There was a time, in the early 00s, where a NIT bid proved disappointing for Utah. So disappointing, in fact, the Utes didn't do much of anything during their last trip to the tournament - losing to Memphis, at home, in 2001. It was so uneventful that only 4,920 fans showed up to the game and Utah's disappointing transition season under interim head coach Dick Hunsaker came to an unceremonious end.
But this isn't 2001. Utah is now over a decade removed from their championship-game run - not just mere seasons. Back then, the Runnin' Utes were coming off six-straight tournament appearances that included a season ending in the Sweet Sixteen, then the Elite Eight and then, of course, the national title game. Today, though, Utah hasn't made the postseason in four years and, not counting the CBI, has only extended their season once in the last eight years - the most abysmal stretch in modern program history.
So, an invite to the NIT is welcomed. In fact, it's a breath of fresh air for a program conditioned on losing after so many years of winning.
This is our chance to continue the framework for future success.
You know, Rick Majerus managed to get Utah to the Sweet Sixteen in his first full season here. It was a spectacular accomplishment and really indicated how great things could be under his leadership. But while that season helped define what the program could be under his leadership, it was their run to the NIT Final Four a year later that really helped lay the foundation to the greatness that came out of the 1990s. It proved he could be consistent, even after a run to the Sweet Sixteen a year earlier, and that consistency turned Utah basketball into one of the truly dominant teams of the 1990s.
The NIT can act as a launching pad for a program still trying to establish itself - especially one whose success, at least recently, is limited.
In 2011, the Colorado Buffaloes, hardly a team anyone would consider prestigious in college basketball, made the NIT after a four-year postseason absence. It was a step in the right direction for Tad Boyle, who was coaching his first season there. The team made it to the NIT Final Four, eventually losing to Alabama - who would then lose to Wichita State (more on them later) in the championship game.
Today, Colorado is a premier Pac-12 hoops program. Boyle, who's in his fourth season in Boulder, has taken the program to two consecutive NCAA tournaments and is likely to keep that streak alive this season. The last time the Buffaloes made the Big Dance two years in a row was back in the 1950s. Now, under his leadership, they're becoming a staple in March play.
This success grew from their run to the NIT Final Four a few seasons ago.
Had the Buffaloes knocked off Alabama, they would have faced Wichita State in the Finals.
I mention them, of course, because the Shockers are currently undefeated and almost certain to lock down a number one seed in this year's NCAA Tournament. This a year after they made the Final Four.
That's not to say every NIT champion, or Final Fourer, pans out. Alabama and Washington State, two teams who joined Wichita State and Colorado in that year's NIT Final Four, have faded since their run in that 2011 tournament. But I think that says more about their situation than anything about ours.
A great deal of those teams reached that level at the height of their success - not at the beginning. Those who came into the NIT young and looking for experience made the leap - as 10 NIT teams from the 2012 tournament made the Big Dance a year later. That included Arizona, who, this year, is considered a NCAA Title contender.
15 of last year's NIT field is projected to be in this year's dance, according to Joe Lunardi's Bracketology.
The leap is real. It doesn't happen for every team, but certainly teams that manage to make the NIT with youth and inexperience are a great bit more likely to make that jump to the NCAAs a year later - just like Wichita State in 2012, Arizona in 2013 and Virginia in 2014.
I see no reason the Utes can't join that club, especially with a run to the NIT Final Four.