When Michigan was passed over for the NCAA tournament three years ago, the Wolverines used it as motivation to win the NIT and beat Notre Dame in the process.
The question now is whether the Irish (18-14) are ready to return the favor.
Coach Matt Doherty admits it could be tough to fire up the Irish for their first-round NIT game against Michigan tonight after they barely missed their first trip to the NCAA tournament in a decade.
``I’m glad we’re not playing today, personally,″ Doherty said Tuesday. ``It’ll give us another day to get it out of our system and enjoy playing another college basketball game.
``When you come down to it, we’re playing a great program like Michigan on national TV.″
In opening-round games Tuesday night, ACC teams were 2-for-2 as Wake Forest beat Vanderbilt 83-68 and North Carolina State beat Tulane 64-60.
In tonight’s other first-round games, it’s Georgetown at Virginia, Princeton at Penn State, Delaware at Villanova, Marquette at Xavier, North Carolina Charlotte at Mississippi, Bowling Green at BYU, New Mexico State at Arizona State, Long Beach State at California and South Florida at New Mexico.
The first round finishes Thursday with Massachusetts at Siena, Rutgers at Kent, Southern Illinois at Colorado, and SMU at Southwest Missouri State.
The next two rounds are at school sites, with the semifinals and final moving to New York on March 28 and March 30.
The Irish had visions of playing in the NCAA tournament after big wins against Ohio State, Connecticut and St. John’s. But losses to Miami of Ohio, Pittsburgh and Providence didn’t help the cause.
Doherty complained the Irish were penalized for playing a tougher schedule than other teams that made the tournament and were rewarded more for the number of wins rather than the quality of those victories.
Asked if something didn’t add up while he was looking over the list of teams that did make the tournament, Doherty said, ``About five or six things didn’t add up.″
``You want to write letters and make phone calls. You want to shout from the top of the mountain, but you can’t control that,″ he said.
The Wolverines (15-13) are happy to be playing anywhere after losing 10 of their final 13 and limping into the NIT. But Michigan can take solace in the fact that both times the Wolverines have won the NIT, they beat the Irish on their way to the title.
Three years ago, a last-second jumper by Louis Bullock gave Michigan a 67-66 win that propelled the Wolverines to the NIT semifinals.
Doherty wants the Irish to follow Michigan’s example.
``That’s got to be our motivation, to prove that we deserve to be in the NCAA tournament,″ Doherty said. ``But it’s hard. We have to be really challenging ourselves to overcome that.″
Says senior point guard Jimmy Dillon: ``We’ve got to go out and prove to the world that we belong with these teams in the NCAA. The NIT is going to give us a chance to take a lot of our frustration out.″
Wake Forest 83, Vanderbilt 68
Vanderbilt was unable to overcome the disappointment of being left out of the NCAA tournament, and Craig Dawson matched a career high with 19 points to lead the Demon Deacons to a surprise win at Nashville.
Wake Forest (18-14) next plays the South Florida-New Mexico winner. Vanderbilt (19-11) ended the season by losing seven of its final 10 games.
The Demon Deacons put the game away with a 12-2 run in the second half for a 57-44 lead with 12:22 left.
North Carolina State 64, Tulane 60
At Raleigh, N.C., Damien Wilkins scored 18 points, and the Wolfpack (18-12) got two clutch baskets in the final 2:27 to move into the second round against the New Mexico State-Arizona State winner.
Tulane closed its season 20-11, losing for only the third time in 11 games decided by five points or less. NC State reversed a 73-62 loss to the Green Wave on Dec. 22.