Wednesday, March 18, 2015

UNH Wildcats 77 at NJIT Highlanders 84 (NCAA Basketball, CIT First Round) - March 16, 2015

March Madness refers to the NCAA Tournament, which features 68 teams playing 67 games over three consecutive weekends. The tournament invites 32 conference champions and selects 36 other teams, mostly from the six basketball power conferences. This season, there were 7 at-large selections from mid-majors (Dayton and Davidson from the Atlantic 10, Cincinnati from the American, Wichita State from the Missouri Valley, Boise State and San Diego State from the Mountain West, and BYU from the West Coast). The other 29 selections included teams like UCLA (which scored 7 points in a half against Kentucky and lost all 5 games against teams from other power conferences) and Oklahoma State (8-10 in Big 12 play) instead of Murray State who were perfect in the regular season in the smaller Ohio Valley Conference. Murray State was hampered by a weak strength of schedule, and that is the problem - crappy teams in the power conferences get the benefit of a strong strength of schedule and will receive most of those at-large spots. Those squads have bigger followings which means more advertising dollars as well. I know that Murray State would probably lose to pretty much any power conference team, but shouldn't they get the chance to dance? Nope, because the NCAA tournament is not about finding the best team in the land, but about finding the group of teams that will generate the most interest and revenue. To be fair, the NCAA could remove the autobid for conference tournament champions and simply pit the best 68 teams in the country, but that would kill the madness aspect. Having one spot guaranteed for each conference generates upsets and story lines throughout March and means that each school can dream of making it big on the national stage. If Murray State wanted into the tournament, they should have beaten Belmont in the OVC final.

But they didn't. So what happens? They go to the National Invitational Tournament (NIT). This competition, around since 1938, invites all regular season conference champions that did not make the NCAAs plus some other quality teams from both power conferences and mid-majors to make 32 entrants. It is owned by the NCAA and the first 3 rounds are played on campus courts, with the semifinals and finals held at MSG during the week before the Final Four. Murray State received a 3 seed and beat UTEP in the first round.

These two tourneys combine to give 100 teams a postseason experience, but that leaves 251 other clubs in Division I with nothing to do except study for final exams. How mundane! So a couple of enterprising groups created their own tournaments. In 2007, the Gazelle Group found the College Basketball Invitational (CBI) with 16 teams playing on campus sites. The tournament is often referred to as the "Cash Buy In" as teams now pay to host games. In 2009, founded the Postseason Tournament (CIT) and this now has 32 mid-major teams playing on campus sites. Last year's champion was Murray State, who beat Yale in the final, so there are arguments that these less famous tournaments give you a chance to see which teams will surprise next year.

So why all the preamble? Because this year, NJIT, the only Division I independent, was invited to the CIT and would even host a first-round game. This is one of three schools in the area that I had yet to visit (Iona and Fordham are the others) so when the game was announced, I immediately put it on my schedule. The opponents ended up being the New Hampshire Wildcats of the America East. The Wildcats blew a late lead against Albany in the conference semi-finals, and their reward was a trip to Newark to face the Highlanders.

NJIT plays out of the worst-rated venue on Stadium Journey, the Edith and Zoom Fleisher Athletic Center. Located about a mile from Newark Penn Station, you can take light rail there or brave the streets of one of America's most dangerous cities. I chose the latter and discovered that Division III Rutgers-Newark is right next door. It always amazes me how many institutions of higher education there are in this country and nearly all of them have athletic programs. I don't consider these lower level schools worth visiting but I might make an exception for this one that is so close to my office.

The Fleisher Center has no amenities, it is just a simple gym with about 10 rows of seats and the worst acoustics ever. Look at the ceiling in the photo above - not very good for hearing what the announcer is saying. The lighting is also terrible; I could not get any good pictures of the action from my seat and the staff photographer had set up flashes at each corner to illuminate the floor whenever he took a shot, which was very distracting at first. To make matters worse, the mascot (below) looks like a zombie with pallid grey skin.

There were a couple of positive aspects. Free t-shirts were given out to all fans, and there is a small Hall of Fame inside the lobby. Other that that, it is just a gym. NJIT has plans to build a $100 million arena in the next few years, so it is safe to say that this was my last visit to the Fleisher Center.

For NJIT's first-ever postseason game (it was also the Wildcats' inaugural appearance in the wonderful world of March Sadness), a band was brought in to deafen the 1,300 patrons (sold out!) on hand, most of whom had paid $15 for the pleasure. The evening got off to a funny start when both microphones didn't work (this is the New Jersey Institute of Technology after all), but then again, I could barely understand the announcer anyway once they got the mike operating.

This happened to be the only men's college basketball game in the country, and perhaps the first to use a 30-second shot clock, as that innovation is being tested by the CIT. New Hampshire stormed to a quick 10-0 lead but NJIT chipped away and tied the game at 27 when Tim Coleman converted a three-point play. The half ended on a weird sequence: coming out of a timeout with 2.5 seconds left, Ronnel Jordan of UNH went for a jump shot just inside the arc, but it was blocked by Coleman. The ball came right back to Jordan who threw up a prayer from the other side of the three-point line and it swished through, giving New Hampshire a 37-32 lead at the break.

The second half saw each team score 15 points each in the first 8 minutes as the pace was quick, with neither club running too many set plays. Over the next four minutes, NJIT went on a 13-0 run to take a 60-52 lead, capped by a thunderous dunk from Odera Nweke that sent the crowd to their feet. UNH  got back within 3 but NJIT rolled off another 9-2 run. With less than four minutes left, the Wildcats were forced to foul as much as possible and try to drain threes when on offense, which brought them within 6 but no closer as they ran out of time, losing 84-77.

This was a fun game to attend, with fans enjoying a rare chance to celebrate a successful season for the Highlanders. NJIT will host a second round match against Cleveland State on Monday, March 23rd. I'll update you on the result then. (Or 3 years later - NJIT beat Cleveland State and Canisius before traveling to Northern Arizona for a semifinal matchup, where they lost. The Lumberjacks then lost the final to Evansville.)


If you want to annoy other fans, yell "STEPS!" whenever a player appears to commit a traveling violation. Guy behind me did it on several occasions (he was rarely right) and I am sure I was not the only one who wanted to tell him to shut up.

Next Up

An AHL weekend on tap as I head to Massachusetts to see the Worcester Sharks before they move to San Jose, as well as the Springfield Falcons. I'm still only halfway through the league, but I find these games to me more enjoyable than the NHL variety; check back next week to see if that trend continued.



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