NIT semifinals tip off Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden

Madison Square Garden will host a Final Four on Tuesday, just maybe not the quartet everyone has been talking about.

The National Invitation Tournament (NIT) makes its annual stop in New York City tonight, as four teams will convene for a doubleheader. The UMass Minutemen will take on the Stanford Cardinal at 7, which will be followed by a clash between the Minnesota Golden Gophers and Washington Huskies.

The NIT, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2012, is a long-standing New York City college basketball tradition. Before the NCAA Tournament gained its name and prestige, the nation's best battled in the NIT to determine a champion.

It can often be difficult for coaches to convince their teams, especially those that just miss an NCAA Tournament bid, to put forth a serious effort in the NIT. Tuesday's semifinal participants, guided by four strong coaches, have taken advantage of the opportunity.

Tonight's match-ups will be televised on ESPN2 and will be broadcast by Mike Patrick, Fran Fraschila, and Bill Raftery.

More, below the fold.

For Stanford and Washington, the NIT will not be the first time playing at the Garden this season. Stanford competed in the Preseason NIT, defeating Oklahoma State and falling to Syracuse back in November. Washington played in New York twice in a week in December, when they fell to both Marquette and Duke.

On Tuesday, both Pac-12 programs will get their shot at a good old Big Apple redemption.

"I thought [the Preseason NIT] was a springboard for our season," mentioned Stanford head coach Johnny Dawkins at Monday's press conference at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square. "We had a good season, and now we have the opportunity to be back in New York and compete for a championship."

Stanford (25-11) began the season with a promising non-conference performance in November and December, but struggled to find consistency during Pac-12 play. Dawkins' squad, led by freshman guard Chasson Randle (13.8 points per game), finished in just 7th place in a conference that only received two NCAA Tournament bids.

The Cardinal will take on the Atlantic-10's UMass, who is led by head coach Derek Kellogg. A former guard for the Minutemen himself under John Calipari in the early 1990's, Kellogg has built a strong team that is in place to compete for the foreseeable future. This is UMass' first appearance in the NIT "Final Four" since 2008, when it reached the title game and fell to Ohio State.

Sophomore guard Chaz Williams is UMass' leading scorer (16.4 points per game) and is excited about getting a chance to return to the city. Williams decided to join the Minutemen after transferring from Hofstra. He is a Brooklyn native.

The second game of the doubleheader is a match-up between two teams led by a pair of college basketball's familiar faces. Tubby Smith has been the head coach of Minnesota since 2007 after a decade in Lexington, Kentucky. Lorenzo Romar, who was an assistant alongside St. John's coach Steve Lavin on the 1995 UCLA national championship team, is in his tenth season with Washington.

"Our guys are really excited to be here," mentioned Washington head coach Lorenzo Romar on Monday. "We were here in December and didn't fare that well. We always look forward to playing in this town."

Washington (24-10) won the regular season Pac-12 title, but still failed to receive an at-large big into the Big Dance. Led by Terrence Ross and Tony Wroten, the Huskies certainly have enough talent to have been in the field of 68.

The Golden Gophers, who finished just 6-12 in Big Ten play, have had a season defined by inconsistency. Since losing seven out of eight in February, Minnesota has found a strong push here in March.

"We had an up and down season," said Tubby Smith. "It is good to be here in New York. We only have three or four guys who knew where New York was."

Maybe a night under the bright Madison Square Garden lights will give them a taste of the city.

Stay tuned to the Rumble, as we will be there tonight to capture the action. Tuesday's semifinal winners will face off in the NIT championship game on Thursday night.

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