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NIT Preview: The model of success

A look at how a mid-major program turned an NIT championship into extended NCAA tournament success and what that means for the three mid-majors in this year's NIT semifinals.

Madison Square Garden will play host to this year's NIT semifinals and finals.
Madison Square Garden will play host to this year's NIT semifinals and finals.
Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

The ultimate prize at the end of every season is an NCAA Tournament bid. Mid-major and power conference programs alike strive to get their names called on Selection Sunday and to see their school on the big bracket. But, the reality is that only 68 teams are lucky enough to play in the "big dance."

For those that just miss the cut, the NIT awaits. Generally filled with mid-majors who won their conference regular season championship but came up short in their tournaments and middling power conference teams, the NIT is often an afterthought for college basketball fans. It also represents a bittersweet ending to the programs participating. The bitterness is evident: all of the schools had opportunities to punch their tickets to the NCAA Tournament but came up short in one way or another. Dwarfed by the media and cultural mammoth that is the NCAA Tournament, the value of playing in the NIT can be difficult to see at times.

But, the NIT can, as recent history shows us, provide the boost upper-tier mid-majors need to break onto the national scene in the years to come. The Wichita State Shockers immediately come to mind as a program that saw nearly instant success after winning an NIT championship. Entering the 2010-11 season, Wichita State had not seen a great deal of postseason success. The Shockers had only been to the NCAA Tournament once in the prior twenty years. While that one tournament appearance resulted in a Sweet Sixteen run, the Shockers were far from a perennial powerhouse. In fact, Wichita State didn't finish higher than fifth in the Missouri Valley Conference standings for the three years following that Sweet Sixteen run and only in the 2009-10 season did they again crack the top two.

However, the NIT at the conclusion of the 2010-11 season represented a turning point for the Wichita State program. For the second straight season, the Shockers finished second in the Missouri Valley and made the NIT. The Shockers took advantage of this trip to the NIT, making their way to Madison Square Garden and winning the tournament. Wichita State defeated four power conference teams en route to the championship trophy: Nebraska, Virginia Tech, Washington State, and Alabama. Two of those wins came at home, and all of their wins were televised on either ESPN or ESPN2.

The momentum from the NIT championship carried into the following seasons. The next year saw a recruiting class including Ron Baker (who would redshirt), Evan Wessel, and Tekele Cotton come to campus. The Shockers won the Missouri Valley regular season and received, broke into the top 25 rankings, and received an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. Despite falling in the first round of the tournament, the Shockers were clearly trending upward.

Freshman Fred VanVleet and transfer Cleanthony Early came to Wichita State the next season in what would be a fateful year for the Shockers program. Wichita State received another at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, but this time turned it into a Final Four appearance. It took eventual national champion Louisville to stop the Shockers. A mid-major had transformed into a player on the national stage.

The Shockers have won at least one game in the NCAA Tournament every year since. The country watched them run the regular season table in 2013-14. Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker have become well-known names as has that of highly sought after head coach Gregg Marshall.

But what does all of this mean for this year's mid-major success stories in the NIT: Valparaiso, George Washington, and BYU? All three programs are not strangers to post season success. However, especially in the cases of Valparaiso and George Washington, these schools have not seen the recent postseason success they wish to obtain.

Based on the Wichita State example, a lengthy run in the NIT can certainly have a greater long-term impact on a mid-major program than a "one and done" NCAA Tournament appearance. Winning postseason games in the NIT gives players the experience and confidence needed to win postseason games in the future. Plus, the NIT semifinals and finals take place annually at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The opportunity to play and win in one of the most revered basketball arenas in the world can definitely be argued to be greater than being over-matched in an NCAA Tournament venue.

Beyond the experience for the players, the benefits institutionally for the programs are great as well. The NIT semifinals and finals are televised on one of the "main" ESPN channels (ESPN or ESPN2). This provides the programs with national exposure and media coverage. Furthermore, the games are able to generate viewership by taking place in the off nights between the Elite Eight and the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament to fill the void left and serve a national interest in basketball. The exposure for the teams undoubtedly has an impact on recruiting in the seasons to come, as evidenced by the players Wichita State was able to bring into the fold after their NIT win. For mid-majors like this year's semifinal participants, recruiting is often a struggle in competing for quality talent with power conference schools with larger budgets. Therefore, any media exposure is a valuable tool for a mid-major.

The NIT can also serve to energize fan bases of the teams involved. After the letdown of not receiving an NCAA Tournament bid, it can be difficult to get fans invested in the NIT. But, the NIT gives ample opportunity for mid-majors to prove themselves against power conference foes. Valparaiso defeated Florida State, George Washington topped Florida, and BYU bested both Virginia Tech and Creighton in this year's NIT alone. For teams that often struggle to get power conference opponents to schedule them fairly (if at all), these wins serve both to prove the mid-majors belong and also as a cathartic experience for the often frustrated fan bases of the teams who feel mistreated by the power conferences. Furthermore, the wins listed above in this year's NIT all occurred on the home floor of the mid-major team. Big home games drum up excitement about the teams for the seasons to come. Valparaiso, for example, set an attendance record in their quarterfinal win over Saint Mary's. Increased fan attendance and excitement generate more money for the programs, both from attendance and from donors.

It can certainly be argued that Valparaiso and George Washington are better off in the semifinals of the NIT rather than suffering a first-round loss in the NCAA Tournament. While both teams were likely capable of winning an NCAA Tournament game or two, changing their outlook on this year's postseason, their NIT runs could have a lasting effect on the programs as Wichita State's championship in 2011 did. Despite the immediate financial impact of an NCAA Tournament appearance, the increased exposure of an NIT run can be more beneficial to a mid-major program in the long term. Both programs will look to cap off their seasons with an NIT championship they can hang from the rafters in their gym and build upon in the future.

BYU is in a slightly different situation than the other two schools, though. The Cougars have made the NCAA Tournament 11 times since 2001 and enjoyed a Sweet Sixteen run in 2011. For a program that has experienced some success recently, the NIT may seem like a step in the wrong direction rather than a stepping stool to greater things. But, BYU can still use the NIT as a building block. An NIT championship would show that the Cougars intend to remain relevant and continue to build a winning culture.

From whatever perspective each of the three mid-majors in this year's NIT semifinals come to play with, this tournament is certainly not simply an afterthought. The NIT can be the gateway to the realm of NCAA Tournament success and national recognition. Will one of these teams seize the golden opportunity before them? Only time will tell. For now, we can enjoy what is sure to be some exciting basketball in New York City this week.