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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 14, 2010

CBKB: North Carolina, UConn lend big names to NIT field

AP Sports Writer

NEW YORK North Carolina and UConn are lending some serious star power to the NIT.

The Tar Heels were a No. 4 seed in the bracket released Sunday, the second time in the past three years that the defending national champion missed the NCAA tournament. Florida also played in the NIT in 2008 after winning the title.

It was the first time that North Carolina (16-16) missed out on the big party since 2003, but it certainly wasn't unexpected. The Tar Heels lost 10 out of 12 games during a midseason swoon, and were beaten by Georgia Tech in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.

Connecticut (17-15) is the other blueblood relegated to the NIT, also picked as a fourth seed after making the Final Four last season.

The Huskies had a trying season in which coach Jim Calhoun missed several games with an undisclosed medical condition. They made a run in February to renew their NCAA tournament hopes, but head into their NIT opener against Northeastern coming off four straight losses, including a 73-51 rout by St. John's in the Big East tournament.

"With a quick glance at the bracket, it looks like the field is remarkably tough," Calhoun said. "There are plenty of teams that were in position to make the NCAA tournament, and I think that with all of the parity in the field, it will be very difficult to win and advance."

The NIT begins Tuesday on campuses with the championship April 1 at Madison Square Garden.

The No. 1 seeds were Illinois, Arizona State, Virginia Tech and Mississippi State, all teams that spent Sunday hoping for NCAA tournament bids.

The Bulldogs may have had the most emotional afternoon. They blew a five-point lead with 2:28 left in the Southeastern Conference championship game against Kentucky, eventually losing 75-74 in overtime and with the game, their NCAA tournament berth.

"We had our opportunities to close it out. That's part of the game," Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury said. "And I can promise you, there's not one ounce left in them."

Mississippi State will open the tournament against in-state rival Jackson State, which got an automatic berth to the NIT by winning the Southwestern Athletic Conference regular-season title.

The winner will get North Carolina or No. 5 seed William & Mary, while the other half of their bracket includes No. 3-seeded South Florida against North Carolina State and No. 2 seed Alabama-Birmingham against Big South regular-season champ Coastal Carolina.

Virginia Tech watched its bubble burst for the third straight year, and will open the NIT against Quinnipiac. The Hokies (23-8) had a better overall and ACC record than Wake Forest, which made the NCAA tournament, but were done in by a poor RPI and strength of schedule.

"I'm very proud of my team. We've had a great run," Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg said. "It will be a tough job to get my guys up and ready to play, but that's my job."

The Hokies could meet Connecticut in the second round, assuming both teams win. Wichita State has the third seed in the region and will play Nevada, while Rhode Island received a No. 2 seed and will open the tournament against Northwestern.

"We went 12-1 nonconference, we beat teams from the Big East, Big 12, ACC," said Rhode Island coach Jim Baron, who hoped a semifinal run in the Atlantic 10 tournament would be enough to make the NCAA bracket. "We certainly worked our way in to be right there."

Illinois will play Stony Brook in its opening game. Elsewhere in its region, Kent State plays Tulsa, Dayton plays Illinois State, and second-seeded Cincinnati gets Weber State.

Arizona State will open against Jacksonville, with the winner getting Seton Hall or Texas Tech in the second round. Second-seeded Mississippi opens against Troy, while third-seeded Memphis plays St. John's.


Associated Press Writer Pat Eaton-Robb contributed to this report.