Despite residing firmly in the shadow of the Big Dance, the 2014 NIT tournament has provided thrills worthy of the biggest stage March has to offer.
Individual performances and teams with something to prove after being relegated to the cutting-room floor have put on a show for the ages. Want proof? Two of the quarterfinals contests that decided the semifinals slate came down to last-second shots.
Expect nothing but the same as four teams dance for the right to advance.
When push comes to shove on April 1, there are a few things to keep a close eye on with so much at stake.
Can Florida State Rely on Two Stars and Learn From Mistakes?
Growth is an integral theme in any basketball tournament, but especially in the NIT.
Whether it be personal or as a team, young players have to overcome the fact they were not considered worthy of the Big Dance and must counter with strong mental and physical performances to keep their season alive.
The narrative certainly applies to Florida State.
To fend off Louisiana Tech 78-75 in the prior round, the Seminoles needed a combined 41 points and 17 rebounds from Okaro White and Aaron Thomas. It's a risky endeavor to rely on two players for so much production, but it's even scarier when one considers the team turned the ball over 15 times in the contest.
That sloppy play won't fly against Minnesota, a team that averages 7.4 steals per game as is. It certainly didn't on December 3 in a 71-61 Minnesota victory—where Florida State turned the ball over 17 times.
Even worse, White was silenced under the rim and tallied just four rebounds. Thomas scored just five points. Have the Seminoles learned anything?
Will the Austin Hollins Show Continue?
The Seminoles also know a thing or two about Golden Gophers senior Austin Hollins, who dropped 16 points on them in the win.
Hollins is fresh off a career-high 32 points in an 81-73 victory over the Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles. He carried the team through a rough patch to start things off and kept the momentum going throughout the contest:
"I knocked down some shots early," Hollins said, per Pat Ruff of postbulletin.com. "When you see the ball going through the basket early, it always helps your confidence."
Hollins has been the main reason the Golden Gophers have been on such a tear as of late, which must continue if his team is to advance to the final. The sound overall defense will be there, but the sluggish offense around Hollins is a mighty concern in a rematch with the Seminoles.
Can Anything Stop SMU?
It's a rather simple question that no team has been able to answer this far into the bracket.
Larry Brown's team is on a roll and has an edge most cannot tout considering the Mustangs were one of the last four left out of the Big Dance. Nic Moore's three-pointer to down California in the semifinals has given the team a serious amount of momentum.
The shot to secure the victory is also very telling as to how SMU's matchup with Clemson will go. The Mustangs by and large ignore long-range attempts, which meshes perfectly with the strengths of the Tigers defense.
Defensively, Clemson does not appear to have the clout to match up with the Mustangs. Considering they rank in the top 25 with just 62.3 points allowed per game, fans may be asking this same question before the NIT championship as well.