Lessons From the NIT: From Disappointment to the Foundation of a Culture

National Invitational Tournament – Quarterfinals

Wichita State (21-14) at Indiana (19-15)

  • Tip time:  Tuesday, 7:00 p.m. Eastern
  • Location: Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall, Bloomington, Indiana
  • Television:  ESPN (Bob Wischusen and Dan Dakich)
  • Series:  Tied 1-1
  • Point Spread:  Indiana is a 4.5 point favorite.

The trajectory of the Indiana women’s basketball program is undeniable.

Less than a year after confetti dropped from the rafters of Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall as the Hoosiers won a WNIT title, the Indiana women were celebrating a first round upset win in the NCAA Tournament.

After the initial disappointment of not being invited to this year’s NCAA Tournament wore off, the Indiana men’s basketball program didn’t have to look far for inspiration.

Just across the hallway as a matter of fact.

The prototype had already been constructed right there in Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall.  There is really no better illustration of how best to capitalize on the opportunity that is the National Invitational Tournament than the 2017-18 IU women’s basketball team.

To be sure, it wasn’t entirely clear how the Hoosier women would build off of their memorable run last March.

Much like the men’s team next year, this year’s women’s team had to replace its top producers.

There was good reason to believe that with legends Tyra Buss and Amanda Cahill moving on, the Hoosier women’s program might take a step back the following year.

On paper anyway.

But playing in the NIT tests you.  It tests your attitude, your focus, and your love of the game.  Without those, your stay will be brief.

If done right, then maybe, just maybe, the NIT can be the foundation of something.  A turning point.  The underpinnings of a culture.

Image result for indiana women wnit
Credit – IU Athletics

Coming into the 2018-19 campaign, IU women’s head coach Teri Moren used some of those exact words —

“They feel like there’s been a foundation that we’ve created here,” Moren said in reference to her players that returned for this season.  “And a lot of that has to to with Tyra Buss and Amanda Cahill and the culture and what we’re about.”

The Hoosier women did indeed advance the program despite losing Buss and Cahill, reaching the NCAA Tournament this year and pulling off a first round upset before falling to No. 2 seed Oregon on Sunday night.  The future is even brighter with almost all of the roster returning and a top 20 recruiting class on its way.

The blueprint is right there for the taking, and on the men’s side, senior co-captain Juwan Morgan sees that same potential.

“Just going forward, this is a great foundation for the younger guys,” Morgan told us after Saturday’s win over Arkansas. “Next year they will know how to win in the postseason.”

Morgan’s fellow senior co-captain Zach McRoberts also believes that winning today can propel the program.

“Yeah, just embracing any opportunity that you have to play to better yourselves gives the guys confidence for next year,” McRoberts told us.  “Now they know how to win in the postseason, and that can only set the tone and I think that’s good for everybody.”

To be fair, winning the NIT is no panacea.  The Penn State men followed up last year’s title with a 14-18 season.

But the lesson from the women’s NIT title last year isn’t about guaranteed future results.  It is about embracing the opportunity.  Indiana can accomplish a lot more by continuing to play and win against good competition than they ever could working on individual drills during the offseason.

The guys that are coming back next year recognize this.

“Yeah, we are a young team, so getting experience in any kind of postseason tournament is going to help us,” freshman point guard Rob Phinisee told us after the Arkansas game.

Al Durham pretty much echoed those same sentiments.

It is okay to be disappointed with missing the NCAA Tournament.  These players should be disappointed about that.  But the reality is that success now can translate into success next year.

And here is another reality.

It’s okay to persevere through the disappointment while continuing to recognize that it isn’t good enough now and it isn’t the standard going forward.

Moren also said that coming into the 2018-19 season.

“The NIT was a great experience, and it’s something that we’ll always remember, but that’s not the goal,”  Moren said.

“Winning NIT championships, that’s not what we’re after.  “Those are things that we can’t shy away from talking about. Those are the expectations for our program.”

For the men, at least right now anyway, the opportunity is Wichita State, and a chance to go to New York and achieve a 20 win season.  Not what they were after back in November, but also not things to shy away from right now.

Image result for indiana arkansas
Photo by Charlie Kaijo

There will a time down the road to re-calibrate the expectations, just like Moren and her Hoosiers did.

But you have to walk before you can run.

As Archie Miller likes to say, his Hoosier men just need to keep pounding the rock, and embrace the opportunity in front of them as they attempt to chisel out the culture of a program.

NIT success might not be what either the men’s or women’s programs were after.

But it can be the foundation of something.

These are the lessons of the NIT — and we didn’t have to go very far to find it.

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