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April 19, 2011Santa Clara coach Kerry Keating's mock bracket probably didn't fool his players, but doing one didn't hurt, either.
After his team defeated Northern Arizona and Air Force in the first two rounds of the CollegeInsider.com Tournament, Keating hung a bracket in the locker room. He told his players that if they defeated West Coast Conference rival San Francisco in the CIT quarterfinal, they'd be West Region champions and bound for the Final Four.
So it wasn't the Final Four, but it was a final four. The Broncos defeated SMU in a national semifinal March 25, then downed Iona on March 30 to win the CIT championship.
It was Santa Clara's first postseason appearance since Steve Nash led the Broncos to the second round of the 1996 NCAA tournament.
"We got the experience of playing and winning games in March," said Keating, a former assistant at UCLA, Seton Hall, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Tulsa. "There's always uncertainty with those tournaments [the NIT, CBI and CIT] in terms of how you get guys ready. ... We knew we had a good chance to play well."
The title really wasn't major news outside of the West Coast Conference, but if Santa Clara follows the path of other CIT champions, Keating might not need to fake his bracket next season.
Though the CIT is only three years old, its champions have good track records. Old Dominion won the first CIT in 2009. The Monarchs followed that by reaching the NCAA tournament in 2010 and '11, advancing to the second round in '10. Missouri State won the CIT in 2010 and won the Missouri Valley Conference regular-season title this past season, when it went on to the NIT.
Fans may ignore the "other" postseason tournaments, but the experiences can be invaluable for the teams that participate. Teams that reach any postseason tourney are able to practice as a team, while teams that don't participate move on to individual workouts.
Perhaps the best example of a team taking advantage of extra practice and competition is VCU. The Rams won the College Basketball Invitational in 2010, then reached the NCAA Final Four this past season.
Including VCU, six teams from the 2010 CBI reached the 2011 NCAA tournament. That's the same amount of teams that advanced from the NIT to the NCAA tournament, though the NIT invites twice as many teams as the CBI.
Meanwhile, two of the 16 teams in last season's CIT reached the NCAA tournament this season. Santa Clara is hoping to make that same jump next season. The Broncos will return their top three scorers, including junior guard Kevin Foster, who averaged 20.2 points and 3.7 assists last season.
"Everyone is motivated more now than we were before to work harder this summer," Keating said. "We're kind of springboarding into the offseason with a different motivation."
What other teams could benefit from the extra practice and postseason tournament experience? Here's a look at teams from the NIT, CBI and CIT that could be in position to move up to the NCAA tourney in 2011-12.