Evansville was one play away from its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1999. But Northern Iowa guard Wes Washpun received a friendly bounce on a buzzer-beater, and now the Aces are left hoping to continue their season.
Ideally, that means a bid to the NIT.
While many college basketball fans poke fun at the NIT and call it the “Not Invited Tournament,” earning a spot in the second-rate tournament would still be a major step forward for this program. The Aces had five postseason appearances in the first eight seasons under coach Marty Simmons, all in the CBI or CIT, in which they won a championship last year.
But Evansville has not been to the NIT since 1994.
“Man, I just pray that we get an opportunity to play in the NIT,” Simmons said Sunday following the MVC title game loss. “I think that would be a big step for us. I think those guys in the locker room are very deserving of that opportunity.”
Here is Evansville’s case for the NIT:
— The Aces have a 25-9 record and finished tied for second in the Missouri Valley.
— They went 12-6 away from home, proving they are capable of competing in the NIT, where higher seeds get home court advantage until the semifinals and championship, which are played on a neutral site at Madison Square Garden in New York.
— The efficiency numbers like Evansville. KenPom currently has the Aces ranked No. 79 in the nation. Though not often, teams with similar KenPom rankings have made the NCAA Tournament at-large field. Southern Miss ranked No. 72 in 2011-12 and was a No. 9 seed in the NCAAs. That doesn’t mean Evansville is anywhere near the NCAA Tournament bubble. That is completely out of the question. But it’s a good sign for a NIT berth.
— While Evansville has no huge, marquee wins, it has a respectable 3-6 record against the RPI Top 100. The Aces defeated UC Irvine (No. 65) on a neutral site, Fresno State (No. 82) on the road, and Belmont (No. 100) at home in non-conference play.
Big Apple Buckets currently places Evansville in the field as a No. 6 seed. The NIT Bracket Project, which last updated its field March 5, had Evansville outside the field but under consideration. So it’s going to be close.
The NIT has a 32-team field and gives automatic bids to any regular season conference champion that loses in its conference tournament and does not receive an at-large bid to the NCAAs. Already, six NIT auto bids are guaranteed. Wichita State, Monmouth and Valparaiso would join that group if they do not earn bids to the Big Dance.
“I’m sure it will be anxious,” Simmons said of the team awaiting its fate this week.
The NIT will announce its field Sunday evening following the NCAA Tournament selection show.