National Invitation Tournament Championship Recap - (4) Wichita State 66, (1) Alabama 57

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In a month of March defined by the superiority of lower-seeded teams, how fitting was it that the NIT championship was claimed by another mid-range floater against a high seed from a power conference?

While eighth-seeded Butler and 11th-seeded Virginia Commonwealth were preparing to play in the Final Four, the NIT’s 32-team tournament was won on Thursday night in New York by a number-four subregional seed. Yes, Wichita State earned the equivalent of a No. 8 seed in a 64-team or six-round event. The Shockers were placed in the middle of the pack for the other longstanding postseason tournament in major college basketball. Their hopes for a journey to the Big Apple weren’t terribly high when the NIT brackets came out. However, a few pieces of good fortune were promptly converted into victories, and now, the city of Wichita is able to welcome a championship team as it makes a joyous plane flight back to the wheat fields of Kansas.

When Wichita State turned back the Alabama Crimson Tide at Madison Square Garden on the final night of March, the college basketball community was reminded of one underappreciated truth: While making the NCAA Tournament is always preferable to NIT relegation, the experience of winning an NIT championship makes the month of March worthwhile. Teams that get to spend four days in New York and win a title inside The World’s Most Famous Arena are the teams that get to cut down a net, celebrate in a hallowed basketball cathedral, and realize that their season ended with a victory, not a defeat. While the CBI and CIT tournaments, in their still-evolving stages, have not accumulated the national stature or visibility needed to generate a substantial buzz for their respective champions, an NIT run – while allowing a roster to grow over the course of a postseason run – carries enough weight to propel a program into the future. A victory on ESPN television in the media capital of the world, with Bill Raftery and Fran Fraschilla providing color commentary for the broadcast, is a moment that doesn’t disappear into the mists. Wichita State, heartbroken after falling short in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament and missing out on the NCAAs, did the one thing that any team snubbed on Selection Sunday must do: Make the best of its circumstances. While a lot of teams lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, Wichita compiled a five-game run through the NIT bracket and had a lot more to show for the past three weeks in the process. NCAA Tournament revenue is still greater than NIT revenue, but all things considered, an NIT title allows an offseason to have a sweet taste, not a sour one.

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How did Wichita State work its way past Alabama? The Shockers stayed out of foul trouble and had more left in the tank for a final finishing kick. While Alabama’s best player, JaMychal Green, got into foul difficulties and finished with a disappointing 12 points, the lower seed from a mid-major conference saw its best players step up at crunch time. This game was tied at 43-all with 13:57 left, but when the clock hit triple-zero, the Shockers – who had built a 64-52 lead with just over three minutes to go – had won by a comfortable nine-point margin. The main person responsible for WSU’s pull-away win was Graham Hatch. The bombardier banged in two long threes, just inside the NBA three-point line at the Garden, on consecutive possessions to push a six-point game to a 12-point spread in the game’s 37th minute. Alabama didn’t have enough time to come up with an answer to that well-timed flurry from the Shockers; as a result, the top-seeded Tide were jolted for the sixth time in the NIT final four. Six times Alabama has made the NIT semifinals in New York, and six times Alabama has failed to win the NIT championship.

Alabama did well to get this far after missing out on the NCAAs, but it’s Wichita State which created the ultimate catapult to 2012 by cutting down a piece of New York City twine.

By Matt Zemek
DFN Sports Senior Staff Writer




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