Disappointment on The Hilltop

SMU's NIT bid lacks prestige but holds silver lining for Mustangs

SMU's NIT bid lacks prestige but holds silver lining for Mustangs

Larry Brown and SMU men's basketball players
Larry Brown and the SMU Mustangs are headed to the NIT as a No. 1 seed. RattleandHumSports.com

What if you invited a bunch of your friends over to dance, but no one got the chance? SMU experienced that feeling Sunday afternoon. The expectation on The Hilltop was that, despite losing their final three games, the SMU Mustangs would make the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team.

But as CBS announced the 68-team field, the brackets kept SMU waiting … and waiting … and waiting … until the brackets were full. The disappointment was palpable in Moody Coliseum, where an estimated 1,200 SMU fans showed up to what they thought would be confirmation of the Mustangs’ first NCAA Tournament berth in a quarter-century.

Instead, players held their heads in their hands or stared blankly at the scoreboard as if, perhaps, they just missed hearing SMU come out of Greg Gumbel’s mouth.

 How close did the Mustangs come to making the NCAA Tournament? If the NIT bracket is any indication, it was ever so close.

The brilliance of this turnaround season under head coach Larry Brown did not result in an NCAA berth. There are teams in the field with worse records than SMU (23-9).

Heck, there is at least one with a losing record. But that team, Cal Poly, won its conference tournament, which comes with an automatic bid.

SMU lost its first game in the American Athletic Conference Tournament to Houston, and perhaps that killed the Mustangs’ hopes of a NCAA bid. That loss to the Cougars came at the end of a three-game losing streak that started with a home loss to Louisville in a game in which the Mustangs led by 14 points. SMU followed that with a terrible loss at Memphis.

But at least Louisville and Memphis were both ranked. Losing to unranked Houston must not have set well with the selection committee.

“I don’t want us complaining, because it would take away from the teams that made it,” Brown told reporters after the brackets came out. “I told [the players] we lost our last three, and we had it in our own hands. We’ve been talking about finishing strong. … We had our chance and we didn’t get it done.”

How close did the Mustangs come to making the NCAA Tournament? Well, if the National Invitation Tournament bracket is any indication, it was ever so close. The Mustangs were invited to the postseason NIT Sunday night, which selects 32 teams that didn’t make the NCAAs. SMU was selected as a No. 1 seed. The NCAA selection committee burst SMU’s bubble in the most painful way.

But this could end up helping SMU down the road. SMU hosts UC-Irving Wednesday night at Moody Coliseum. As a No. 1 seed, the Mustangs could, theoretically, play three straight home games before advancing to the NIT Final Four at Madison Square Garden in New York City (assuming SMU wins its first three games of the NIT). 

The only thing worse than not making the NCAA Tournament, basketball coaches will tell you, is not playing at all. The NIT offers SMU a chance to use it as a springboard toward an NCAA berth in 2015.

SMU has only two seniors on the roster — guard Nick Russell and forward Shawn Williams. This is an extremely young team, and it will only get younger next year when the highly touted Emmanuel Mudiay hits campus. NIT games offer Brown and the Mustangs more practices, more games and more opportunities to prepare to take the next step.

Think that’s bunk? Well, consider this. Three of last year’s NIT Final Four — Iowa, BYU and Baylor, which won the championship — are in the NCAA Tournament this year.

There is hurt and disappointment on The Hilltop. And winning a NIT title won’t make that go away. But if Brown is out to build a champion at SMU, making a serious run at the NIT title is a great way to make that disappointment count for something.