Tourney bubble bursts. ASU packs for the NIT. UA packs it in

When the NCAA Tournament bubble burst, Arizona’s Pac-10 colleges landed in different places.  Neither place was first choice.

ASU (22-10) found itself with an invitation to the National Invitation Tournament (NIT), where it at least got a No. 1 seed.  But UofA (16-15) wasn’t extended the same courtesy.  And when the fledgling College Basketball Invitational came calling with an invitation, they said ‘No thanks.’

The Cats weren’t alone in rejecting the CBI invitation, even though it’s considered the next ‘major’ post-season tournament.  Michigan, Georgia, and Alabama also declined an invite.

So it means they will be watching March Madness instead of playing in some part of it.

The Sun Devils will meet Jacksonville (19-12) tomorrow night in a first-round NIT game at Wells Fargo Arena.  The Wildcats will finish cleaning out their lockers and begin dealing with the distinction of being the team that broke the 25-year run of consecutive NCAA appearances.

Frankly, neither team had great expectations for an invite to the Big Dance, after both lost in the quarterfinals of the Pac-10 Conference – a conference so weak this year that six teams had RPIs of 112 or worse.

The Sun Devils admitted they didn’t even turn on the TV to watch the results of Selection Sunday.  They were prepared for the worse.

But the entire Pac-10 conference entered a time warp this season, as just two teams made it to the Dance – and it might have been just one if Washington hadn’t suddenly come to life at the close of the season and blew through the tournament to win it and get an automatic bid.  It was 22 years ago that a major conference sent just two teams to the Tournament; the Pac-10 in 1988 sent just Arizona and Oregon State.

Hey, the Mountain West Conference this year earned twice as many bids to the NCAA event as the Pac-10!

And it is just ASU out of the Pac-10 line-up that was invited to this year’s edition of the NIT.  But, in a bit of irony, Memphis is a No. 3 seed in the NIT.  That team is coached by Josh Pastner… a former UofA assistant coach.

The NCAA Tournament itself is one strange happening this year.  This is the first time since 1966 that five of the biggest names in college basketball did not make the Tournament.  This year that list includes Arizona, UCLA, North Carolina, Connecticut, and Indiana.   And it’s the second time in the past three years that the defending national champion didn’t even make it to the Dance.

This year’s brackets are going to be a train wreck!

UCLA, Indiana, and North Carolina have a combined 21 national titles and 43 Final Four appearances.  Five of those national championships are owned by the Tar Heels, the defending champion, that finished this year 16-16.   Connecticut was a No. 1 seed at the NCAA Tournament last year and made it all the way to the Final Four.  And UCLA owns 11 national championships and were a Final Four team three consecutive years under former coach, Ben Howland.

And none of them are seeded No. 1 this year – in the NIT!  Those lofty positions belong to ASU, Illinois, Virginia Tech, and Mississippi State, the four teams that came closest to making the Big Dance as at-large teams.

ASU should have little trouble with eighth-seeded Jacksonville, the co-champs (with three other schools) in the Atlantic Sun Conference.  The Dolphins (19-12) have been to the NIT before, six times in fact.  In 1972 and 1974 they made it to the Final Four, but lost in the semis.  More recently, they lost in first-round games in 1980 and 1987.

The Sun Devils are only a couple years removed from the NIT atmosphere, having played there in 2008 when they advanced to the third round before getting knocked out by Florida.  They have been to the NIT 11 times since 1983.

The Dolphins lost in their conference semi-finals, but that may have worked out to their advantage.  Had they won the conference tournament, they would have been matched up with No. 1 seed Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament.

However, they don’t match up well against ASU either.  They’re a small, young team that averages 70 points a game and gives up 67.5 per outing.  Their top scorer is a 5’10” senior point guard, Ben Smith, who averages 19.7 ppg.

When we say they’re small, we mean that quite literally.  No regular on the roster stands more than 6’7″.  That probably helps explain why the point guard is getting most of the points; there’s not a lot of post feeding.

The Dolphins met up with several schools during non-conference play that might compare in some ways to ASU, including California, Florida, and Florida State.  They lost all three games.

But the Devils won’t be taking Jacksonville for granted.  The only way to recover from falling off the bubble this year is to get back up on the horse and ride to the top of the NIT.  Based on this year’s field, they’ll probably have some interesting company when they get there.

ASU season ticket-holders and students will have the first opportunity to purchase tickets for the opening game with Jacksonville, beginning at 9 a.m. this morning.  They can be purchased at the ASU ticket office or by phone (480.727.0000).