The 2018 NIT championship isn't where Penn State or Utah expected to be when the men's basketball season began.
While the competition isn't as prestigious as the NCAA men's basketball tournament, the Nittany Lions and Utes took their runs to Thursday's final at Madison Square Garden seriously.
Maybe in another season, when the Big Ten and Pac-12 aren't as down as they were, we would see both teams in the Big Dance, but closing out the season with a victory and a championship is always nice.
Penn State knocked off Mississippi State in the NIT Final Four Tuesday to reach the championship tilt, while Utah dispensed of Western Kentucky in the semifinals.
Date: Thursday, March 29
Time: 7 p.m. ET
Live Stream: Watch ESPN
Penn State Riding Wave Started By 1st Trip to Madison Square Garden
Penn State started March with an unexpected surge in the Big Ten tournament that produced wins over Northwestern and Ohio State before falling to Purdue in the semifinals.
Although they missed out on the NCAA tournament because of a weak resume, the Nittany Lions carried plenty of momentum with them into the NIT.
Pat Chambers' team knocked off Temple in the first round before going on the road to beat Notre Dame and Marquette to reach New York City for the second time in a month.
Driving the Nittany Lions is the potential to send the senior class, led by Shep Garner, out with a championship.
Garner spoke highly of what a championship would do for the program, per Ryne Gery of the Centre Daily Times.
"This is what we all play for," Garner said. "It will be remembered forever. A championship team can't be forgotten. We want to do it."
Garner is one of five players averaging over 10 points per game for the Nittany Lions, with Tony Carr and Lamar Stevens at the top of the chart.
Carr has been the star of the NIT run, as he produced three consecutive 20-point performances after scoring two points in the opener against Temple.
In the semifinal victory over Mississippi State, Penn State knocked down 11 three-pointers, with Garner leading the team with six.
If the Nittany Lions produce the same barrage from downtown in the final, it should be enough to put them in front from start to finish.
If Penn State shoots well and locks down defensively on Utah's Justin Bibbins, a task that's harder than it looks on paper, it should secure its first NIT title since 2009.
Utah Looking to Benefit From Postseason Experience
Utah's upperclassmen are as driven as Penn State's experienced players to come out on top Thursday.
Bibbins, a senior, is the driving force of the Utes, who were one of a few Pac-12 teams that missed out on the Big Dance due to the conference being weak.
Just being in the championship means a ton to Bibbins, but he wants the ideal finish to his collegiate career, as Utah's official team Twitter account noted:
In six games in the Pac-12 tournament and NIT, Bibbins recorded six double-digit point performances, three of which saw him eclipse the 20-point barrier.
Senior Tyler Rawson said the Utes came out a little nervous against Western Kentucky, but he doesn't think that will be the case Thursday, per Lynn Worthy of the Salt Lake Tribune.
"We had the nerves a little bit [Tuesday], but I think those nerves will be gone," Rawson said. "Once that ball gets tossed up, now it's just trying to play as hard as you can and compete the hardest you can because you know there's no tomorrow."
The Utes are no stranger to playing in postseason contests, as they advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament in 2015 and won a first-round game in 2016.
With seven postseason wins in the last four years, Larry Krystkowiak's team enters Thursday's final with the most experience by a mile.
Defensively, the task of containing Carr, Stevens and Garner is not an easy one, but the Utes have seen their share of star players in the Pac-12, which means they shouldn't be intimidated by the talent lining up across from them.
If the Utes win, they will return home with their first postseason title since the 1947 NIT.
Prediction: Utah 67, Penn State 64
Follow Joe on Twitter, @JTansey90.
Statistics obtained from ESPN.com.