NIT serving as second chance for NYC-bound teams

NIT: Men's Basketball  - K J McDaniels

Photo by Mark Crammer

NIT: Men's Basketball - K J McDaniels

Most college basketball fans are focusing on the Final Four that begins next weekend in Texas.

But the players and coaches who populate the final four teams standing in the National Invitation Tournament are in a New York state of mind.

Tuesday's NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden feature Clemson (23-12) vs. Southern Methodist (26-9) at 7 p.m. game followed by Florida State (22-13) vs. Minnesota (23-13) in the nightcap.

NIT semis preview: Clemson v. SMU

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The winners will face off at 7 p.m. on Thursday in the title matchup.

No national championship is on the line, but merely competing for major college basketball's consolation prize has its own rewards.

"Well, I've said all along we're going through a process with these youngsters," Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said. "You can't make progress until you go through the process. This opportunity that we have now to participate in a postseason tournament and extending it to going to the Final Four of the NIT is a tremendous opportunity for growth as young as we are."

The Seminoles were considered NCAA Tournament contenders for much of the 2013-14 campaign, but finished 9-9 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, losing their regular season finale to Syracuse and falling to Virginia in the second round of the ACC Tournament.

That left them on the outside of the Big Dance looking in, but established the 'Noles as a top seed in their NIT quadrant.

"For these guys getting this experience playing different teams with different styles and different systems can't do anything but help out our growth and give us an opportunity for us to learn more about how we have to play against different competition to be successful," Hamilton said.

SMU is not only using the NIT as on-the-job training for 2014-15, but as an "I told you so" event.

Despite finishing in the Top 25 in both major polls, a loss to Houston in the opening round of the American Athletic Conference Tournament resulted in a snub by the NCAA Selection Committee.

"It's big, not only for the fact that we get to go to the Garden, but that we made it this far," said Mustang senior guard Nick Russell, who has started 34 of his team's 35 games. "I guess it was a week ago or so we were all bummed that we didn't make the (NCAA) Tournament. So the fact that we were able to make it this far, that's big-time for us. It's just a cherry on top to be able to play at Madison Square Garden.

"When we didn't make the NCAA Tournament, we said that we had to win this tournament to prove them wrong."

The Ponies also have a chance to add to the legacy of their Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown, who already has an NCAA and NBA title on his resume.

Sometimes the NIT is about redemption, and that's the case with Richard Pitino's Minnesota team.

The Golden Gophers finished as runners-up in the event in 2012.

"We went that far and lost in the championship game," said senior guard Austin Hollins, who is second on the team in both scoring (12.1 points per game) and rebounding (5.1 RPG). "We don't want to do that again. We've got a new team, a new coach, and we expect to go in there and win the whole thing."

And Clemson?

Based on preseason expectations – a 14th place finish in the ACC – the Tigers are playing with house money.

Missing out on the NCAA Tournament, however, means Brad Brownell and his players want to make sure the NIT is not a missed opportunity.

The decision: K.J. keeping focus on 'task at hand'

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"As a player and a coach you enjoy going to new environments," Brownell said. "We've gone to some tough environments against the new ACC teams and haven't done well, but we're excited about going to Madison Square Garden."

The NYC trip could be the college basketball swan song for All-ACC wing K.J. McDaniels, although he has yet to announce whether or not he'll make himself available for the NBA Draft.

For now though, the NIT – and SMU – has his full attention.

"I feel like if I go out there and play the way I can play we'll be fine," McDaniels said. "I have to go out with the right mentality. We're trying to win the NIT. It's my first time to play in the postseason and we want to go out with a good feeling."

Follow him on Twitter @adamsonslAIM

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Comments » 1

waran writes:

Is it Tuesday, yet?

I cant wait to see Clemson pay well as a team and then, beat SMU.

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