Photo - Mike Stobe (Getty Images)
By: Aj Mansour | KFAN
Dallas, TX - Two days ago the Minnesota Golden Gophers men's basketball team won the NIT championship and you may have laughed. Laughed at the fact that it while Final Four festivities were just getting underway here in Dallas, Gopher fans were cheering for their cute little NIT trophy they just won. To be honest, a few days ago I would have been right there with you.
When the Gophers were originally named a #1 seed in the NIT after missing out on their "bubble" opportunity to crack the NCAA, I think this was a very common mindset. Why would the players play hard in the NIT? Why would the fans go watch their team in the NIT against something called Highpoint? And what benefit could the NIT be towards the future of our team?
As I've learned down here in Dallas the past few days, that NIT championship isn't scoffed at in the least bit. Not only that but it could be a springboard to future success for Richard Pitino and the Gophers.
I had the opportunity yesterday to chat with Bill Frieder, the famed coach who led Michigan to a #3 seed in the 1989 NCAA tournament only to be fired before the tournament began. Frieder's team would go on to win the National Championship that season. Throughout the midst of our conversation, Frieder referenced the Gophers NIT championship and told me it was a NIT trophy that sparked the Wolverines run in the late 1980s.
"I think it's huge," Frieder said of the Gophers NIT Championship. "In 1984 when I inherited Michigan we were a little down. My second year we lost 19 games. We won the NIT in 1984 and all summer my kids said they don't want to go back to the NIT they want to go to the NCAA. It was a stepping stone for their mental preparation and physical preparation. We won the Big Ten in '85 & '86 and then after that we won the national championship in '89."
I quickly learned that Frieder wasn't alone in his thinking. After Coach came through for a chat, former North Carolina Tar Heel and 2X NBA Champion Kenny "The Jet" Smith sat down for a brief chat with Dan Barreiro back in Minneapolis and echoed these same thoughts.
"Without question [it's a good thing]," Smith insisted. "If you look at the history of the NIT, you look at the teams. Stanford won it, sweet 16 this year. If you look at the teams that do well [in the NIT] and look at them the next year, they make noise in the tournament. So, yes celebrate that. One year championship for first year coach Pitino and you have to celebrate that because that means you're on the move, you're on the rise."
Take a look back at the history of the NIT tournament you'll quickly see that Stanford was not alone in spring boarding NIT success into an NCAA run. Listen to some of these teams and tell me if they sound familiar today...
2013 NIT Champs - Baylor (#6 seed and Sweet 16 in 2014)
2012 NIT Champs - Stanford (Sweet 16 in 2014)
2011 NIT Champs - Wichita State (Final Four in 2013, #1 seed in 2014)
2010 NIT Champs - Dayton (Sweet 16 in 2014)
Just over the past five years, that's four teams that turned an NIT championship into a Sweet 16 run over the next couple of seasons and one that made a run to the Final Four.
While the deep postseason run could certainly transform the team mentally as Coach Frieder referenced above, it also has a positive impact on recruiting.
Basketball is basketball and the longer you can play into the postseason, the more national exposure you get as your team makes a run, the more you splash onto the radar of players around the country that maybe weren't aware prior to that experience.
"That helps in recruiting," Kenny Smith continued. "When a recruit turns on the television and he sees you playing still, he kind is recognizing that it's not the tournament but he's watching you play."
So while we will be sure to not get too out of hand celebrating as we raise the NIT Championship banner in the barn next week, please realize this. If the progression continues and the train isn't derailed by something unforeseen, cheer this title, embrace the championship and understand what this could (hopefully) mean for the future of our Golden Gophers basketball team.
Aj Mansour covers Minnesota Sports for KFAN.com. Feel free to leave comments and questions regarding this post in the space provided below. For Gophers updates and breaking Gophers news, follow Aj on Twitter. @AjKFAN