SEC coaches know benefit of the NIT

By: Bob Holt
Published: Tuesday, March 19, 2019
An NIT logo on the back of a chair during the second half of an NIT college basketball game in Charlottesville, Va., Tuesday, March 19, 2013. Virginia won 67-56. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
An NIT logo on the back of a chair during the second half of an NIT college basketball game in Charlottesville, Va., Tuesday, March 19, 2013. Virginia won 67-56. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

FAYETTEVILLE -- University of Arkansas All-SEC sophomore forward Daniel Gafford won't be playing in the NIT because he is focusing on the NBA Draft, but there are other Razorbacks who can benefit from the experience.

Excluding Gafford, the Razorbacks have seven freshmen or sophomores among their top eight scorers going into their NIT opener at Providence tonight.

Arkansas Coach Mike Anderson was a starting junior point guard for Tulsa's team that won the 1981 NIT championship. The Golden Hurricane made the NCAA Tournament in 1982.

"I know from personal experience that I'm not here sitting in this position if it didn't happen for me," Anderson said of playing in the NIT.

In Anderson's first season as a head coach, he took Alabama-Birmingham to the 2003 NIT. The next season the Blazers started a run of three consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances under Anderson.

Arkansas went to the 2014 NIT under Anderson. In 2015 the Razorbacks made the first of three NCAA Tournament appearances in a four-year span.

"The NIT is an awesome tournament," said Florida Coach Mike White, who took Louisiana Tech to the NIT in three consecutive seasons from 2013-15 and the Gators in 2016. "I think there's a lot of benefit.

"It's a prestigious event with a lot of great history. It's an opportunity to potentially get to New York City and play in Madison Square Garden."

Florida advanced to the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight in 2017 after playing in the NIT.

"Any time you get a chance as a team to play an additional game it's positive," White said. "Especially for a team that's playing freshmen and sophomores.

"It's an opportunity to continue to develop and progress individually and as a team and as a program."

Mississippi State is a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament after reaching the NIT Final Four last season.

"Those wins gave us some real momentum going into the spring and summer," Bulldogs Coach Ben Howland said of beating Nebraska, Baylor and Louisville in the NIT. "I think it fueled our fire to come back strong and try to make the next step, which is to get to the NCAA Tournament and get a fairly good seed."

Tennessee Coach Rick Barnes took Providence to the NIT in 1991 and 1993 and Clemson in 1995.

"It helps you immensely," Barnes said of playing in the NIT. "It gives you a chance to continue to coach your team, it gives you a chance to play against good basketball teams, and now that the NCAA has taken over the NIT, it's really an extension of the NCAA Tournament."

Last season Howland took exception to a question referring to the NIT as a consolation prize.

"You have to be pretty arrogant to look at the NIT as a consolation in my opinion," said Howland, who took UCLA to three consecutive NCAA Tournament Final Fours from 2006-08. "It's a great honor. I've around long enough to know the history and tradition of the NIT and having coached a couple other teams at different schools that went on to the NIT and used that as a springboard to the following year."

Howland's first postseason bid as a coach was in the 1997 NIT when he bought Northern Arizona into Walton Arena, where the Razorbacks beat the Lumberjacks 101-75.

The next season Howland took Northern Arizona to the NCAA Tournament. He took Pittsburgh to the 2001 NIT, then to back-to-back NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 appearances before landing the UCLA job.

Anderson was an Arkansas assistant coach when the Razorbacks advanced to the NIT Final Four in 1997. They were back in the NCAA Tournament the next year.

Nolan Richardson's first postseason bid as Arkansas' coach was in the 1987 NIT. The next season the Razorbacks started a streak of nine consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, including three Final Four appearances highlighted by the 1994 national championship.

"Our guys are looking forward to playing in the NIT," Anderson said. "There is a championship just like the NCAA Tournament.

"Obviously, we're disappointed that we didn't get there, but we have an opportunity to play in the NIT. To me, this is going to be very good experience for them and hopefully we'll use it to our advantage."

Sports on 03/19/2019

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