NEW YORK — Iowa and Baylor had NCAA aspirations but NIT pedigrees.
The teams finished conference play at 9-9 and that was enough to keep them out of the Big Dance. But each since has carved out its own side room and danced to a different beat in the renowned consolation tournament.
Iowa (25-12) has won each of its NIT games by double digits, including 71-60 against Maryland in an NIT semifinal Tuesday night. Baylor (22-14) has mixed blowouts with tight wins late, like its 76-70 win against BYU on Tuesday. But both unquestionably are the best teams left in the 32-team tournament and both have much at stake Thursday night (8 p.m. ESPN).
Strangely, neither coach feels pressure entering the game. The NIT has allowed them to relax.
“Talking with the coaches that were here at the banquet the other day, it was amazing with a team like each of us had, our bubble had burst, the freedom that maybe our guys just not feeling all that pressure, it seemed like each of our teams have played a lot better,” Baylor Coach Scott Drew said.
“I think (we feel) the ordinary pressure that you would expect,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said. “Last game of the year, playing a really good team in a place like this. When you take the floor, you’re putting pressure on yourself to perform the best. You can tell when you hit the floor at this level. It’s a big crowd, it’s a big deal. This is a bigger deal. You have a chance to hang a banner, you have a chance to wear a ring for the rest of your life.
“I think everybody recognizes it’s a little different but at the same time you want to approach it as such you’re going through the normal businesslike approach you normally do.”
The teams’ bubbles burst for different reasons. Iowa had a strong overall record (21-12) and was competitive (seven Big Ten losses by four points or less) but lacked a signature road win and played a porous non-conference schedule. Baylor played a competitive non-conference schedule and had big wins, like a 23-point beatdown of Kansas in the regular-season finale, but couldn’t overcome its 19-14 record.
Both schools squandered big leads in conference quarterfinal games. Iowa lost 59-56 to Michigan State, while Baylor fell to Oklahoma State 74-72.
But now the schools get a chance to finish with a win at a historic venue. That would smooth over the hurt of missing the Big Dance.
“That would be phenomenal in terms of this caliber and this venue,” McCaffery said. “With a tremendous amount of Hawkeye fans in the building for a team that’s really come together at the right time. It would be just a tremendous feeling.”
Like dancing in the streets.