NIT — it’s just three letters, but the National Invitation Tournament carries with it a boatload of stigma. For years, when I was much younger and much more na?ve, I honestly thought it stood for the Not Important Tournament.

Others have suggested it should stand for “Not Invited Tournament,” “Nobody’s Interested Tournament,” “National Insignificant Tournament” or “Not In Tournament.”

Yet, this year, just as I have the past four years, I filled out my NIT bracket following the selection show on ESPNU with the hopes of having some success in picking the virtual “66th best team in the nation.”

Last year, I picked Ohio State over Florida, and to my delight, both teams reached the semifinals as Ohio State cruised to an NIT victory, earning my first correct pick of a champion in either the NIT or NCAA tournaments in at least five years. (No, I didn’t pick Florida in 2007.)

Well, so far so good in 2009, as I picked 23 of 24 games correctly with Creighton’s loss to Kentucky ruining my perfect bracket last night.

In the championship, I have Saint Mary’s (who really should be in Arizona’s position right now in the Big Dance) downing Penn State in a classic point guard matchup between Patty Mills and Talor Battle.

Of course, my point is not to show off my skills in picking No. 6 seeds Davidson and Rhode Island in the first round. Instead, I intend to prove the worth of the National Invitation Tournament.

Ask most fans and they’ll likely agree with one thing: The NIT really doesn’t matter.

Yet, any Penn State, Saint Mary’s, Kentucky or Northwestern player at last week’s first-round games can attest to the importance of college basketball’s annual consolation tournament.

In the Penn State-George Mason matchup, the Patriots took a 65-62 lead on a pair of Dre Smith free throws with 4.8 seconds remaining in regulation before Battle drained a shot from beyond the arc to send the game into overtime and the Penn State crowd into a frenzy.

In the extra period, the sophomore guard scored eight of his game-high 24 points to earn the victory and advance the Nittany Lions to the second round.

At a school that hadn’t won a postseason game since knocking off North Carolina in the first round of the 2001 NCAA Tournament, people cared.

For Saint Mary’s, a school that many — including myself — believe deserved an invitation to the Big Dance, the NIT is an opportunity to finish its season on a positive note and hopefully win a championship on April 2 at Madison Square Garden.

Although Kentucky fans may cringe at the thought of playing in the tournament, the first-round game gave average fans — those who don’t shell out thousands of dollars in donations to earn season tickets — an opportunity to see their beloved Wildcats in person for a reasonable price.

Not surprisingly, Memorial Coliseum — which the ‘Cats played in for the first time since 1976 with Rupp Arena unavailable — was packed with a raucous sellout crowd of 8,327.

And if they felt any lingering disappointment from the end of their 17-year NCAA Tournament appearance streak, they didn’t show it. The crowd was deafeningly loud with head coach Billy Gillispie unable to even hear a player standing next to him at one point.

Although Northwestern lost to Tulsa after struggling late in its first-round matchup, the Wildcats ended a 10-year postseason drought, putting themselves in position to fight in 2010 for the program’s first NCAA bid.

Still not convinced?

Monday night’s second-round matchup between Saint Mary’s and Davidson marked the fastest sellout in Saint Mary’s school history with fans wanting a chance to see future-NBA point guards Mills and Stephen Curry go head-to-head.

Also, despite coming up short in earning their teams’ NCAA bids, Florida’s Nick Calathes and San Diego State’s Kyle Spain are playing as well as they have all season through two rounds.

Williams’ 16 points Friday — including eight straight in the second half — helped the Aztecs set a school record with 25 wins and advance to the second round of a national postseason tournament for the first time as well.

Still, beyond the intriguing stories that go along with the NIT, the tournament is relevant for other reasons.

First, the opportunity to play in a single-elimination postseason tournament, regardless of its name, gives players the experience needed to excel in pressure situations.

Take a look at last year’s NIT bracket and you’ll see some familiar names.

Ohio State. California. Dayton. Cleveland State. Utah State. VCU. Stephen F. Austin. Akron. Florida State. Maryland. Minnesota. Robert Morris. Syracuse. Rhode Island. Oklahoma State. Alabama State. Arizona State.

Those 16 teams — half of last year’s NIT field — all reached this year’s NCAA Tournament field after seven of the 16 won at least one game in last year’s NIT. Although only six of them won their first round matchups in 2009, and only one (Syracuse) is still alive in the Sweet 16, they made it to the Big Dance, and that’s better than the NIT, right?

Well, whatever you think of the NIT, there’s no denying the winners of the last two tournaments — West Virginia and Ohio State — have improved dramatically in the season following their NIT titles, with each punching their ticket to the Big Dance.

And you can bet if Mills leads Saint Mary’s to a title at MSG this year, the Gaels will be a force to be reckoned with in the 2010 NCAA Tournament, especially if they find themselves playing just an hour away at the first round site at the HP Pavilion in San Jose.

Jordan is a junior majoring in journalism and political science. Still think the NIT doesn’t matter? Want to discuss your NIT picks? He can be reached at [email protected].