Garrision Mathews helped lead Lipscomb to the NIT Final Four for the first time in school history.
PRIDE OF NASHVILLE
What’s Lipscomb? After deep NIT run, less people need to ask
By Jesse Kramer
March gave the college basketball universe one Cinderella this year. You just had to look in the right place.
That place was Madison Square Garden, where Lipscomb, a small private school from Nashville, parlayed its first-ever postseason win into a run to the NIT championship game.
The fifth-seeded Bisons’ season finally ended Thursday in the NIT finals with an 81-66 loss to No. 2 seed Texas. Along the way, more and more people took notice of Lipscomb, and the team received many of the same, elementary questions over and over.
What’s Lipscomb? Where’s Lipscomb? Lipscomb is Division I?
“People should know us by now,” said senior forward Rob Marberry.
The Bisons went to the 2018 NCAA Tournament as a No. 15 seed and nearly danced again in 2019. They won the ASUN regular season title this year but lost in the conference finals to Liberty, still attaining a school-best 29-8 record.
Yet even in Nashville, Lipscomb struggled to steal attention away from Vanderbilt and Belmont, according to its players, coaches, and fans. Playing third fiddle already stoked a fire in this team; getting snubbed from the NCAA Tournament on Selection Sunday — despite a top 50 NET ranking and two Quadrant 1 wins — added extra fuel.
Not only were Bisons left out of the NCAA Tournament, they were also seeded behind fellow mid-major snubs UNC Greensboro and Furman in the NIT.
“We had a chip on our shoulder,” said senior guard Garrison Mathews, who finished second on the ASUN’s all-time scoring list with 2,478 career points. “It hurt when we didn’t see our name up there on Selection Sunday.”
After knocking off former mid-major darling Davidson, the Bisons romped UNC Greensboro in the second round. They then outlasted North Carolina State as junior guard Kenny Cooper’s jumper with 1.7 made the difference in a 94-93 victory, sending Lipscomb to New York City for the semifinals.
“They went through North Carolina like Sherman went through Georgia,” quipped Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall, making a quick-witted Civil War reference following his team’s semifinal loss to the Bisons.
In their victory over Wichita State, the Bisons trailed by 11 points late in the second half. As the senior-laden group has done at several points throughout their careers, they rallied, closing the game on a 14-0 run to win 71-64.
“When you have five seniors, a bunch of juniors, we know what it takes to win a game,” Marberry said. “There wasn’t any adrenaline rush or anything. It was just us playing how we normally play. Our experience really took over.”
This senior class, led by Mathews and Marberry, turned Lipscomb basketball on its head. The Bisons lost 21 games in 2015-16 compared to winning 29 games this year.
“They’ve gone through losing seasons, and a best season of all time, and now a better season of all time,” Alexander said.
Lipscomb tore through arguably the toughest ASUN ever with a 14-2 record.
After four years without a single top 100 KenPom team, the ASUN broke through with two this year between Lipscomb and Liberty, which upset Mississippi State in the NCAA Tournament.
“Having two teams perform that way stands out — we’ve never had two teams stand out in that way, in terms of having amazing regular seasons and postseason runs,” ASUN commissioner Ted Gumbart said.
(A third ASUN team, NJIT, won a postseason game in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament, marking the first time the conference has had three teams advance in postseason tournaments.)
Over the final 11 weeks of the season, the Bisons peaked at 26th in KenPom and never dipped below 53rd. They finished 7-7 against the top 100.
“It’s one thing to have a magical run and play that Cinderella story,” Alexander said. “But it’s another thing really when you get Top 25 votes for the first time and you’re in the bubble conversation. I think we’re a legitimately good team.”
Now Lipscomb and the ASUN hope this NIT run will help elevate Lipscomb into a perennial top mid-major rather than a two-hit wonder. Alexander can learn from the two coaches he faced at Madison Square Garden.
Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall built upon a 2011 NIT title to jumpstart a dominant run that included a Final Four appearance, an undefeated regular season, and four straight Missouri Valley titles before their eventual departure to the American Athletic Conference.
Texas’ Shaka Smart won the 2010 CBI at VCU and led the Rams to the Final Four the following season.
“As a coach and a staff, you’re looking at the residual effect of how can we use this to keep elevating our program,” Alexander said. “What we want is 15 years from now to look back at say: ‘2018 NCAA Tournament, 2019 great NIT run. That’s where everything started.”
It’s no secret that turning Lipscomb into the next Wichita State is a longshot. But at least for now a few more people know who Lipscomb is, where they’re from, and that they’ve put together a noteworthy Division I program.
“We can’t really do anything about what’s happened in the first 125-year history of our school,” Alexander said, “but the last two years we’ve played in the NCAA Tournament and the finals of the NIT. The more often we do that, the less people will ask.”