March 14, 2006

Maybe the NIT will start sucking a little less

In August of last year, it was announced that the four-year legal battle between the Metropolitan Intercollegiate Basketball Association and the National Collegiate Athletic Association would end with Moby Dick gobbling Ahab: for about $56 million, the NCAA would become owner and operator of the National Invitation Tournament, the once-venerable college hoops tourney that has become more a national platform for extending the shame and humiliation felt by prestigious programs that turn in a crap season here or there than an actual tournament worth winning.

We know a little something about that this year in Cardsville.

But this year is different. For the first time, the NCAA — which is a little profit-heavy, har har har — is running the NIT. A committee fashioned in the image of the one that decides the NCAA tourney created the bracket, which is loaded with big names: Louisville, Michigan, Maryland, Cincinnati, Minnesota, Oklahoma State and Wake Forest, among others. Needless to say, most didn’t live up to the hype this year.

“Selection Sunday” predictably precipitated the groveling about who got snubbed, the most illuminating of which — as always — came from burned coaches. Three out of five coaches interviewed for an ESPN.com piece on the NIT bitched about not getting into the Dance. Some have a thin case: Were it not for the other eight Big East teams that are better than Cincinnati, the Bearcats would probably have a real reason for the heartburn. Their RPI is 40. There were 34 at-large bids.

This does nothing but reinforce the NIT’s lackluster earning potential, which is based on its low-rent reputation.

Here’s where the selection committee’s real strategy becomes apparent: name-drop at the top and throw in some real competition at the lower seeds to foster some nasty competition. After all, NCAA president Myles Brand said of the NCAA’s takeover of the NIT: “We intend to grow these tournaments to showcase college basketball and the student-athletes who make the game great.” He forgot to say they want to make shitloads of money on the thing, which will only come by returning at least some of its credibility.

This year’s four No. 1 seeds are high-profile schools with legacy programs. There is no other obvious reason these four are at the top. The Missouri State squad is more qualified. So is Hofstra, and Florida State and Creighton could make a case. Yet these teams are two and three seeds. While there are no guarantees in this stuff, one can easily envision some serious showdowns in the semis at Madison Square Garden.

I’m not necessarily suggesting that qualified teams were left out of the NCAA tournament to pad the NIT; we need to observe this new animal for a few years before that becomes clear. One thing is for certain, though: I’ll bet the good money ratings go up this year.