College basketball is a magical thing, and we fans are on a collision course for three of the finest weekends of the year. The brackets are out and being pored over.
The one seeds are dealing with the pressure, the Cinderellas are still to be determined, and only one team gets to walk away from this 2008-'09 season with a win and a trophy.
Actually, two teams get to do that.
The NIT, which is undoubtedly the red-headed stepchild of the college tournament world, gets no respect. But as a Northwestern fan, this year I'm finally going to change that. How 'bout some love for the little guys? Here are five reasons to love, or at least to enjoy, the National Invitation Tournament this year.
5. NCAA opening round games start Thursday...Today is Tuesday
Only 50-some hours before anything actually happens in those brackets we've all been agonizing over. EXCEPT...the NIT opening round games start today! And they're on the ESPN Network. That's right. Real, live college basketball, and even better, none of these games can ruin your precious bracket.
4. Cinderellas past and present
Just a few short years ago, George Mason shocked the world by crashing the Final Four. This year, they're a seven-seed in the NIT, and they are slated to duel overachieving Penn State (who probably deserved Arizona's NCAA bid) and Big Ten Coach of the Year Ed DeChellis.
3. Which brings me to No. 3: Great coaches
Yeah, you can find your Boeheims, Calhouns, Roy Williamses, and so on, in the Big Dance, but the Little Big Dance features some serious non-slouches, too! Billy Donovan's Florida team is a one seed in the NIT and plays in-state (not quite) rival Jacksonville in the first round.
Dana Altman and Creighton have another one seed. And Tony Bennett's Washington State squad finds themselves in a West Coast throwdown tomorrow against Patrick Mills and St. Mary's, another bubble team done wrong.
These are only a few of the superb coaches battling in the NIT this season.
2. Speaking of Patrick "Patty" Mills (Happy St. Paddy's Day!), how 'bout the collegiate superstars of this years' NIT? In addition to Mills, Stephen Curry and Davidson are doing the Little Dance, and play South Carolina in the first round.
Luke Harangody (Remember him from preseason POY speculation?) and underachieving Notre Dame play University of Alabama-Birmingham, who feature their own beast of the three, Robert Vaden.
I didn't even mention Mike Davis in Number Three! (Okay, so maybe that wasn't an accident.) And how about Jodie Meeks of Kentucky? He dropped 54 in a game earlier this year, and gets another chance to do it at home against UNLV tonight on ESPN.
1. Ladies and gentlemen, Northwestern University! My Wildcats have never gone to the NCAA Tournament. Never. Literally, every other high-conference, any other mid-major conference team, has gone to the tourney at least once in the last 60-odd years.
Well, Bill Carmody, Kevin Coble, and senior guard Craig Moore came so close this year that the 'Cats faithful could literally taste the dance.
One more win, whether against Illinois at home, at Purdue in a heartbreaker, or against Minnesota this past weekend in the Big Ten Tourney, and the Wildcats could have been dancing.
They start Wednesday against Tulsa, and if they win that game, they get SEC up-and-comer Auburn in Round Two. I'm rooting hard for these Cinderella 'Cats to join whoever ends up taking down the real nets in Detroit, and finish 2009 with a win and a banner to raise.