Previewing the NIT Season Tip-Off semis

NEW YORK -- The NIT Season Tip-Off had a rather pedestrian look to it when the four host schools were announced last year.

Syracuse was the class of the event, while the other three hosts were hardly locks to even reach New York. Seeing Virginia Tech upset by George Mason, Stanford by Colorado State and Oklahoma State by Texas-San Antonio wouldn’t have been far-fetched possibilities.

Tech never faced Mason as Florida International took down the Patriots before falling to the injury-riddled Hokies. The Cardinal got past the Rams and is one of the few Pac-12 teams feeling quite good about itself two weeks into the season. And the Cowboys made a remarkable comeback against UTSA (down 11 late) at home, winning in overtime to reach New York.

The difference with the NIT Season Tip-Off and the rest of these early-season tournaments is that the four hosts are not guaranteed a spot in the semifinals.

“You have to earn your way here,’’ said Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins.

Two schools will be playing in the backdrop of difficult news stories. Oklahoma State’s men’s team, especially head coach Travis Ford, is coaching and playing against Stanford with a heavy heart after the tragic plane crash claimed four lives, including head women’s basketball coach Kurt Budke and assistant Miranda Serna. The team and staff feel a bit awkward not being in Stillwater helping the women’s team through their grief. Instead, they will face Stanford Wednesday night (ESPN2, 7 ET).

Syracuse’s players may not be distracted or affected, but the coaching staff has been slammed by the news that Bernie Fine is on administrative leave for allegations that he molested two ball boys two decades ago while on the staff. That move prompted Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim to move favored alumnus Gerry McNamara to a coaching/recruiting role on the bench where he’ll be for Wednesday night's matchup against the Hokies (ESPNU, 9:30 ET).

On the court, here are the questions heading into Wednesday's games:

How good is Syracuse?

Boeheim said the Orange hasn’t been seriously tested yet. Syracuse will be the home team in Madison Square Garden, but the bigger question is will it be pushed? The Orange big men are still a work in progress. But C.J. Fair, Fab Melo and Rakeem Christmas have been more than serviceable. They are rebounding well enough and can continue to show progress in this tournament. Virginia Tech is depleted inside so this is a chance for any of those three players to shine.

The Orange is playing essentially 11 players, but could easily trim that down to a more manageable seven in crunch time. The perimeter of James Southerland, Dion Waiters, Kris Joseph, Brandon Triche and Scoop Jardine are the core of this group and should continue to lead it throughout the season.

Melo is in much better condition, and that’s helping his game. Waiters has excelled as a defensive player. But, as Boeheim said Tuesday, this team hasn’t faced adversity yet so he’s not sure what will occur.

“We haven’t been tested at all yet,’’ Boeheim said.

Syracuse may get pushed this week in New York. But if it doesn’t happen here, it will happen against Florida on Dec. 2 in the SEC/Big East Challenge, possibly against Marshall at the Carrie Dome (Dec. 6) or on Dec. 17 at NC State.

How much will Oklahoma State’s freshmen excel in this environment?

The Cowboys haven’t received publicity yet. But they have two of the more intriguing freshmen in the country. Six-foot guard Cezar Guerrero is a mini version of Ford.

Guerrero has the green light to shoot 3-pointers, and was 8-of-17 from long range against UTSA. The Cowboys took 38 3-point shots against the Roadrunners, making 14 of them. Guerrero hit a combined 2-for-6 3s in the two previous games against Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. He finished with 29 points in the win over UTSA and is averaging 15 points a game. Guerrero may have to do even more with Keiton Page still nursing a turf toe on his right foot. Page was in a walking boot Tuesday but said he expects to play against Stanford.

The third-leading scorer is the freshmen with the hype: Le'Bryan Nash. Nash has been averaging 12 points and 6.3 rebounds per game, but has been a bit subdued. He is certainly capable of putting up even more impressive numbers.

Stanford will have its hands full trying to check both of these players. But this is also the first time the Cowboys have been on this stage. Oklahoma State scheduled well and will return to MSG to play Pitt on Dec. 10.

How much momentum does Stanford have?

Plenty. The Cardinal took a major hit when Jeremy Green decided to stay in the NBA draft, despite not being drafted. But the team hasn’t made any excuses. Sophomore Aaron Bright has led this squad with important contributions from senior Josh Owens and freshman Chasson Randle.

The Cardinal beat rebuilding Fresno State and gritty Colorado State to get to New York. Dawkins said he’s looking to change the expectation of winning at Stanford. The program had a rich history under Mike Montgomery, and Trent Johnson was able to continue it with the Lopez twins. But Stanford went through a major rebuilding stretch, which meant it has missed the NCAA tournament during Dawkins’ tenure.

Dawkins is from Duke, so he’s obviously set a high bar.

“We want to have a standard of excellence,’’ Dawkins said. “I want to have the vision that we had at Duke.’’

If there ever was a year to move up in the Pac-12, it might be this one. So far this season, the most consistent teams in the league have been Arizona, Oregon State and, until the Golden Bears' blowout loss Tuesday night to Mizzou, Cal. Stanford can join that company with a strong showing in New York.

Will Virginia Tech emerge as a legitimate candidate and compete for a top-four finish in the ACC?

That spot is open behind North Carolina, Duke and Florida State. Virginia had the inside track -- and may still be the one -- but it struggled a bit in the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands. NC State has the talent to be the fourth-best team. The Wolfpack nearly beat Vanderbilt before an impressive 18-point comeback win over Texas in the Legends Classic consolation game. Miami is depleted inside. Clemson had the look of a top-four team, but then lost to Coastal Carolina at home.

Now it’s Virginia Tech’s turn to see what it can do in late November.

The Hokies are playing without big man J.T. Thompson, who tore his ACL for the second-straight season. But that injury has opened up more time for freshman big man Dorian Finney-Smith, who is averaging a team-high 11 boards and dishing out a team-best 4.3 assists a game.

But it doesn’t help that junior guard Erick Green is nursing a strained Achilles. He didn’t play in the opener against East Tennessee State, but did see action against Monmouth and Florida International, scoring in double figures in both games. While Green heals, the Hokies are leaning even more on Dorenzo Hudson to score. Hudson, who was limited to only nine games last season due to injury, is the go-to player without Malcolm Delaney. He was a perfect 12-for-12 from the line and scored 31 points in the win over FIU.

“We’ve got young guys up front and experienced guards,’’ said Va. Tech coach Seth Greenberg. “We’re understanding who we are.’’

And that’s a defensive-minded team. The Hokies have limited their opponents to 7 of 50 shooting so far. That’s just 14 percent.

“This is a very unselfish team that shares the ball,’’ Greenberg said.

Expectation: Syracuse has the most talent and is the only ranked team. The Orange should win both games. But whoever gets out of here with a split will have strong momentum going into December. And all three -- Oklahoma State, Stanford and Virginia Tech -- have higher ceilings this season than originally projected.