The natural inclination is to make the NIT a Sunday punchline -- an afterthought of epic proportions. It's the consolation prize, and barely a prize at that, for not being good enough to be among the 68 teams in the NCAA tournament field.

The Gophers received a No. 6 seed in the 32-team NIT last night. It was a foregone conclusion they were nowhere near an NCAA bid; in fact, they were more or less on the NIT bubble, though a bid seemed likely after their win over Northwestern and near-upset of Michigan in the Big Ten tournament. You should not expect the Gophers to be overly excited about this. We will not expect you to be excited about this. In two days, at 6 p.m. Wednesday (on ESPN2), they will play La Salle in a game that many will consider an afterthought.

However, we will say this: The beauty of the NIT is in the eye of the beholder. And despite the tepid response the tournament garners, it has value -- particularly for this young Gophers team. Tubby Smith and his squad have been criticized fairly this season. But while we would hardly call doing well in the NIT a statement, we would consider it an opportunity for momentum.

Considering the Gophers looked about as good as they have all season starting two true freshmen (Andre Hollins, who was named to the conference all-tournament team, and Joe Coleman), a redshirt freshman (Elliott Eliason) a sophomore (Austin Hollins) and a junior (Rodney Williams) in the Big Ten tournament, there is some hope here. Those five can look at distant history -- the 1993 and 1998 Gophers teams both won the NIT title, and they followed up in 1994 and 1999, respectively, with NCAA berths. Or they can look to last year, when Wichita State won the NIT. This year, the Shockers are a No. 5 seed in the NCAA field. In fact, three of the NIT final four teams from a year ago (Wichita State, Colorado and Alabama) are in the Big Dance this season.

If you look at the recent list of teams in the NIT final four, you see programs like Ohio State, Baylor and North Carolina within the past few years. There are competitive teams in this year's field -- teams comparable to the Gophers. Winning a couple games wouldn't take the Twin Cities by storm, but it could help chart a course for a better future.

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