Confession: After the first half of Virginia’s first-round NIT game against Norfolk State declined into an eyesore, I paid scant attention. The Cavaliers are better than the Spartans, and I presumed talent and pedigree would prevail.
So courtesy of the clicker, off to more aesthetic contests I went. Kentucky-Robert Morris; St. John’s-Saint Joseph’s. Even, for a spell, Middle Tennessee State-Saint Mary’s.
But unsightly as its 67-56 victory may have been, props to Virginia.
A first-round NIT date can be one of college basketball’s most challenging tasks. If, like Virginia, you’ve spent the previous month on the fringe of NCAA tournament contention, and if, like the Cavaliers, you play in a power conference and were denied on Selection Sunday, the rejection stings.
Barely 48 hours after that disappointment, you’re playing, often against an obscure opponent.
Virginia (22-11) certainly displayed that natural lethargy Tuesday before finally dispatching Norfolk State behind 15 points each from Justin Anderson and Akil Mitchell. The Cavaliers committed 17 turnovers, two shy of their season-high, missed 12 free throws and couldn’t pull away until late.
“I feel like we came out with a little bit of a hangover,” Mitchell said in quotes posted on VirginiaSports.com. “We were upset we didn’t make it into the NCAA tournament, and I think we were sort of overlooked this team.”
The win leaves Virginia one-third of the way to New York’s Madison Square Garden and an NIT semifinal appearance that history says would bode well for next season.
Virginia won the 1992 NIT, defeating Florida and Notre Dame in New York, the latter in an overtime championship game. A year later, with returnees such as Junior Burrough, Cory Alexander and Jason Williford, the Cavaliers reached the Sweet 16.
A year after winning the 1980 NIT in Ralph Sampson’s freshman season, besting UNLV and Minnesota in Madison Square Garden, Virginia advanced to the program’s first Final Four.
And while an NIT run to MSG doesn’t always translate to an NCAA appearance, there’s no denying the benefits.
First, it gets players and coaches accustomed to the whimsical rhythms of March, when short turn-arounds and unfamiliar opponents are the rule.
Second, it breeds confidence and creates hunger among returning players – Virginia’s lone significant senior is point guard Jontel Evans.
Ask North Carolina. Its worst season under Roy Williams ended with an NIT championship loss to Dayton in 2010. The Tar Heels won the ACC’s regular season the following year and reached the NCAA Elite Eight.
Similarly, after winning the 1995 NIT, Virginia Tech earned its first NCAA bid in 10 years and advanced to the second round, where the Hokies fell to eventual national champion Kentucky.
Those NITs were a good ol’ boys club, replete with back-room deals. Today’s NIT is administered by the NCAA and guarantees bids to regular-season conference champions that stumble in their league tournaments and do not make the NCAAs.
And how cool is that? Without such provision, there’s no way Norfolk State, 16-0 in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference before a quarterfinal loss in the league tournament, gets in the NIT. Same probably holds for the Northeast Conference’s Robert Morris, first-round slayer Tuesday of defending national champion Kentucky.
While NIT bids are consolation prizes to programs such as Virginia, and unacceptable to the likes of Carolina and Kentucky, they are big darn deals to the likes of Norfolk State, Robert Morris and 2010 participant William and Mary.
So good on tournament honchos for including them.
Next up for Virginia is St. John’s, which finished 11th in the 16-team Big East, 8-10 in conference. Led by former UCLA coach and ESPN talking head Steve Lavin, the Red Storm defeated Saint Joseph’s 63-61 Tuesday on Sir'Dominic Pointer’s contested jumper at the buzzer.
The victory ended a five-game losing streak for St. John’s (17-15).
Like the Cavaliers, the Red Storm is stout defensively. But Lavin’s team is positively dreadful on offense, ranking 308th nationally in effective field goal percentage, 340th in 3-point accuracy – those ratings courtesy of Ken Pomeroy.
Playing at home, where it’s won 18 straight, against an offensively challenged opponent, albeit one from the Big East, should be right in Virginia’s wheelhouse and leave Bennett’s team one victory shy of reaching the NIT semifinals in New York.
Such an experience would only fuel the suspicion that next season the NIT will be far below the Cavaliers’ pay grade.
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