Wichita State wins the NIT, and much more

NEW YORK -- They did not play in front of a packed house. And they did not have the attention of the nation, as four teams in Houston will on Saturday night.

But a group of college basketball players from Wichita, Kansas, got to cut down the nets at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night.

Talk about a memory of a lifetime.

"I'm just ecstatic," said Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall, after his team defeated Alabama 66-57 to win the 2011 NIT championship. "Just a special group of guys that deserve everything that they now have coming to them."

Wichita State (29-8), out of the Missouri Valley Conference, had an impressive run in this tournament, knocking off teams from the Big 12 (Nebraska), ACC (Virginia Tech), Pac-10 (Washington State) and SEC (Alabama), along with fellow mid-major Charleston.

In the process, the Shockers broke the school record for wins in a season, and erased some of the sting of a heartbreaking loss to Indiana State in the Missouri Valley tournament semifinals. Wichita State was dreaming big dreams, and had its sights firmly set on the Big Dance.

"It was a devastating loss," Marshall said. "But you have to deal with the rough moments, the down slides. ... By and large, 29 and 8, coming here, beating all the teams in this tournament, winning a championship, seeing all the smiles on these kids' faces, seeing all the yellow there on the Madison Square Garden floor. And I know Wichita is on fire. I think it's a pretty big deal."

Wichita State wore down Alabama with its depth -- which was rather appropriate, considering the Shockers have been winning games that way all season. Only one player averages in double figures in scoring, and 10 players average at least 14 minutes per game. Ten players scored for Wichita State on Thursday night.

"Their depth, size, physicality and skill was just too much for us today," said Alabama coach Anthony Grant. "I thought they played outstanding."

Alabama kept it close until about four minutes remaining. That's when senior guard Graham Hatch, who came in averaging just six points per game, buried back-to-back 3-pointers that put Wichita State out of reach. Hatch was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player.

"I'm so happy I was able to be there for my team when they needed me," Hatch said. "To be in this opportunity and winning such an amazing tournament as the NIT in this atmosphere, I just couldn't have imagined it. … It's magical."

Speaking of magic, many college basketball fans around the country are still in disbelief that Virginia Commonwealth will be playing in the NCAA tournament's Final Four on Saturday night.

Wichita State faced VCU just six weeks ago, and lost by a single point. The Shockers also played another team in the Final Four, UConn, losing by just four back in November.

"Two of the teams in the Final Four, we could have easily won those games," Marshall said. "You'd have to sit and watch film and understand the film that I watch to understand what I'm saying. They won the games. They deserved to win the games, they deserve to be in the Final Four, they're both great teams. But we could have easily beaten either one of them with one different whistle, one different play. So when you think about that, I know we're a pretty good basketball team."

Indeed they are. They've proven that in this tournament, and over the past five months. Nevertheless, the Shockers will be watching on Saturday night, just like the rest of us.

Wichita State will undoubtedly wonder what might have been. They will wonder if they could have been the ones in Houston, playing the role of Cinderella.

But at least they'll have something else to hold onto. Something else to cheer them up, and cherish.

"It's something our team's gonna have for the rest of our life -- the memory of winning at Madison Square Garden," said Wichita State center Garrett Stutz. "That's the biggest thing. We're always gonna remember this day."

That's a pretty darn good consolation prize.