The 2014 National Invitational Tournament championship will be contested between two powerhouse programs that just missed out on making the NCAA tournament field, as the SMU Mustangs are set to clash with the Minnesota Golden Gophers on Thursday evening.
Both of these teams clearly had a chip on their shoulder coming into the NIT and have consistently proved their worth on the way to this title run. However, only one side will come away from this clash with a championship and that should make for a thrilling conclusion to this tournament.
Keep reading for a look at the NIT championship schedule, plus an updated bracket, predictions on the outcome of this contest and more.
Date: Thursday, April 3, 2014
Time: 7 p.m. ET
Where: Madison Square Garden, New York, N.Y.
Live Stream: WatchESPN
Updated Bracket: Courtesy of CBS Sports
Betting Info: SMU opened as three-point favorites; the total was 132. (Compare NIT lines and consensus on the Odds Shark matchup report)
Despite the NIT’s standing as a less important event when compared to the NCAA tournament, there will be plenty more on the line than just pride when the Mustangs and Golden Gophers take the floor on Thursday evening.
For SMU, it represents a return to relevance after years of toiling away out of the spotlight. This program may have narrowly missed being one of the 68 schools selected to the Big Dance, but that hasn’t stopped the players from competing hard and attempting to capture some hardware.
Freelance NCAA Hoops writer Bill Riccette pointed out that this deep run through the NIT could serve as a strong foundation to build on for the 2014-15 campaign:
Great to see that SMU didn't just roll over after being left out of the NCAA Tournament. Great springboard for next season.— Bill Riccette (@Bill_Riccette) April 2, 2014
ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla noted an interesting fact concerning past NIT champions and their recent success in the NCAA tourney:
So NIT title is meaningless but three of last four champs were in Sweet 16 and fourth, Wichita State, undefeated until they met Kentucky.— Fran Fraschilla (@franfraschilla) April 2, 2014
If the Mustangs win, head coach Larry Brown would become the first person in history to win an NBA Finals, NCAA championship and NIT championship, as per ESPN Stats & Info:
If SMU wins the NIT tmr night, Larry Brown would be the only coach to win an NBA (Pistons), NCAA (Kansas) and NIT championship.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 2, 2014
Which team will win?
That should be plenty of motivation for the Mustangs to finish their renaissance season on a high note. However, the 73-year-old coach and his band of unheralded players from Texas aren’t going to be able to just waltz in to the Garden and hang a banner.
The Golden Gophers are also playing angry, having been snubbed from March Madness despite a respectable season in the rock-solid Big Ten conference.
According to Adam Zagoria of SNY.tv, first-year head coach Richard Pitino outright admitted that his school, along with its opponent in the NIT championship, had the credentials to make the NCAA tournament field:
Richard Pitino says the two teams in the NIT finals -- SMU and Minny -- "really had the best argument to get into the NCAA Tournament."— Adam Zagoria (@AdamZagoria) April 2, 2014
Minnesota likely used that rejection as incentive to dig deep and come away with a thrilling overtime win in the NIT semifinals. The team managed to edge Florida State, 67-64, on Tuesday despite not making a single field goal in extra time.
Now that the Golden Gophers are in the final, they have a chance to put Pitino in rare company, as per ESPN Stats & Info:
If Minnesota wins the NIT tomorrow night, Richard Pitino would become the 8th coach ever to win an NIT title in his first season at a school— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 2, 2014
This coaching battle will draw plenty of media attention, with the 31-year-old Minnesota coach calling his counterpart on the SMU sideline one of the greatest in the game, as per the Associated Press (via ESPN):
It's so cool to see a guy like him is still so passionate about the game. I've got a lot of respect for him -- a lot of respect. He's one of the greatest coaches in this game.
Expect to see plenty of tricks and some sleight of hand in what should be a thrilling chess match between a grizzled veteran coach and an up-and-coming star in the ranks. It’s going to be a close matchup, but ultimately, experience wins and SMU should narrowly come away with a victory.
Prediction: SMU 68 – Minnesota 65