Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer, March 13, 2012
Three Big Ten men's teams got NIT slots and two of them play tonight. No. 7 seed Iowa hosts No. 2 seed Dayton and No. 4 seed Northwestern faces visiting No. 5 seed Akron. No. 6 seed Minnesota plays at No. 3 La Salle on Wednesday.
Why it matters: The Hawkeyes are a young team with a bright future under second-year Fran McCaffrey, who went 11-20 in his first year in Iowa City. How postseason starved is Iowa? This is the program?s first postseason appearance since a trip to the NCAA in 2006 under Steve Alford, who has New Mexico in the Big Dance for the second time in three years this March. That hurts. Since Alford left, Todd Lickliter has come and gone, and McCaffrey has taken over.
The Hawkeyes haven?t won a postseason game since advancing to the Elite Eight of the NIT in 2003. The roster is loaded with young talent, including the likes of Roy Devyn Marble, Melsahn Basabe, Zach McCabe, Josh Oglesby, Aaron White-who all are freshmen or sophomores. The chance to play additional games will be a boon to this program, which finished the season on an up note by winning six of its last 11 games following a slow start. The future begins now for Iowa, as a trip to the NCAA tourney in 2013 may find its beginnings in the NIT this March. You should be excited, Hawkeyes.
Why it matters: Look, this isn?t where the Wildcats want to be. The program came THISCLOSE to earning its first NCAA bid ever. Alas, a first-round loss in the Big Ten tourney likely ended the program?s NCAA dreams. So, here?s Northwestern, back in the NIT for a fourth season in a row. The event will give the Wildcats a chance to wash away the bad taste of the Big Ten tourney and heartache of not breaking through the NCAA glass ceiling. And it also will give all-time leading scorer John Shurna a chance to go out on a high note, which he deserves.
Yes, NU will miss Shurna next season, but there still will be a nice foundation back in players like Dave Sobolewski, Drew Crawford. Reggie Hearn and JerShon Cobb. So, adding more postseason experience-even though it?s the NIT, again-can only help the roster in its quest to finally get over the NCAA hurdle next season. Hey, Chicago Cubs fans can sympathize, Northwestern-if that?s any consolation to you, which it probably isn?t.
Why it matters: Many were ready to stick a fork in the Golden Gophers after they went 2-8 down the stretch. But Minnesota showed life in the Big Ten tourney, first ending Northwestern?s NCAA dreams by beating the Wildcats in overtime in the opening round before falling in overtime to Michigan in the quarterfinals. And the team did this without Ralph Sampson III, the team?s lone senior who was out the Big Ten tourney with a bad back but will play in the NIT. In the process, Minnesota saw the continued emergence of freshman guard Dre Hollins, who earned All-Tournament team honors in the Big Ten tourney.
Now, the Gophers can keep playing, developing a roster that will return almost every significant piece as it looks to win a postseason game for the first time since winning an open-round game in the 2007 NCAA tourney. Players like Rodney Williams, Julian Welch, Austin Hollins, Chip Armelin, Joe Coleman, Elliott Eliason and, yes, Dre Hollins all will be back. And Trevor Mbakwe has petitioned for a sixth-year of eligibility after suffering a season-ending knee injury in November. So, the more seasoning these players can get, the better it will be for 2012-13 squad that will look to get Minnesota back to the Big Dance for the first time since 2010.
Tom Dienhart is a senior writer for BTN.com Find Dienhart?s work at www.btn.com/tomdienhart, follow him on Twitter at @BTNTomDienhart, send a question to his weekly mailbag here, and click here to subscribe to his overall RSS feed.