Is NIT final better than one-and-done NCAA trip?

Minnesota’s NIT semifinal overtime win over Florida State on Tuesday night wasn’t a thing of beauty. But, it doesn’t matter. The triumph means that the Golden Gophers will play SMU for the NIT title on Thursday night.

If Minnesota beats SMU, it would give the school 25 wins, which would be second most in school history behind only the 1996-97 squad that won 31 games (later vacated). And it also would give Richard Pitino more wins in his first year as a coach than any other active Big Ten coach achieved during their maiden voyage at their current school. It’s a nice first step in Year One for Pitino.

But that got me wondering: Is a run to the NIT Final Four better than going one-and-done in the NCAA tournament?

I think it depends on the circumstance. And, yes, for this Minnesota team, a run to New York City and the NIT Final Four has been better than going one-and-done in the Big Dance.

This is a program in transition under a young, first-year head coach. The experience will do the 31-year-old Pitino well. And it will spread his brand and continue to raise his profile, which will help him sell the Golden Gophers program to recruits.

Pitino and the Gophers have been in the news now for several weeks, getting a prime-time TV spot on Tuesday vs. Florida State. And Minnesota will have a national audience when it plays SMU and Larry Brown for the NIT title on Thursday night in the media capital of the world in the world’s most famous arena: Madison Square Garden.

How is playing and losing an opening NCAA game better than that for this Minnesota team? Those teams that lost the first weekend of the NCAA have long since been forgotten. Even worse, they have stopped playing—and that means they have stopped improving.

Conversely, the Gophers are playing and playing and playing. And that’s always a good thing for a developing program and coach.

And remember: This Minnesota team had modest expectations from pundits. Few, if any, predicted an NCAA bid. So, it’s not like the Gophers veered off a season of great promise and had to settle for the NIT. If anything, Pitino has this team at or beyond its potential this season. And that’s called good coaching.

As for competition, the teams in the NIT compare favorably to many in the NCAA field. Remember, many of the teams in the NIT won their conference titles in the regular season but slipped in the league tourneys. And the others in the NIT were on the fringe of making the NCAA.

I know what you are saying: Minnesota got to the NIT final in 2012. How did that play out? Yes, Tubby Smith was relieved of his duties after the next year, but the Golden Gophers did make the NCAA tournament in 2013. In fact, they won a game. So, no doubt, some of that has to be attributed to the extended experience Minnesota got in making it to the NIT final.

Bottom line: This run in the NIT is just what this Minnesota team needed.

About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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