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NIT 2012: Finding Meaning Behind the Other Tournament

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The quest to find meaning is a noble and righteous journey set out upon seekers of fact, elucidators of truth, explorers of life. From Siddhartha to Dorothy to three-quarters of The Hangover's Wolf Pack, this path to meaning can lead to many different things. There are uphills and downhills; familiar foes and new challenges, tears, fears, smiles, nerves, laughter, disappointment, joy, the proverbial roller coaster.

The quest to an NIT Championship is no different.

For some, its an opportunity. The chance to extend a year, play on, grow and build on the moderate if not terrific successes of the season. For others, the NIT is a disappointing venture into mediocrity and oblivion. A baron and arguably fruitless trek.

The paths may be different - Allen is not the Tin Man just as Washington's and Stanford's seasons did not mirror each other - but there is always meaning to be found.

Let's look at what an appearance in the NIT Championship game means to a basketball program.

Examining the last five years worth of NIT Champions and Runner Ups, we're left the following table. I've also listed the teams' record and postseason fate in the subsequent season as a measuring stick for the program's direction.

Year NIT Result School Record Following Rec Following Result
2011 Champ Wichita State 24-8 27-6 NCAA 5 seed, 1st Round
2011 Runner Up Alabama 21-11 21-12 NCAA 9 seed, 1st Round
2010 Champ Dayton 20-12 22-14 NIT 3 seed, 1st Round
2010 Runner Up North Carolina 16-16 29-8 NCAA 2 seed, Elite 8
2009 Champ Penn State 22-11 11-20 n/a
2009 Runner Up Baylor 20-14 28-8 NCAA 3 seed, Elite 8
2008 Champ Ohio State 19-13 22-11 NCAA 9 seed, 1st Round
2008 Runner Up UMass 21-10 12-18 n/a
2007 Champ West Virginia 22-9 26-11 NCAA 7 seed, Sweet 16
2007 Runner Up Clemson 21-10 24-10 NCAA 5 Seed, 1st Round

In this chart we can plainly see that the path to the NIT involves being a pretty decent team as only two of these ten did not win twenty games. Part of the journey of course is always getting there and to be involved in postseason play, one must have demonstrated at least some semblance of quality basketball. This much we know.

We also see that the majority of successful NIT teams are from major conferences. Again, this should come as little surprise as the better teams tend to come from the bigger conferences.

My two favorite facts out of this chart are that 80% improved their year-over-year win total and 70% received an invitation to the Big Dance a year removed from the NIT championship appearance (NOTE: Alabama matched their win total year over year but I hat tip for that because they also made the NCAAs).

I find this to be an indication of good coaching and successful program building. For teams to leverage their successes, season to season, is impressive and indicative of a program at work. It's no easy task to Dance but meriting an invitation is nary a fluke.

Worth pointing out is that our two worst follow up performances (UMass 2008, Penn State 2009) suggest that they may be outliers. UMass sustained a coaching change after their NIT championship game appearance (Travis Ford to Oklahoma State) and Penn State returned to the NCAA tournament in 2010.

And so what does it all mean?

I think it means there could be good things in store in Seattle and Palo Alto, the two teams from the Pac-12 still journeying.

They've embraced their time in the NIT and - historically speaking - should turn this success into something of note in 2012-13. If indeed our above chart tells us anything - should either or both of these teams advance to Thursday's championship - then these squads would seem to have a 70% chance of Dancing next year. Right?

And why not?

Pending the announcements of Tony Wroten and Terrence Ross, Washington could once again be a dangerously talented squad while Stanford has done nothing but impress in the postseason. Expect Chasson Randle to have a big sophomore year.

Alas, it's still a journey, a search for something bigger than the immediate because that's what programs are built on. Take your lumps and grow. Take your successes and learn.

The numbers are foreboding, is it October yet?