The NCAA tournament is where every team wants to be, soaking in March Madness with all the heart stopping excitement that goes along with it.
Some teams that are left out of the Big Dance see the NIT as a consolation prize and play like they don’t want to be there.
But that’s never been the case with Baylor coach Scott Drew’s teams. Drew’s 2009 NIT team won four games before losing to Penn State in the championship game, and his 2013 team won the title at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
Drew hopes this year’s team has the same positive approach as it prepares for the NIT opener against Wagner at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Ferrell Center.
“First and foremost, you’ve got to be excited to have a chance to go to Madison Square Garden,” Drew said. “Our players have been excited to be in the NIT. They’ve seen it as a great tournament and a great opportunity. There are only two happy teams at the end of the year, and that’s who wins the NCAA tournament and who wins the NIT championship.”
Baylor’s 2013 team is much like this year’s team in that it came into the NIT on a cold streak with three losses in the previous four games, including a first-round loss to Oklahoma State in the Big 12 tournament. But the Bears put it all together in the NIT by winning five straight games, capped by a 74-54 thrashing of Iowa for the championship.
“It’s beneficial to have past players who have been in the NIT and have enjoyed it and had success,” Drew said. “They can pass on their wisdom. When you’ve got 18 to 22 year-olds, they listen to peers and past players.”
This year’s Baylor squad has lost four of its last five games to fall to 18-14, including a 78-65 loss to West Virginia in the Big 12 tournament quarterfinals last Thursday in Kansas City.
As a No. 1 seed, the Bears have a chance to play three home games before reaching the NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden. They’ve also got four seniors – guards Manu Lecomte and Nuni Omot, center Jo Lual-Acuil and forward Terry Maston – who want to end their college careers on a high note.
“Any opportunity to play basketball, if you love it, it’s a blessing,” said Baylor junior guard Jake Lindsey. “It’s a blessing any time you put on that uniform and get out there, and we get to do it at home. Obviously we’re down that we didn’t make the (NCAA) tournament, but credit to the teams that made it. We had opportunities to do it, and we have an opportunity in front of us.”
Eighth-seeded Wagner (23-9) features a guard-oriented attack led by Blake Francis with 17.1 points per game and Romone Saunders and JoJo Cooper with 14.5-point averages.
The trio has combined to hit 184 3-pointers this season. Cooper is averaging 6.2 assists per game while 6-8 forward A.J. Sumbry is averaging a team-high 6.5 rebounds.
“Teams that win their conference and play in the postseason often have good guard play, and they’re very good,” Drew said. “They have a team with multiple people hitting 3’s and is good in transition. As a bigger team, we need to do a good job stopping them from playing in transition.”
Located in Staten Island, N.Y., Wagner won the Northeast Conference regular season championship but lost to LIU Brooklyn in the league championship game. Wagner is 1-4 all-time in the NIT, earning the program’s first-ever win in 2016 when the No. 8-seeded Seahawks stunned top-seeded St. Bonaventure, 79-75.
The NIT will experiment with four 10-minute quarters instead of two 20-minute halves. The 3-point arc will be extended one foot, eight inches to 22 feet, seven inches, the distance which is used in international competition.
The free throw lane will be widened from 12 feet to 16 feet, consistent with the width used by the NBA. The shot clock will reset to 20 seconds after an offensive rebound instead of the full 30 seconds.
“Essentially, it’s still players making plays and the better team will win on that day,” Lindsey said. “But I’m looking forward to it.”
The Baylor-Wagner winner will face the winner of Wednesday’s game between No. 4 seed Mississippi State and No. 5 Nebraska in Starkville. Second-round games are scheduled for March 16-19 followed by the quarterfinals on March 20-21. The NIT Final Four semifinals will be March 27 and the championship on March 29.
BEAR FACTS — Tickets for Tuesday’s game are available at www.baylorbears.com/tickets. The public may purchase general admission tickets for $10 for adults and $5 for children ages 2-17.