The third round of the 2014 NIT is the perfect time to tell which teams are in the best position for a trip to Madison Square Garden.
The consolation tournament is one that teams often look to avoid, but sometimes, it's out of their control. No. 1 seeds in this tournament are generally teams snubbed from the NCAA tourney, meaning that they compete with giant chips on their shoulders.
With the field beginning to really narrow, fans and analysts have a good idea of which teams are the best equipped to win the tournament. These are the three teams that have the best shot at taking home the consolation prize for this year's college basketball season.
No. 1 SMU
Led by legendary head coach Larry Brown, the SMU Mustangs were the epitome of a snub from this year's NCAA tournament. Ending the season on a three-game losing streak didn't help, so the Mustangs were forced to settle with the top overall seed in the NIT.
Richard Durrett of ESPNDallas.com points out that Brown told his team and the fans that they need to use this as motivation to get better after learning that the Mustangs wouldn't be dancing: "When things don't go exactly how you planned, you can either pack it in or you can find a way to do better. We need to use this as a way to get better."
And "use this as a way to get better" they did.
SMU defeated UC Irvine, 68-54, in the team's first game of the NIT. Cannen Cunningham, Ben Moore and Nick Russell all scored in double figures in the team's first NIT win since 2000.
The Mustangs defeated four ranked teams this season, and their resume is pretty strong. They are deserving of the tournament's top seed. Other teams know that they need to start games shooting lights-out to have a fighter's chance.
This team is the best in the NIT.
No. 1 Minnesota
Golden Gophers head coach Richard Pitino recognized the disappointment in not making the NCAA tournament, but he was also excited to continue the season with his team. Amelia Rayno of StarTribune.com points out that Pitino is excited to play for the NIT championship:
"While we are obviously disappointed that we were not selected for the NCAA tournament field, we are extremely excited about the opportunity to continue our season in the NIT," Pitino said in a release. "There is nothing better than the opportunity to play for a championship, and our players and staff are looking forward to the challenge."
Minnesota has a strong chance of winning the NIT, and not just because of their high seeding. This team scores well and distributes the ball well, resulting in plenty of open looks for leading scorers Andre Hollins and DeAndre Mathieu.
The two will play a crucial role in Minnesota's pursuit of the championship. When teams double one of the scorers, the other will be given open looks and lanes to drive through. Both players need to capitalize on the opportunities when they present themselves.
The Golden Gophers have a tough draw against a St. Mary's team that dropped 70 points on Utah, but they're well-equipped to advance.
No. 5 Belmont
The Belmont Bruins have their sights set on Madison Square Garden.
They upset Green Bay in the first round of the NIT, then took on No. 8 Robert Morris—the team that upset No. 1 St. John's in the first round. Needless to say, Robert Morris wasn't taken lightly.
Belmont rolled through the Colonials, however. J.J. Mann scored 25 points in the 82-71 win. Mann has been a part of several successful Bruins teams during his career, as David Climer of tennessean.com points out:
Now Belmont must reload as it charts a different postseason course. For one thing, the NIT gives Mann and fellow senior Blake Jenkins a chance to build on an enviable record. Over the past four years, they have been part of teams that are 107-29 overall and 72-8 in conference games.
With so much success in recent years, the Bruins have created a strong reputation as a team that knows how to win. The NIT will give them the perfect outlet to finally bring home a championship.
This team has the depth, motivation and track record to surprise the remainder of the field and win the championship.