SportsProf

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Saturday, March 10, 2007

Is the NIT Still Relevant?

Read here for the latest on the NIT.

Years ago, the NCAA eliminated consolation games, both at the regional level (where the two teams that didn't advance to the regional final would play) and at the national level (where the two losers of the national semifinals would play for third place). The coaches and teams hated playing those games, and they were eliminated.

So why play the NIT? It's an also-rans tournament, a tournament for teams that didn't qualify for the tournament that we care about, the NCAA tournament. Who watches it except for alums of the schools involved and the family members of the players? The ratings just can't be that good, because the championship means little to anyone except those who win it. Quick, name who won the NCAA tournament last year?

Florida?

Who won the NIT?

Get my point.

Now, onto a bigger issue, one that also is a subject of controversy. No less an authority than John Wooden has suggested in the past that the NCAA expand the field of the tournament. He harkened back to the excitement that the Indiana HS hoops tournament generated by being all-inclusive, and he has expressed the opinion that the DI men's tournament include all teams. That would be very interesting and create even more excitement than the tournament generates now. That concept also would eliminate the NIT.

Picture a shorter in-season schedule and a 330-team tournament. Now, that doesn't mean that everyone should have a first-round game. It could be that the top 64 get a first-round bye and that there's re-seeding in each round. A certain number would get first-round byes (conference champions and the appropriate number of the best remaining teams to make the field work mathematically). Is that fair?

Expanding the field certainly would add excitement, even if there's a risk that you'd be making the regular season less meaningful. That's the one argument that resonates with me -- if you're going to include everyone, why play a grueling regular season? The flip side is that the grueling regular season will help with seeding and toughen up teams for an exciting post-season tournament. No, I don't think that a 2-26 team will win a game, but the buzz that the possibility of a George Mason-like run or of a SWAC team beating a top ACC team in the first round will be tremendous. Put differently, I think that the country would grind to some sort of halt a la the World Cup in many nations when the national team is playing. Why? Because with every team making the field, many Americans are bound to have a team to watch. And, in a nation that's worried about Social Security's bankruptcy in thirty years, the role of radical Islam, the economic emergence of China, the increasing incidence of obesity and a whole host of things, would it be so bad for people to duck out of work for a while, head into a local sports bar, have a libation and root hard for a team with which they have a connection?

Then again, there's the "Wall of Gaylord" syndrome from "Meet the Fockers." You might remember the scene from the movie, where Ben Stiller's folks (earthies who hug perhaps too much) had a wall with their son's so-called accomplishments (none of which amounted to more than a ninth-place finish in a JV wrestling tournament). Or, you could call it the current "little league sports" syndrome, where up to a certain age everyone gets a trophy, whether they show up to every game, play hard or even have a clue that they're playing the sport they're playing. Why should the 2-26 team that perhaps might not beat Oak Hill Academy get rewarded by entry into a tournament? What's the sense in that?

Perhaps it's cents. If everyone makes the tournament, everyone could get a share of the tournament's money to help fund their athletic departments. That means, perhaps, one less game where you have Morgan State traveling to Ohio State to get their clocks cleaned early in the year for an appearance fee. That means that the wealth gets shared beyond the "oligarchy" conferences, who want to dominate the conversation each year because they think that anything below a high-major is a debilitating nuisance at worse and a romantic one at best. The ADs of those schools (some of whom were not portrayed in a flattering light in John Feinstein's book on the Final Four) want as much money as possible for their schools. They tolerate all non-majors because popular opinion would vilify them if they didn't at least give lip service to the notion that schools outside the Big East, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC and Pac-10 should play a meaningful role in the tournament. Would that be so bad?

To them, it would be, because to quote Billy Joel in "Piano Man," "Because it's me they've been comin' to see to forget about life for a while." Translated, most people watch the tournament from the get-go to watch the big-name schools, and, if not from the get-go, they end up there because it's more often than not that the George Masons don't make it to the Sweet 16. So, then, perhaps there's a compromise that puts a premium on winning if the NCAA were to have an all-inclusive tournament. Share the money with first-round winners and beyond. Don't share the money with the "Wall of Gaylord" participants (to ACC fans, think of teams that qualified for what once was called the "Les Robinson Game"). Would that work for you?

There's so much money to go around, it should. But be careful that you just don't throw a tip to first round winners (shades of the sign at the pool on Caddie Day in the movie "Caddyshack," where caddies were welcome to use the pool from 1:00 to 1:15). Make the first-round bounty meaningful, and end it there.

So, back to the main points. One, should the NIT continue to exist? I think that deep down the NCAA believes it shouldn't. However, to avoid arguments from the Justice Department that the NCAA is really monopolizing college hoops, they'll probably let it die a slow death over the course of a few years and then bury it quietly. And that elimination might coincide with an expansion of the NCAA tournament. I don't expect expansion to every team, but expansion to 96 or 128 could be a possibility.

Because it's hard to argue why 65 makes sense, and it's really not all that sportsmanlike to make a team that wins its conference tournament play on a Tuesday night in a play-in game where the winner doesn't get any of the huge pool of bucks for its victory. John Feinstein made this point in his book, and he's absolutely right.

Contrary to the argument of Gordon Gekko in "Wall Street" that "Greed, for the lack of a better word, is good," the greed of the big schools is dangerous. The magic of NCAA hoops is that a 6'7" forward can turn into a dominating 7'1" center a la David Robinson, a Valparaiso and a Copping State can wreak havoc, and a Gonzaga can reach the Final 8. Let's do nothing to take away that possibility, and let's enrich all of DI college hoops in the process.

2 Comments:

Anonymous The Sports Curmudgeon said...

Prof:

This has been my plan for an "expanded NCAA Tournament" for about the past three/four years.

1. Committee selects 96 teams. NO team with a record below .500 in conference will be selected no matter what the RPI or Strength of Schedule. Indies would have to have a minimum of 18 wins even to be considered.

2. The committee will seed all 96 teams by whatever method they like to include a Ouiga Board.

3. The "top 32 teams" get a bye.

4. The "bottom 64 teams" play each other in a single "play-in format".

5. The winners of the "play-in games" to to the NCAA torunament joining the "top seeded 32 teams" that had a bye.

6. The losers of the "play-in games" comprise the field for the NIT. Of course, a new name for the NIT will have to be found.

9:49 PM  
Blogger bubba spice said...

Not In Tournament

1:57 AM  

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