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Published September 12, 2015
With two famous names on the sideline, the NIT championship has a New York feel.
One coach is a rising young star, the other is in the twilight of his Hall of Fame career. Both with boyhood ties to the Big Apple.
Richard Pitino leads Minnesota into the title game Thursday night against 73-year-old Larry Brown and SMU at Madison Square Garden, a building both basketball junkies revere.
Born in Brooklyn and raised in nearby Long Beach, Brown grew up going to games at the Garden and coached the resident New York Knicks to a 23-59 record during the 2005-06 season.
The 31-year-old Pitino, of course, is the son of Louisville coach Rick Pitino, a Hall of Famer himself who guided the Knicks to a division crown and two NBA playoff appearances from 1987-89.
So it seems all too appropriate that Brown and the boy wonder will play for a postseason trophy on Seventh Avenue.
"Well, I know they have the Knicks' dressing room, so what does that tell you?" Brown said on a conference call Wednesday, drawing laughs.
SMU (27-9) and Minnesota (24-13) were both disappointed to be left out of the NCAA tournament on Selection Sunday. But each squad received a No. 1 seed in the NIT and made the most of it.
"I think really the only tough game, honestly, was the first game. I think that was where everybody was kind of let down a little bit," said Richard Pitino, in his first season at Minnesota. "We've got three seniors who don't want their college career to be over, and then we have got some younger guys who have an opportunity to win a championship."
SMU is looking for its first NIT title. In fact, before Tuesday night, the only time the Mustangs had played at Madison Square Garden was a 76-72 loss to St. John's in December 1950.
Minnesota won the National Invitation Tournament in 1993 and '98, but the second one was vacated because of an NCAA rules violation involving player eligibility.
"I think the NIT is so much better than it was years ago," Brown said. "And I try to reminisce about when I was a boy, when the NIT was the biggest tournament going."
A handful of key Gophers, including Austin Hollins and Andre Hollins, played in the championship game two years ago under coach Tubby Smith when Minnesota was routed 75-51 by Stanford.
Starting center Elliott Eliason missed Tuesday's win over Florida State after injuring his ankle in practice last week. Richard Pitino said Eliason would be evaluated at practice Wednesday to gauge whether he'll be able to play in the championship game.
"We are cautious. It's hard to tell right now," the coach said.
Rick Pitino sat behind his son's bench Tuesday rooting on Minnesota. After the game, they went out for burgers and talked a little strategy — which might give the Gophers a bit of an advantage. Dad's team at Louisville beat SMU twice this season in the American Athletic Conference.
Richard Pitino said his parents plan to be in attendance again Thursday night.
"Any excuse for them to stay in New York," he said. "To have him here, right behind the bench, is kind of surreal for me, because growing up my whole life, it's been the other way around. I have always been the fan and he's always been the coach.
"He considers New York home and my mom considers New York home; to have them there last night and be a part of it is something pretty special, and it's really come full circle, I think, with everybody."
Brown, in his 39th season as a head coach, has overseen an impressive turnaround in two years at SMU. Already the only head coach to win both an NCAA and NBA championship, he now has an opportunity to add the NIT to his vast resume.
Brown was hoping to visit St. Paul's Church on Wednesday and possibly bring his players to Ground Zero. Practice was scheduled at Columbia.
"Trying to get them a little Ivy League exposure; maybe that will rub off on some of our kids," he said.