Commentary: Men's hoops getting important lesson in NIT

BY TORK MASON | MARCH 28, 2013 5:00 AM

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I felt like Selection Sunday was a joke, with teams including Middle Tennessee State and Boise State receiving at-large bids while teams such as Virginia, Maryland, and Iowa were left out. I thought it was a joke that the Hawkeyes received a No. 3 seed in the NIT when they were among the first teams left out of the Big Dance.

But a bid in the NIT has been better for this Iowa team than a trip to the NCAA Tournament would have been.

That’s not a joke.

All year long, this was a Hawkeye team that couldn’t do three things: close out tight games, win on the road, and hit 3-pointers. The Black and Gold have accomplished all of those tasks over the past week.

You could chalk up closing out victories against Indiana State and Stony Brook to playing inferior competition. But the Virginia squad the Hawkeyes faced on Wednesday night was also in the first tier of teams left out of the NCAA Tournament. The Cavaliers are a very strong team, particularly on defense.

That didn’t matter to the Hawkeyes, who hit on 8-of-17 3-pointers in a 75-64 road victory to advance to the NIT semifinals in Madison Square Garden. But it was a closer game than that score suggests, and Virginia forced Iowa to earn the win at the free-throw line. And the Hawkeyes answered the bell as they drained all 15 of their free-throw attempts — including 14 in the final 3:09 of the game.

An NCAA trip would have been a strong step forward for a program that hasn’t been on that stage since 2006. But this team has more room to grow, more room to learn in a tournament in which it can win several games, than it would have in a first or second round exit in the Big Dance.

It wouldn’t be the first time a team used the NIT as a springboard. Penn State won the NIT in 2009 and made its first trip to the NCAA Tournament in a decade the following year.

Fans can even look to the 1994-95 Hawkeyes for reference. That Iowa squad was a lot like this year’s version: It was young, talented, and couldn’t quite get over the hump against top teams. The Black and Gold dropped a string of Big Ten games on buzzer-beaters and landed in the NIT, where they advanced to the quarterfinals and lost to Penn State.

Tom Davis’ crew earned a bid to the NCAA Tournament the next season.

Head coach Fran McCaffery will have the luxury of five returning starters next season, including leading scorer Devyn Marble, who has emerged as a true go-to player over the last month.  This year’s freshman class will have a year’s worth of experience to draw upon next year, and the newcomers next year could provide solid depth. All the pieces appear to be in place for a run to the Big Dance next season.

But what this team has learned to do in the NIT will be more important than any individual player could hope to be. The Hawkeyes have finally learned how to win and play, for a full 40 minutes, like the team they showed flashes of being this year.

They wouldn’t have gotten that lesson by getting beat in the first round of the “real” tournament.

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