LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) - The NIT has been disdainfully referred to as the National Irrelevant Tournament, and for a while it looked like that was going to be the approach of the University of Louisville basketball team due to the disappointment of being left out of the NCAA Tournament.
Then the games began, the competitive juices started flowing, the camaraderie took hold and the No. 2-seeded Cardinals (21-13) changed their attitude.
And now they seem, if not excited, at least determined as they head into a second-round NIT game against dangerous No. 3 Middle Tennessee State (25-7) at 6:30 p.m. Sunday in the KFC Yum! Center. The survivor will advance to the quarterfinals against either No. 1 Baylor or No. 4 Mississippi State, who will meet at noon Sunday in Waco, Texas.
The Cards admitted they came out "flat" in the first half against Northern Kentucky before realizing they weren't ready for the season to end yet - as stressful as it's been - and rallying for a 66-58 victory.
"We're going to play for each other," center Anas Mahmoud told reporters after the win. "We're going to enjoy every minute left as a team. The message is have fun, play hard and play for each other."
And make the best of a disheartening situation. Mahmoud and point guard Quentin Snider are the only two seniors on the roster, but this could conceivably also be the last college season for juniors Deng Adel and Ray Spalding, depending on whether they decide to opt for the NBA draft this spring.
U of L interim coach David Padgett says nothing has really changed, that this group has always been extremely close-knit.
"They're what they've been all year, just happy to be around each other and get to play basketball," Padgett said. "They love hanging out with each other, and every time they set foot in the gym they come to work, and that hasn't changed all year."
Middle Tennessee is also intent on wiping out the jolt of being snubbed by the NCAA Selection Committee despite winning the regular-season Conference USA championship with a 16-2 record and making a short-lived appearance in both Top-25 polls late in the season. The two league losses came against Marshall, the C-USA Tournament champ who upset No. 4 Wichita State as a No. 13 seed.
"There are a lot of teams out there that get selected into the NIT and don't really want to play," said 6-7 senior forward Nick King, Middle's leading scorer (20.9 ppg.) and rebounder (8.5 rpg.) and C-USA's Player of the Year. "But we want to finish the season off as strong as we can. We just want to play basketball."
The Blue Raiders also want to send their veteran coach, Kermit Davis, off to Ole Miss on a high note. Davis, 58, who has coached Middle to a 332-187 record over 16 seasons, accepted the Rebels' job Thursday, but is coaching the team in the NIT.
"That was the first thing that was talked about with Ole Miss and with (MTSU's athletics director and president)," Davis said. "That's just the way we're built here and everybody was 1,000 percent on board. I'm going to be the coach at Middle Tennessee until the final second goes out. That's the most important thing to me, is this team right here and preparing them in the best way possible for Louisville. And I think our players will play their tails off."
Since losing back-to-back December games against ranked USC (89-84) and Miami (84-81), Middle, which defeated No. 6 Vermont 91-64 in its NIT debut, has posted a 17-3 record.
"We know what we are," Davis said. "Two weeks ago, we were ranked in both polls and had the nation's third-longest winning streak and in a six-day period we're out (of the NCAAs). It's just the life of a team in a mid-major conference. It's tough."
Tough is how Padgett sees the Blue Raiders and their statistical accomplishments back him up. They are ninth nationally in 3-point field goal defense (30.7), 28th in scoring defense (65.8), 31st in rebound margin (5.6) and 32nd in scoring margin (+9.6).
King is shooting 38.7 percent beyond the arc (41-106), but MTSU's best long range bomber is senior guard Giddy Potts, who is shooting 40.9 on 83-203 while averaging 13.4 ppg.
"First thing I started thinking about when I was watching tapes of Middle Tennessee was, there's always teams that gripe about not making the NCAA Tournament, but this team has a real gripe," Padgett said. "This is one of the more impressive teams I've seen on film all year, there's no question about it. Just the way they do all kinds of different stuff - change defenses, the sets they run, the way the play. It's one of the more impressive teams I've seen.
"They can play three defenses in one single possession to keep you out of your rhythm. Offensively, they run really good sets, they have a lot of guys who can shoot the ball, they're athletic, they play really hard. To be quite honest, there's not a whole lot they don't do well. So we've got our hands full on Sunday, but looking forward to getting back out in front of the fans and having another great crowd."
Russ Brown, a former sportswriter for The Courier-Journal and USA Today, covers University of Louisville sports and college basketball for Kentucky Today. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.