You Can’t NITPick and Choose When You Want To Play

Last night, 13 Division I men’s college basketball games were played; two of which were contested in Dayton, Ohio. The opening games of the so-called “First Four”, relegated to the soon-to-be extinct network truTV, featured a spirited opener that saw the Staten Island Cinderellas, the Seahawks of Wagner College, continue their improprable post-season run with a first-ever NCAA tournament win over a more experienced Howard University squad (so sorry, my Howard-boosting friends) and a blowout of a fully melted down Virginia Cavalier team by Colorado State.

But fortunately for college hoop fans, there were 11 other games, all more competitive that tru’s nightcap, that were available via the ESPN family of networks.  A decent array of recognizable names and intriguing rivalries.  LSU.  Cornell at Ohio State.  The Iowa men’s team (remember them?).  The I-4 showdown between South and Central Florida.

Collectively, they’re part of the NIT, which actually began a few years before the NCAA tournament and at one time was THE post-season tournament.  City College of New York took greater pride in winning the NIT on their hometown Madison Square Garden court than they did in winning the NCAA tournament that preceded it.  Yes, those days are long gone.  And the NIT is no longer an independent tournament that teams seek a trip to New York for; these days, it’s controlled by the NCAA and now acts as a way for teams 69-101 (ish) to extend their seasons and, most of all, provide content for ESPN on the lighter (and off) days of March Madness.

But it does provide at least one additional home game for fans who supported their teams to be rewarded with, additional revenue and exposure for their programs, and for the majority of college players who will never set foot on a competitive court beyond this point, a chance for their own version of a shining moment.

Which makes the decisions reached by several notable schools to sit this out all the more galling.  FRONT OFFICE SPORTS’ Eric Fisher and David Rumsey recapped:

(E)ight major universities either declined invitations or made it known they would not accept one. Indiana, Memphis, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Pittsburgh, St. John’s, Syracuse, and Washington all presumably could have been in the NIT, if they wanted to.

The Red Storm’s veteran coach Rick Pitino attempted to justify his decision via  disingenous statement which SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (yes, they live!)’s Thomas Neumann relayed:

First and foremost, we have great respect for the National Invitation Tournament and St. John’s storied history in the event…After thorough consideration of all that goes into postseason participation, we believe at this time it is best for our team and basketball program to prepare for next season. We remain focused on building a championship-level program here at St. John’s. I would like to thank all our fans and look forward to the bright future ahead for St. John’s basketball.”   

Pitino has taken five other schools to the NCAAs, and was particularly bitter about this snub, one that had St. John’s ranked as high as 32nd on the NCAA Evaluation Tool metric.  His team was actually not the highest-ranked one not to make the Final 68; Indiana State, at 29, had that distinction (an all-time record).   Yet the Sycamores will proudly host SMU tonight on ESPN.

And other schools that declined the NIT somehow found ways for their football teams to accept bids to secondary bowl games that exist much for the same reasons as does the NIT–to fill time on ESPN.  Oklahoma had no problem going to the Alamo Bowl.  Memphis relished a win over Iowa State in a de facto home game at the Liberty Bowl, which has a tradition in that city nearly as storied as what the NIT has in New York.

Pitino reportedly was far more focused on dealing with portal transfers; that window opened up Monday morning.  And yes, the reality of play-for-pay for players worthy of it needs to be dealt with promptly.  But football teams have faced those same realities for the last couple of years since NIL became more significant initials than NIT (or, arguably, NCAA).  Many such players chose to opt out of  bowl games they saw as meaningless.  They have that right and they exercised it.   But their schools still chose to reward others by playing in those games.  Backups–the potential replacements for those opt-outs–got a chance to prove themselves against quality opponents.

Ask USC quarterback Miller Moss, aka Caleb Williams’ backup, how he felt about the consolation prize of last year’s Holiday Bowl.  Six touchdowns later, he’s now their heir apparent to step into the former Heisman Trophy winner’s shoes this fall.   Maybe a future starter for St. John’s, or any of those other schools who felt entitled enough to end their seasons arbitrarily, might have had similar good fortune.

Perhaps Pitino may indeed have been preoccupied.  He has a staff.  They could have easily handled practices.  All Pitino would have had to do was show up on a sideline.  No question ESPN would have chosen Carnesseca Arena for a home game.  Perhaps the 99-year-old namesake, who competed in a few past NITs and is still the gold standard for coaches for the school at the corner of Union Turnpike and Utopia Parkway, might have been well enough to take a bow.  Trust me, that’s more compelling TV than Colorado State-Virginia was last night.  Grambling-Montana State tonight doesn’t seem all that fascinating, either.

The FOS duo added this nugget to their recap:

Last week, Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark spoke publicly about possibly expanding the men’s NCAA tournament to 76 teams after recent reports suggested momentum for adding teams to the field was under consideration.

Which would likely pacify the likes of the eight schools who took their balls and went home.  Would likely relegate the NIT to even lesser levels of relevance than it has now.  If it exists at all.  This year, instead of New York or Las Vegas, they’re all playing for a trip to the Butler campus in Indianapolis.  Not a bad place to see a game, but hardly a sought-after destination.

And if that happens, great.  Let the traditionalists whine.  There’s now 351 Division I men’s college basketball teams.  Name me a pro sport where roughly 20 per cent of those who can qualify for a post-season are the only ones who make it.  And based on the realities of how this week’s television schedule looks, there’s more than enough room for those additional games.  Likely, a new revenue stream, and perhaps a chance for a couple of more Daytons to emerge to accommodate.

But that’s still conjecture.  Right now, we have what we have.  And it’s a damn shame that Pitino and his fellow opt-outers chose to deny his players, coaches, fans and alumni the chance to take full advantage of it.




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