NEW YORK — After flying all the way across the country for the second time this season, Washington wants to make this trip to Madison Square Garden much more successful than the first one.
The way the Huskies figure it, if they win the NIT championship it will show they truly belonged in the NCAA tournament.
The only No. 1 seed left in the 75th edition of the NIT, Washington faces coach Tubby Smith and his rejuvenated Minnesota team Tuesday night in the second game of a semifinal doubleheader. Stanford plays Massachusetts, driven by Brooklyn-bred point guard Chaz Williams, in the Final Four opener.
Washington (24-10) spent a week in New York during December, taking in two Broadway musicals and taking it on the chin against Marquette and Duke.
Now the Pac-12 regular-season champs are back — with a renewed purpose and a chip on their shoulders.
"It's a lot more of a business trip. We're out here playing for a championship. We're out here on a mission, so it is less fun and more work," said sophomore guard Terrence Ross, a potential NBA prospect averaging 26.3 points in the NIT. "I think coming back is just, it's more of an opportunity to prove to everybody that we should have been in the NCAA tournament."
When the Huskies took Manhattan three months ago, they visited the 9-11 Memorial and scored theater seats for "The Lion King." They also saw "Memphis" and met the cast backstage, with players then writing papers on the shows as part of a two-credit course arranged through a joint project between the school's athletic administration and drama department.
They ate at the famous Dinosaur Bar-B-Que in Harlem, and actor Jim Caviezel, a Washington alum whose father played hoops at UCLA for John Wooden, hosted the Huskies on the set of his CBS television show "Person of Interest."
But when it came time to hit the court, Washington came up empty in two key games at Madison Square Garden. The Huskies lost to then-No. 11 Marquette 79-77 and four days later to then-No. 7 Duke, 86-80.
A victory in either game might have impressed the NCAA tournament selection committee. Instead, the Huskies were left out when the 68-team field was announced March 11, making them the first team to win a regular-season title in a so-called power conference and still miss the NCAAs.
"When the reality set in, we were rock-bottom mentally. So it's difficult. But they've done a good job of bouncing back," coach Lorenzo Romar said Monday. "I think the experience from being here last time should help us this time. I thought we had a little pregame jitters when we were here the first time. I don't think we'll have that. ... I think we're here now really focused on this tournament."
Washington will play No. 6 seed Minnesota (22-14), which sputtered through an injury-plagued season filled with close losses in the rough-and-tumble Big Ten.
The Golden Gophers lost star forward Trevor Mbakwe to a season-ending knee injury in their seventh game, and senior center Ralph Sampson III has missed the last five with a sprained right knee. Backup forward Oto Osenieks is still bothered by concussion symptoms, too.
Other than that, though, Smith said the Gophers are healthier than they had been and that's made all the difference. They've reeled off three straight road wins in the NIT, by an average margin of 11 points, against La Salle, Miami and Middle Tennessee — the latter before a raucous crowd of 10,521.
"I think it benefited us because you leave an environment where you're kind of depressed because you didn't make the Big Dance," said Smith, who coached Kentucky to the 1998 national championship. "We had to deal with the vibrating floor at La Salle, then we had to deal with the atmosphere in Miami which was kind of sedate, then you deal with the environment at Middle Tennessee, which was like, the biggest happening it looked like they'd had in forever. I mean, everybody came out there, so it was a packed environment."
Massachusetts, seeded fifth in its corner of the bracket, also won three road games in a row to reach the semifinals. Including the Minutemen and Golden Gophers, only five teams have turned that trick in the NIT.
UMass (25-11) beat Mississippi State in double-overtime and overcame a 17-point second-half deficit in Drexel's steamy gym, snapping the Dragons' 18-game home winning streak.
That earned a trip to the Big Apple and a homecoming for Williams, the 5-foot-9 dynamo who is averaging 22.7 points, 6.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists in the NIT.
"We all wanted to get Chaz home," coach Derek Kellogg said. "I think the guys on the team from the seniors on down wanted to give him the opportunity to get back to New York City and play in Madison Square Garden."
Fran Fraschilla, the ESPN analyst and former Division I coach who hosted Monday's news conference, said Williams is "worth the price of admission." The sophomore point guard, a transfer from Hofstra, expects nearly 100 friends and family members to be in attendance Tuesday night.
"More excited than nervous. Can't get nervous about the game you love," he said.
Kellogg learned his craft as a Massachusetts player and Memphis assistant under coach John Calipari, who has led Kentucky to its second straight Final Four in the NCAA tournament. Kellogg expects a large UMass contingent to make the 3-hour drive from Amherst, Mass., for the semifinal against Stanford.
"They look the part of a BCS team, a Pac-12 team, and I'm impressed with how well they're playing right now," he said.Comment on this story
The Cardinal (24-11) also played at Madison Square Garden earlier this season, beating Oklahoma State before losing a tight game to then-No. 5 Syracuse in the championship of the NIT Season Tip-Off.
"I think the benefit is we're used to the atmosphere because a lot of the things that we're experiencing now are very similar to what we experienced in the preseason NIT. Of course, you're playing totally different teams," Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins said. "I think it could be a huge springboard for our group. It's how we handle it."
Stanford and Washington both advanced to New York by winning three home games.
Minnesota won the NIT in 1993 and 1998, while Stanford took the 1991 title. Washington and UMass are both looking for their first championship.