2011-12 Basketball Game Preview: NIT Season Tip-Off

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The NIT Season Tip-Off event begins tonight in Cassell Coliseum.
Four teams will compete for the right to go to New York City for the semifinals
in Madison Square Garden next week, where the likely opponent will be Syracuse.

#4 seed Virginia Tech will face Monmouth on Monday night, while
#5 seed George Mason will play Florida International. The winners will play on
Tuesday night to see who goes to New York, while the losers will play a
consolation game.

Monmouth Hawks (0-1)

Monmouth is 0-1 on the season following a 106-70 loss to
Villanova over the weekend. The Hawks are a perennial bottom feeder in the RPI,
usually finishing around #300. They are arguably the worst team on Virginia
Tech’s schedule this year, though if the Hokies can use it to springboard
themselves into matchups with George Mason and Syracuse, playing Monmouth will
be worth it.

The Hawks are coached by former North Carolina point guard King
Rice, and he is assisted by former UNC teammates Brian Reese and Derrick Phelps.
There is certainly a Tar Heel flavor on the coaching staff, though Rice and his
assistants have a lot of work to do before they’ll be able to put a quality
product on the court.

Monmouth
Starting Lineup
Pos. Player Ht. Wt. Yr.
G Jesse Steele 5-8 180 Jr.
G Dion Nesmith 6-0 200 Jr.
F Ed Waite 6-3 215 Jr.
F Mike Myers Keitt 6-7 180 Sr.
C Phill Wait 7-1 245 Sr.

Like most small conference teams, the Hawks are very much undersized. Obviously
Phill Wait has great height on the inside, but the Hokies shouldn’t have any
trouble with him, as he had no rebounds against an athletic Villanova team in
Monmouth’s first game.

Virginia Tech played a good defensive game against an East
Tennessee State team that far outclasses the squad that Monmouth will bring to
Cassell Coliseum on Monday night. The Hokies should be able to use their length
advantage to get an easy win and advance to play the winner of the FIU-George
Mason game on Tuesday night.

FIU Golden Panthers (0-0)

Florida International is coached by Isaiah Thomas, which is a
name everyone should be familiar with. Thomas is one of the best point guards in
NBA history, winning an NCAA Championship at Indiana and leading the Detroit
Pistons to two NBA Championships during his outstanding career as a player.

Thomas has been a head coach in the NBA, leading the Indiana
Pacers to the players for three straight seasons. However, his later two-year
tenure with the New York Knicks was a disaster, and thus far his FIU coaching
career hasn’t gone particularly well. The Panthers are just 18-44 in the two
years Thomas has been at the helm.

His team is at a major disadvantage heading in Blacksburg.
Thomas didn’t schedule a game before the tournament. They did play an exhibition
against Florida Memorial, but their first real action will come tonight against
a very good George Mason team who has already defeated the always dangerous
Rhode Island Rams.


FIU Starting Lineup

Pos.

Player

Ht.

Wt.

Yr.
G Phil Taylor 5-10 160 So.
G Jeremy Allen 6-4 190 Sr.
G DeJuan Wright 6-4 185 Sr.
G Tola Akomolafe 6-6 210 Jr.
F Dominique Ferguson 6-9 210 So.

DeJuan Wright is FIU’s top player. The senior wing averaged 14.5
points and 6.7 rebounds last season, which was tops on the team in both
categories. He was a 46.9% three-point shooter, though he only attempted 32
jumpers from the outside on the season. Wright struggled with turnovers however,
with 73 on the season.

Phil Taylor runs the point for FIU, and he struggles shooting
the basketball against taller players. He shot just 33.8% from the field and
29.7% from three-point range last season. Taylor is the godson of former NBA
All-Star Allen Iverson.

Dominique Ferguson is a skilled forward who started as a true
freshman last season for FIU after spending a year at Hargrave Military Academy.
Ferguson averaged 7.1 points and 4.8 rebounds per game in his first season, and
he is expected to be one of the most improved players on the team. He will be
FIU’s top inside scoring threat.

Jeremy Allen averaged 7.4 points per game last season while
shooting 31.7% from three-point range. Like many other FIU players, he struggled
with turnovers at times, but he’ll be counted upon to improve his scoring this
year as a senior. He is a transfer from Central Michigan.

The final starter is Tola Akomolafe, who will play as an
undersized power forward for the Golden Panthers. He averaged 8.3 points and 5.4
rebounds at Mesa Community College last season. He will be playing his first 1-A
game on Monday night against George Mason.

