Once upon a time, the National Invitation Tournament was a prestigious postseason tournament where teams would vie for the national title — but that was before the NCAA Tournament and the March Madness that comes with it.
Today, the postseason NIT is a consolation for teams that don’t make the NCAA Tournament, but its preseason counterpart has become more esteemed.
The 2012 edition of the NIT Season Tip-Off has No. 4 Michigan as its heavy favorite, seeded first of the 16 teams. After the Wolverines dominated IUPUI and Cleveland State in the first and second rounds, they will spend Thanksgiving weekend in New York City.
Michigan (3-0) will play Pittsburgh in the semifinals of the tournament Wednesday at Madison Square Garden. The Garden seems to be Pittburgh’s home away from home, as the Panthers have amassed a 28-14 all-time record in the arena. Michigan junior guard Tim Hardaway, Jr. admitted playing on such a big stage can be a bit nerve-wracking.
“I’m kind of excited to go to New York,” Hardaway said. “It’s great, playing in Madison Square Garden for the first time. It’s a blessing to have the opportunity to play in front of people in New York, and the alumni out there.”
Led by head coach Jamie Dixon, Pitt (4-0) returns 11 players and has added a few notable freshmen. Forward Talib Zanna and guard Tray Woodall head a Panthers squad that is deep and experienced, something that Michigan coach John Beilein knows is key to performing well in a big-stage tournament this early in the season.
Zanna is arguably Pitt’s best defender and is a rebounding threat along with 7-foot freshman center Steven Adams, the preseason Big East Rookie of the Year, who will be the tallest man on the floor and can also rebound well.
Junior guard Trey Zeigler, who transfered from Central Michigan during the offeseason, brings an athletic, flexible body to the Panthers lineup. The 6-foot-5 guard caught the eye of Beilein after Zeigler’s father, Ernie, was fired from his post as the Chippewas’ head coach in March.
The one concern the Wolverines may have with the Panthers is their rebounding ability. Pitt has four players listed at 6-foot-9 or taller, all of whom consistently see the floor, while Michigan has just three players on its entire roster at that height. Rebounding has always been a concern under Beilein, but with the addition of freshman forward Mitch McGary, rebounds have improved so far this season.
And with the Wolverines playing in Panther territory, this game could provide an early test for the young squad.
“I’m very proud of our team, that we’re in this situation, that we’re going to New York and play on a national stage,” Beilein said. “Our kids are really excited about it.”
Added Hardaway: “It’s definitely a huge honor, and it’s great not only for ourselves and our team, but for Michigan. We work hard, we get to show everybody what we’re capable of and set an example for the people coming in next year.”
The NIT Season Tip-Off is just one of many notable tournaments the Wolverines have participated in — Michigan traveled to Hawaii last year for the Maui Invitational and just announced it will be heading to south next year for the Puerto Rico Tip-Off Tournament.
Though the announcement to travel to Puerto Rico next year came recently, Beilein noted that the Athletic Department plans these preseason tournaments well in advance due to the limited space — the Big Ten typically gets one slot at each preseason tournament.
“You have to lay these out almost like a football schedule, four or five years in advance,” Beilein said. “We do a lot of research on these tournaments. (The Puerto Rico trip) was done a couple of years ago.
“The preseason NIT and Maui at one time were the ones that were the marquee tournaments. Now there are so many going on, I can’t even keep track of it. But the preseason NIT, New York, Madison Square Garden, had a lot of appeal to us.”