How the Huskies embraced the NIT and landed in a different Final Four
Washington men are playing Minnesota in the NIT semifinals Tuesday because they swallowed the bitter disappointment of missing the NCAA tournament.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Minnesota vs. Washington,
6 p.m., ESPN2
NEW YORK — Rather than Bourbon Street and the French Quarter, the Huskies are taking in the sights of Broadway and Times Square.
Yes, they made it to the Final Four, just not the NCAA tournament's Final Four in New Orleans.
If you push them, they'll admit the 75th annual National Invitation Tournament title wasn't the championship they coveted, but it's the one they've come to embrace.
"We're taking this pretty seriously," Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said. "I think our guys are excited to be a part of this now. I don't think our guys understood it initially what this was about.
"If you've never participated in this before, then all you hear about is this is the JV tournament. Now that we're in it and we're here in New York, you get to see what it's all about, and it's pretty special."
Propped up by the support of the NCAA and ESPN, the NIT touts its tradition as college basketball's oldest postseason tournament while trying to remain relevant against the backdrop of March Madness.
Part of C.M. Newton's job as chairman of the NIT selection committee is promoting the tourney and educating fans and players on its historical value.
"Look at the teams on that championship trophy and those names," he said, pointing at the MVP trophy. "You're talking about some of the greats to ever play the game, like George Mikan, Lenny Wilkens, Walt Frazier and Reggie Miller."
Before the semifinals Tuesday, Newton plans to address the teams at a banquet in Central Park. His message will be simple.
"What I plan to tell those young men is that they are a part of history," he said. "This has already been a fantastic tournament partly because of the unpredictable nature of the games so far, and I expect these next two days will be even better."
The only sure thing in the NIT has been top-seeded Washington (24-10), which won three home games to punch its ticket to New York. Meanwhile, the Huskies' semifinal opponent, sixth-seeded Minnesota (22-14), has won three road games.
The teams meet at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Madison Square Garden after a semifinal between Stanford (24-11) and Massachusetts (25-11).
"It's been good for us to get on the road because you leave an environment where there's disappointment from not making the NCAA tournament," Minnesota coach Tubby Smith said. "We've been able to find ourselves, so to speak. Getting away has been beneficial. It's helped us shake free from some things, push the reset button and get at it once again."
By nature there's a redemptive quality about the NIT, which gives teams a chance to make amends for regular-season shortcomings.
Minnesota lost its best player, Trevor Mbakwe, after just seven games.
The senior forward was a preseason All-American before suffering a season-ending knee injury in November.
The Golden Gophers also have missed senior center Ralph Sampson III, who sat out the past five games and is questionable for Tuesday with a right knee sprain.
"We had all types of injuries, and the Big Ten is not a conference that's very forgiving when you're banged up," Smith said. "If you're not well and healthy and playing your best, you're going to get beat."
Washington's recent resurgence has been tied to sophomore guard Terrence Ross, who has a tournament-leading 26.3 scoring average.
Romar admitted he had to prod the Huskies into taking the NIT serious before the Texas-Arlington opener, but everyone has been committed to winning a championship since the second-round victory over Northwestern.
"In the back of our minds, we realized we blew a golden opportunity when we missed the NCAA tournament," he said. "And subconsciously maybe we need to make up for that. We can make up for it by being ready and doing everything in our power to be the best we can be in these two games."
Percy Allen: 206-464-2278 or email@example.com. On Twitter @percyallen.