FIU is unlikely to get by George Mason in the opening round. The
Golden Panthers were not a good team last year, and though Isaiah Thomas has a
great basketball pedigree, he is very questionable as a college coach.

George Mason Patriots (1-0)

George Mason is the most accomplished team playing in Blacksburg
over the next two days. Even though former head coach Jim Larranaga departed for
Miami, the Patriots still have the core of their NCAA Tournament team back this
season. Former Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt is now in charge of George Mason,
and Hewitt’s #1 task for this season is not to screw up what should be a good
basketball team.

However, the Patriots are without starting point guard Andre
Cornelius, a senior leader and one of the top three-point shooters on the team.
He has been suspended for the first 10 games of the season. Even without
Cornelius, Mason still managed to beat a solid Rhode Island team 92-90 in
overtime last Friday. This is one of the top mid-major basketball programs in
the country, and after they are finished with FIU on Monday night, you can bet
that they’ll be ready for a matchup with the in-state Hokies on Tuesday.


George Mason Starting Lineup

Pos.

Player

Ht.

Wt.

Yr.
G Bryon Allen 6-3 214 So.
G Vertrail Vaughns 6-2 184 r-So.
G Sherrod Wright 6-4 196 r-So.
F Ryan Pearson 6-6 237 Sr.
F Mike Morrison 6-9 237 Sr.

How Byron Allen plays in place of Andre Cornelius will go a long
way in determining how George Mason fares in the early part of the season. So
far so good, as Allen had nine points and seven assists against Rhode Island in
his first significant college action. He played 36 minutes, and had just two
turnovers. He’s not expected to be a big scorer, because there are plenty of
other players in the lineup who can provide points.

Ryan Pearson had a huge game against Rhode Island, finishing
with 28 points and 12 rebounds. In fact, many people assume that George Mason
relies on the three-point shot simply because they are a mid-major. That’s not
necessarily true, as the Patriots made just two three-pointers against Rhode
Island, yet still managed to score 92 points. Pearson had a big role in that, as
he dominated the interior all night. He’s a guy who can step out and knock down
the open jumper, and he will be a significant challenge for the Hokies. Sticking
with the NBA godfather theme, Pearson’s godfather is Lamar Odom.

Mike Morrison is a steady, sold inside player as well. He
averaged 6.8 points per game last year, and 8.5 as a sophomore, and he’s a solid
rebounder as well. Morrison is a lengthy post player, and he is the team’s top
shot blocker. He had 11 points against Rhode Island, and he made 56.2% of his
shots a season ago.

Vertrail Vaughns and Sherrod Wright make up the rest of George
Mason’s backcourt. Wright missed all of last season with an injury, and he
started and played 39 minutes against Rhode Island. He scored 17 points in that
game after being considered one of George Mason’s question marks coming into the
year.

Vaughns is George Mason’s most reliable outside shooter. He hit
both of his team’s three-pointers against the Rams, and shot 49.3% (33-of-67)
from the outside last season. He’s in the starting lineup for the first time in
his career, and he’s off to a good start after scoring 17 points against Rhode
Island.

On paper, George Mason is the best basketball team in this
tournament, but it remains to be seen how different they will be with Paul
Hewitt as the new head coach. He generally had trouble sustaining success at
Georgia Tech, with the exception of the years where he had NBA lottery talent on
his team, and even then his teams were considered underachievers.

Tournament Thoughts

This one is going to come down to a Tuesday night matchup
between Virginia Tech and George Mason. I look for the Hokies and the Patriots
to get easy wins on Monday night, setting up a big game on Tuesday. We know
Andre Cornelius will be out for the Patriots, but what about Erick Green? He
missed Saturday’s game with East Tennessee State, and his status is still
unknown. I don’t think it would be wise to play him against Monmouth, because
the Hokies won’t have any trouble with the Hawks whether or not Green is on the
court.

I’ve never been a big fan of Paul Hewitt as a coach. I think he
had too many good players to lose so many games at Georgia Tech. His teams
generally don’t play good defense, and so far that’s held true at George Mason,
with the Patriots surrendering 90 points to Rhode Island. Long-term, I don’t
think he’s going to be the best thing for George Mason basketball.

That being said, I think there is still enough Jim Larranaga in
this team that makes them the favorite for the next two days, even though the
game is in Blacksburg. If Erick Green is back for Tuesday night’s game, then
that could change things, but overall the Hokies have too many freshmen playing
key roles.

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