The big prize in the National Invitation Tournament — one thing the NCAA can't overshadow — is Madison Square Garden.
It bills itself as the World's Most Famous Arena. For a college basketball player, it's a destination few places match for history and glamour. Wichita State (27-8) will play Washington State (21-12) in the NIT semifinals Tuesday at the arena on Seventh Ave. in Manhattan.
Wichita State junior Joe Ragland is one of the Shockers who can't wait to step on that famous floor. Ragland, from West Springfield, Mass., knows New York City well.
"I've been there plenty of times," he said. "But I'll be new to the feeling of playing in Madison Square Garden, just like everybody else."
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The man who introduced Ragland to the history of the building will be there. Michael Housey, a cousin, is a Knicks fan who fed Ragland's basketball dreams.
"When I was a young kid, he would always tell me, 'Joe, you're going to play for the New York Knicks, and you're going to revive them.' " Ragland said. "He's never been to Madison Square Garden. He's going to be able to see me play. I don't think anybody realizes how special it is for me to play in Madison Square Garden."
Next week's trip to New York will be special for all of the Shockers. Wednesday's 82-75 win over College of Charleston at Koch Arena completed a redemption tour for the Shockers. No longer is this season about not making the NCAA Tournament, not winning the Missouri Valley Conference or losing home games.
After Wednesday, it's about three NIT wins, a trip to the Garden and a chance to win a title.
"When the season started, we had certain goals at hand, and as everybody knows, didn't accomplish them," senior Gabe Blair said. "To see failure, and then take it as, 'OK, I failed once, but I'm still going to set another goal and try to reach it' — is a great feeling."
WSU, seeded fourth in its section of the 32-team bracket, is the lowest seed to advance to New York. It is also the only remaining team to win an NIT game on the road — top seeds Colorado (24-13) and Alabama (24-11) and second-seeded Washington State won three home games.
The Shockers won't be the favorite. They also won't be overwhelmed by the competition. They lost three non-conference games — all to teams in the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16 (Connecticut, San Diego State, Virginia Commonwealth).
"Wichita State has great balance, great balance," Charleston coach Bobby Cremins said. "They have a nice inside-outside game. They're going to have a great chance to win the NIT."