Too often, the NIT gets dismissed as a secondary event where teams that weren't good enough to play in the "real tournament" go just to keep playing games.
That dismissive attitude misses the point of what teams and coaches gain from the experience, as the last two NIT champions (Wichita State in 2011, Stanford in 2012) went to the NCAA tournament the next season.
Looking over the NIT teams this year, with the first round completed, it's easy to pinpoint the teams ready to take the leap next season. But are these teams going to make for a great NIT championship game this year?
Here are the best possible championship games the NIT can hope to see in New York on April 3.
No. 1 SMU vs. No. 1 Minnesota
There wasn't a team with a better argument to be in the NCAA tournament than the SMU Mustangs. Larry Brown has made a world of difference, revitalizing this program and turning into a Top-25 group.
Unfortunately, when your strength of schedule is 135th and nonconference strength of schedule is 303rd, SMU didn't have the weight needed to resonate with the right people.
The good news is SMU's inclusion in the NIT gives it something to build upon for next year. The Mustangs already disposed of UC Irvine in the first round and have a date with LSU on March 24.
It's not like the team is without merit, having victories over Connecticut, Memphis and Cincinnati. SMU also had a three-point loss to a Virginia team that earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Plus, SMU is just a good, fundamentally sound team to watch. The Mustangs shoot well from the floor, hitting on 48.7 percent of their shots, with 15.2 assists per game.
On the other side, Minnesota is a team that hurt itself this year. The Golden Gophers had two quality wins over Ohio State and Wisconsin, but did nothing else against quality opponents to move into the Big 10's top tier.
There are exciting players to keep an eye on with the Gophers, including Andre Hollins and DeAndre Mathieu, the latter being an undersized guard who can shoot the lights out.
No. 1 Florida State vs. No. 8 Robert Morris
This is a case of David vs. Goliath, with Florida State representing the big, evil major conferences and Robert Morris holding the floor for all of the little guys who are always told they don't have a chance.
Robert Morris has already pulled off a surprise by making it to this spot, knocking off top- seed St. John's in the first round, led by Karvel Anderson's brilliant shooting night, as illustrated by ESPN Stats and Information.
Karvel Anderson of Robert Morris with the "around the world" shot chart. He had a career-high 38 points in NIT win pic.twitter.com/j2bsQg3Cyn— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 19, 2014
The Colonials don't have a signature win on their resume, unless you include St. John's, but do have experience against quality teams with losses against Kentucky and Oklahoma State on the resume.
Florida State beat three NCAA tournament teams ranked in the RPI Top 50 (VCU, Massachusetts, Pittsburgh) and could have joined them on that list with a better finish, going 6-6 in its last 12 games.
The Seminoles are a battle-tested group, though they only squeaked by last year's darling Florida Gulf Coast.
No. 4 Georgetown vs. No. 5 Belmont
Georgetown and Belmont are practically old rivals in the postseason, having met once before in the 2012 NCAA tournament. The Hoyas won that game 74-59 as a No. 3 seed before losing to N.C. State in the Round of 32.
The Hoyas have been so Jekyll and Hyde this season that their regular season record of 17-14 tells you everything you need to know. They have size on the inside with Joshua Smith and excellent guards in Markel Starks and Jabril Trawick.
D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera is on the verge of having a breakout tournament. The sophomore scored 32 points in a first-round win against West Virginia.
D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera 2nd half: 7/10 from the field for 23 points and 6 rebounds. Finished the game 9/17 with 32 points and 10 rebounds.— Hoyas247 (@Hoyas247) March 19, 2014
This could be an excellent springboard event for the Hoyas heading into next season, especially after testing themselves with the 26th-hardest nonconference schedule and wins against VCU, Michigan State, Providence, Xavier and Creighton.
Belmont is a team that's had its share of ups and downs this year. The Bruins beat North Carolina early in the year, but saw any hopes of playing in the NCAA tournament evaporate with a loss to Eastern Kentucky in the Ohio Valley tournament.
What makes this game so appealing is the contrast in styles. Georgetown loves to play slow and aggressive in the paint and shutting down an opponent's offense. The Hoyas ranked 41st in opponent shooting percentage and 92nd in points allowed per game.
Belmont doesn't care about defense one bit. The Bruins want to run and gun whenever they can, averaging 80.2 points per game and shooting 50.5 percent from the field. They ranked 272nd in scoring defense out of 351 Division I teams.
The stylistic difference between Georgetown and Belmont will force one side to adjust its playing style in order to win the game. Hopefully we get a chance to see it happen.
Note: All stats courtesy of TeamRankings.com unless otherwise noted.
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