On Wednesday night, the Arizona State basketball team will begin its quest for an NIT championship with a first round matchup against the Detroit Titans of the Horizon Conference.
While playing in the NIT is certainly a disappointment for Sun Devil players and fans alike, Arizona State will have little time to dwell on the mishaps that prevented the team from making the NCAA tournament.
After recording a 21-12 record, the Sun Devils earned a No. 3 seed in the NIT and must focus on the task at hand.
The Sun Devils were underestimated on nearly every account in the offseason, but they quickly outgrew their label as cellar dwellers in the Pac-12. Thirty-three games later, the Sun Devils have a realistic chance to build on their success from the 2012-2013 season and cultivate momentum heading into next year.
Though the NIT might not be a glamorous alternative to March Madness, there are certainly valuable takeaways that Jahii Carson and company can work for.
Here are the three most important lessons Arizona State can learn through the NIT.
1. Learn How to Win in March
While winning a few NIT games might not ignite a change of culture in the Sun Devil basketball program, the Sun Devils need to figure out how they stack up against quality nonconference opponents.
For the past few seasons, Herb Sendek has failed to schedule tournament-caliber teams on the nonconference slate and this year, the Sun Devils were not prepared to handle the rigors of an 18-game Pac-12 season.
If the Sun Devils can beat teams like Detroit and Long Beach State, they will gain valuable confidence heading into next year. Likewise, victories in late March are important no matter where they come, and if the Sun Devils go dancing next year, they will have players who know how to win late in the season.
Of course, an NIT title would go a long way in teaching the Sun Devils about winning, but just stringing together two or three wins would give this team the experience it needs to grow and mature.
2. Never Underestimate an Opponent
Arizona State may have a higher seed and home court advantage against Detroit, but the Titans will come to Tempe fired up to beat the Sun Devils.
Ray McCallum is a rare talent and he will test Jahii Carson in ways he hasn't seen in Pac-12 competition, so the Sun Devils will not have the luxury of a strong advantage at the point guard position.
Furthermore, McCallum isn't the only threat the maroon and gold must worry about. Detroit is ninth in the country with a scoring average of 78.1 points per game, and the Titans have only been held below 75 points twice in their last 12 games.
If Detroit does beat Arizona State, Sendek's squad will understand the feeling of what it's like to be upset in tournament play and that can inspire a team to stay hungry through the offseason.
3. How to Move Forward
At the culmination of this season, Carrick Felix will graduate and move on to the NBA. The dynamic leader has motivated his teammates throughout the season, and his statistics may speak louder than his actions or words.
The versatile scoring threat averages 14.2 points per game and grabs 8.2 rebounds per game, and his loss will hurt.
In addition, freshman phenom Jahii Carson may find his way to the NBA as well. The Pac-12 conference's Co-Freshman of the Year was simply electrifying this season and his 18.3 points per game led the Sun Devils.
Regardless of whether or not Carson leaves, the Sun Devils know they'll have to replace at least one of their top scoring threats.
Can Gilling be more than just a three-point weapon? Can Gordon be a 15 to 20 point guy every night?
If the Sun Devils go on a run in the NIT, question marks should begin to fade and optimism will start to grow.
Next year, the Sun Devils won't be the Carrick and Jahii show. It's time to start the transition and do so with success.