jones and A.J. Watson are back, too, but this group underachieved last season. The signing class includes five-star forward Quincy Miller and four-star guard Deuce Bello, and Baylor will have transfers Brady Heslip (Boston College) and Gary Franklin (Cal) available, too.
Maryland (19-14, 7-9 in the ACC): Forward Jordan Williams has entered his name in the draft, but if he decides to stay in school, the Terrapins' prospects look much better. Guard Terrell Stoglin averaged 16.8 points in the final 10 games of his freshman season.
Mississippi State (17-14, 9-7 in the SEC): The Bulldogs had chemistry issues to start the season, but they should have the talent in 2011-12 to compete for a tournament bid. Renardo Sidney and Dee Bost, who missed a combined 26 games because of NCAA eligibility issues, could benefit from an entire season together. The signing class includes three top-70 players: five-star forward Rodney Hood and four-star guards Deville Smith and Rodney Gardner.
Stanford (15-16, 7-11 in the Pac-10): This could be an important year for coach Johnny Dawkins. He's entering his fourth season, but he has yet to have a winning record in Pac-10 play. The Cardinal didn't have any seniors last season, and they return all six players who started at least 12 games this past season; three of them will be seniors.
Virginia (16-15, 7-9 in the ACC): The Cavaliers won five of their last seven to eke out a winning record in Tony Bennett's second season. Considering the Cavs went 7-9 in the ACC without top player Mike Scott, the season has to be considered a success. Scott played in 10 non-conference games and had a double-double in seven of them. He received a medical redshirt and should be back in 2011-12.

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