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Utah Men’s Basketball Team Capitalizing on NIT Experience

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NCAA Basketball: Utah at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

March. It’s just another month for a lot of people, but for sports fans around the world, it’s one of the best months of the year. March is the time of year when so-called basketball pundits are “too sick” to go to work, or when people plan vacations with their buddies to fill out their March Madness brackets that are going to bust in the first round.

But how many people are planning “bracket vacations” or calling out sick from work to watch the NIT Tournament? If I had to guess, I’d say not many. A lot of people think the NIT doesn’t even matter. Before I started to write this article, I googled something about the NIT. As I was typing, NIT, the third most common searched question was, “does the NIT even matter?”

Well, I’m writing this article to tell you that it does matter.

No, the athletes in this tournament are not dancing on the big stage, they don’t receive the same media attention and while they’re bringing in extra money for the school in these postseason games, it’s clearly not the same economic impact as if they were to be playing in the NCAA Tournament.

But for the Utah Runnin’ Utes, it’s not about that. Although they’d love to be playing in the NCAA Tournament right now, these NIT games are still extremely beneficial for them now and for years to come.

Head Coach Larry Krystkowiak addressed this topic on Saturday during the team’s practice. He said there’s nothing negative about having this opportunity to continue playing games.

“Your team makes improvements, players make improvements and your team tries to become an enhanced team. To me it’s all about experience. That’s how you gain experience and how you become more adept to dealing with new things. Maybe it helps some of our younger guys mature and maybe reach a stage that they otherwise would’t have been able to reach if they’re not playing in it.”

Just think about it. More games means you have more of an opportunity to get better. It’s also a chance for your underclassmen to grow. I’m not saying the NIT is the equivalent of the NCAA Tournament, but either way, the Utes receive valuable experience playing teams outside of the Pac - 12.

Right now Utah is prepping to play against Louisiana State University. The Utes host the Tigers Monday night at The Huntsman Center.

“We’ll face an LSU team that does things specific to LSU that we haven’t really seen in our conference. What it’s going to amount to is two days of some drills,” Coach K said. “I have a list of 50 or 60 things we can do defensively to try and get better. We’re pretty good at guarding ourselves and we’re pretty good at guarding teams in the Pac-12, but these tournaments present opportunities to do things and have challenges that you don’t see.”

I talked to Donnie Tillman during Saturday’s practice. He said there’s a lot of pressure being an underclassman and playing in the NIT but also added that it’s an important learning experience.

“I’m still learning from Bibs, Dave, Ty and Gabe and asking them questions about how they adjust. They’ve been helping all year. The added experience is definitely going to help me,” Tillman said.

“If we play hard there is no pressure. You can kind of just let it fly. My message to my guys is that it’s okay to get beat. Let’s do whatever we can to not beat ourselves. That’s the most important thing. If a team beats us we will shake their hands in the line and then we will move on but let’s not have a season end because you didn’t do your best,” Krystkowiak responded when I asked him if he feel’s the pressures of playing in the NIT.

When you ask many athletes if they take these tournaments game-by-game or look ahead to the end of the tunnel, may will give you the answer, “Oh, you have to take this game-by-game.” But for Tyler Rawson, the thought of playing a championship game in New York City is something that has been on his mind for a long time.

“It’s been a childhood dream to play at Madison Square Garden. Not a lot of people can say that they’ve played there. At least for me this year, I’ve really wanted to make it to that stage and you have a little bit of pressure from that March Madness feel, but it’s been fun on the court competing for that,” Rawson said while smiling from ear to ear.

“We kind of have to soak up the moment,” Krystkowiak said. “We’re excited to be apart of this. Let’s soak it up and we’ll be prepared.”

GAME INFO:

Utah (20-11) vs. LSU (18-14)

When: Monday, March 19

Tip-Off: 7 p.m. MT

Location: Salt Lake City, Utah (Huntsman Center)

Television: ESPNU / WatchESPN

Radio: ESPN 700/Utah Radio Sports Network

Tickets: NIT Ticket Information