The Little Dance

Not many basketball fans pay much attention to the mediocre NIT: the Not Invited Tournament

April 02, 2007|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,Sun Reporter

NEW YORK — NEW YORK-- --Here's the sad truth about playing in the National Invitation Tournament: No matter how well your team does, you'll never thrust your finger in the air and shout, "We're No. 1!"

You'll never shout, "We're No. 2!" either.

Nos. 3 through 20 are pretty much out of the question, too.

No, even if you win the NIT championship - as the West Virginia Mountaineers did by beating the Clemson Tigers before 12,000 empty seats a few days ago at Madison Square Garden - your number will be much higher, like something you'd pull at the MVA when you go for new tags.

You'll be No. 66. That's because the top 65 teams in men's college basketball went to the Big Dance, the glamour-puss NCAA Tournament, the one everyone in the land pays attention to.

You went to the Little Waltz, the NIT, the one nicknamed the Not Invited Tournament.

So you're No. 66.

And they don't make giant foam fingers that say "We're No. 66!"

That's why if you're one of the West Virginia or Clemson players, it has to sting a little when you sit down tonight and see all the fuss made over Ohio State-Florida for the NCAA championship.

Buckeyes-Gators in Atlanta, now that's a big game: network TV, big shots Jim Nantz and Billy Packer calling the action, endless highlights on ESPN the next day, major coverage in all the newspapers.

You, on the other hand, got zero coverage. Or pretty close to zero. Are you kidding? There are games in the witness protection program that get more coverage.

Martha Stewart shooting free throws in the prison exercise yard - she got more coverage.

March Madness? Not for you, baby.

Sure, ESPN televised the NIT semis and finals, but it felt like a charity case. Out-of-town papers gave you a few paragraphs, that's it. If you were lucky, they showed a 10-second clip of your game on the 11 o'clock news.

All this, of course, could really get to you if you played in the NIT.

But here's what really gets to you: People will say your team stinks.

Even if your team has better than 20 wins - the Mountaineers finished with 27, the Tigers with 25 - people will say you stink because you didn't make it to the Big Dance.

Sure, it's dumb. But your fans will say you stink. Newspaper columnists will say you stink. The howling masses on sports radio will say you stink.

You may even come to believe this yourself, like some kind of perverse Stockholm Syndrome.

The Maryland Terrapins certainly seemed to have a debilitating case of self-loathing after two straight NIT appearances in 2005 and 2006.

And no wonder

Playing Manhattan before a tiny crowd in their only NIT game last year - televised by ESPN 8 ("The Ocho"), which meant that it was seen in maybe 20 homes - the Terps appeared catatonic.

They were booed off the court by their own fans at halftime before going on to lose. 87-84.

This March, after being assured of an NCAA Tournament bid, the Terps let their true feelings about the NIT come pouring out. "I'm more than happy ... I don't have to come back here to play an NIT game," senior guard D.J. Strawberry told reporters.

James Gist, the junior forward, was even more impolitic: "I can sleep good tonight, knowing we're not going to the NIT, we're going to the NCAA."

Is that a quote for the NIT scrapbook or what?

If you're the tourney PR guy, how do you put a positive spin on that?

OK, fine, let's stop the piling on for a moment. Let's look at the other side of the coin, too.

Let's say you're one of the teams that didn't make the NCAA Tournament, one of the teams that sat around waiting for the Big Call that never came.

Now here comes the NIT, winking and beckoning like a saucy-eyed suitor, whispering breathlessly: "Hey, big guy, your season doesn't have to end yet. Come play at our party."

What would you do?

Hey, you're a basketball player, right? You want to keep playing ball. You'd do anything to make the season last one more game.

And if you were the West Virginia Mountaineers or Clemson Tigers, or the Mississippi State Bulldogs or Air Force Falcons, and you made it through the NIT's 32-team field all the way to the Final Four, what would you do then?

This is what you'd do:

You'd make the best of it and go off to New York, to the basketball mecca on Eighth Avenue and 33rd Street known as the Garden.

You'd try to win a championship.

And try to convince people - maybe even yourself - that you don't stink.

It's a Tuesday night and the Garden - "the most famous and glamorous arena in creation," columnist Red Smith called it - is all shined up, the floor polished to a gleam, the championship banners of the Knicks and Rangers hanging jauntily from the rafters.

But only about 7,000 people are in the stands as WVU prepares to tip off against Mississippi State in the opening game.

For those who grew up with the tournament, it's a sad sight.

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