Coaches Steve Pikiell and Speedy Claxton are aware today’s college basketball players don’t remember the days when the NIT was viewed as a prestigious postseason tournament.
But Pikiell and Claxton fondly remember those days, and part of their preparation time Sunday and Monday was spent offering a history lesson to their Rutgers and Hofstra players and reminding them that playing in the NIT is an opportunity most of their peers will not receive.
No. 1 seed Rutgers is slated to host Hofstra in the first round of the NIT on Tuesday night in Piscataway, N.J.
Rutgers, one of the top four seeds in the 32-team field, last played Friday, when the Scarlet Knights’ NCAA Tournament hopes ended with a 70-65 loss to Purdue in the Big Ten quarterfinals.
Hofstra’s bid to reach the NCAA Tournament ended March 6, when the Pride fell to UNC Wilmington 79-73 in overtime in the CAA tournament semifinals.
While Hofstra has spent the last week-plus readying for an NIT appearance — the Pride earned the CAA’s automatic bid by winning the regular-season championship — the Scarlet Knights (19-14) watched the NCAA Tournament selection show Sunday night with hopes of receiving an at-large bid for the third straight season.
But Rutgers’ weak nonconference schedule, ranked No. 314 nationally per the NET, and 3-7 record since forward Mawot Mag suffered a season-ending knee injury on Feb. 4, resulted in the school’s 15th trip to the NIT and its first since 2006.
Pikiell said he has fond memories of winning the NIT with UConn in 1988 — when the Huskies were feted with a parade in downtown Hartford — and hoped the Scarlet Knights would be rejuvenated by the ability to continue their season.
“Today they don’t want to hear those things,” Pikiell told reporters Sunday night. “But (Monday) we’ll get them in a room and try to make them understand that other teams are hanging up their uniforms. We’ve got a chance to keep playing as a group.”
Clifford Omoruyi has led the Scarlet Knights in scoring (13.2 points per game), rebounding (9.7) and blocks (2.2) this season.
Hofstra (24-9) is appearing in the NIT for the seventh time. All seven bids have been earned since 1999, when Claxton was the star point guard for the then-Flying Dutchmen.
Claxton didn’t play in the 1999 NIT game — a 58-45 loss to Rutgers in New Jersey — due to a thigh injury that Hofstra kept secret because the school was worried it wouldn’t get a bid if the committee knew Claxton was hurt.
“It is tough because (Pride players) have their hearts set on going to the Big Dance,” said Claxton, who is in his second season as head coach. “Once that doesn’t happen, it’s a letdown. They’re not used to knowing that the NIT is a big deal.
“But I think (Sunday) night, once they found out who we’re playing, their spirits kind of brightened up a little bit.”
The Pride are led by two-time CAA Player of the Year Aaron Estrada, who’s averaging 20.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game.
–Field Level Media