While the NCAA Tournament is the goal for every college basketball team heading into the season, not every program is fortunate enough to qualify for the Big Dance. Traditionally, teams that did not earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament only had the NIT as a possible way of gaining postseason experience. However in recent years, other tournaments such as the CBI and CIT have been organized, allowing for more programs to experience postseason play. Postseason tournament play can be a useful way to end the season for any team, giving their respective university national exposure.
This season, the inaugural “Vegas 16” was added to the postseason schedule. While the original goal for the selection committee was to have sixteen teams participate in the tournament, they were only able to receive accepted invitations from eight. One reason why this might be the case is the tournament’s location, the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, Nevada. Taking a group of Division I college basketball players could be seen as a risk for a program given the distractions Las Vegas, more specifically the famous Las Vegas “Strip” of mammoth hotels, casinos, and nightclubs, has to offer. Nonetheless, the tournament would continue despite the large number of declined invitations.
The teams featured in the tournament’s bracket were Old Dominion, Tennessee Tech, UC Santa Barbara, Northern Illinois, Oakland, Towson, Louisiana Tech, and East Tennessee State. The first round games were sparsely attended, as a majority of Las Vegas patrons were interested in gambling on sporting events occurring that night.
The semifinals saw Old Dominion topping UC Santa Barbara, 64-49 behind a stellar 26 point performance from senior guard Aaron Bacote. In the second semifinal game, senior guard Kay Felder propelled Oakland past East Tennessee State by recording a triple-double. Felder scored 29 points, grabbed 10 rebounds, and dished out an equal amount of assists. The Golden Grizzlies also received a terrific shooting effort from senior Max Hooper, who poured in 28 points and shot 8-11 from behind the arc. Ge’Lawn Guyn led the Buccaneers with 18.
This set the stage for a championship game of Old Dominion vs. Oakland, which took place Wednesday night. The championship game of the inaugural “Vegas 16” was without a doubt the most enthralling game of the tournament. Old Dominion was able to withstand a second half surge by the Golden Grizzlies, en route to a 68-67 nailbiter of a win. Senior guard Trey Freeman led the way for the Monarchs, racking up 24 points in his final game in a Monarchs’ uniform. Freeman ranked thirteenth in the country in points per game this season, with 22. Once again, Kay Felder led Oakland with 24 points. However, fellow senior Percy Gibson, who added 13 points, was the only other Golden Grizzly to score in double figures.
Old Dominion brings home the first ever “Vegas 16” tournament title to a newly realigned Conference USA that thoroughly enjoyed conference champion Middle Tennessee’s historic first round upset of Michigan State. Old Dominion finished in fourth place in Conference USA play, posting a 12-6 record, while sporting an overall mark of 25-13. While the “Vegas 16” is far from the NCAA Tournament, seeing two senior-led teams like Oakland and Old Dominion battle for a championship was an exciting way to end each teams’ respective seasons.