There are many early season opportunities for teams to get on the map, legitimize themselves, and help their seeding for the NCAA Tournament. One of the most exciting opportunities is the Preseason NIT, which is an early season tournament involving 16 teams. Not all of these 16 teams are legitimate opponents, but the top 4 seeds should be solid teams that should be able to do some big things this year. These include Michigan, Virginia, Kansas State, and Pittsburgh. All of these teams except Pitt made it to the NCAA Tournament last year and are in position for another solid year.
Michigan is undoubtedly the favorite for this tournament, but actually winning the tournament could be more challenging than many assume. The Wolverines only have to win 4 games to get the championship and will be heavily favored through the first two rounds, but every game has the potential to be a trap. Michigan's first opponent, IUPUI, will probably be blown off the map, but the next round matchup with Cleveland State should be a little more challenging.
I think the odds are pretty strong that Michigan at least advances to the 3rd round, given that the games will be against two overmatched teams in Ann Arbor. Just about everybody will agree with that statement, but can anybody picture a team like IUPUI coming into Ann Arbor and beating Michigan? I think Cleveland State could challenge for awhile if they come out playing hard and Michigan starts slowly, but Michigan should ultimately just be too much for either team.
This is where things get interested. Assuming Michigan wins the first two games, which seems likely, they will most likely be matched up against Pitt. Jamie Dixon is a very good coach and although Pitt didn't have the greatest season last year, he has a very good track record. They aren't ranked right now, but they were in the receiving votes category and clearly have the potential to move up quickly. They are known for great defense and that will definitely be a challenge for Michigan's offense when the two teams face.
Pittsburgh has a pretty talented roster with a lot of experience. Some of the names to remember are Tray Woodall, Lamar Patterson, and Central Michigan transfer Trey Zeigler, who many Michigan fans wanted to come to Ann Arbor. I expect these three players to carry the bulk of the load, but Pitt also brought in two ESPN100 players (C Steven Adams, and PG James Robinson) that will probably be getting some playing time this season. Adams is already projected as a starter and was one of the best players in the 2012 recruiting class.
I think Pitt will be a challenge for Michigan, but I think the Wolverines will prove to be too deep and too talented for the Panthers. Yes, they should have some talented players like Zeigler and Adams that will make it a challenge, but Michigan will have guys like Burke, Hardaway, and McGary. I just can't see Pitt being able to match up with Michigan's backcourt, which I think will be enough for the Wolverines to move to the NIT Final.
It's hard to project the team that will win the other half of the bracket, which is why I won't analyze either team too much, but I would be excited about either matchup. Virginia was a very good team last year and actually beat Michigan in the regular season matchup. This could make for some interesting storylines and show that Michigan truly is better than last year. Kansas State has also been pretty good recently, but they just brought in Bruce Weber, the former coach of Illinois, which will make for some question marks. The way Michigan handled Illinois last season would definitely be on Weber's mind and would add to the interest of this game.
It's way too hard to predict who will win a tournament with 16 teams and 15 games leading to the championship round, but you have to like Michigan's odds. What is nice about this tournament, as opposed to the Maui Invitational from last year, is that these teams are pretty good, but not elite. This means that Michigan will most likely win and net some momentum for the season and the NCAA Tournament seeding without the challenge of upsetting a powerhouse. Of course, Michigan could lose, but this could be one of the best chances to establish themselves on the national scene.
Here is the bracket, credit to UMHoops: