Fading NIT Still A Big Deal For Teams Not Named Tar Heels

Published on: 31st March, 2010


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Fading NIT Still A Big Deal For Teams Not Named Tar Heels  | read this item

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NEW YORK – The National Invitation Tournament used to be the penultimate of college basketball events. An invitation from the N.I.T. committee to bring your team at season’s end to the “mecca” of basketball, Madison Square Garden, was akin to what is today known world-wide as March Madness.

Of course, those days have been long gone, since the NCAA decided to make their championship a gathering of 65 of the finest teams and/or individual conference champions in the nation, leaving the scraps for the N.I.T.  It seems that time, and the need to maximize television and marketing profits, stands still for no one. The N.I.T. has become an anachronism, at best and is now rumored to be on its last legs as the fervor grows for the NCAA to expand the national championships to close to 100 participating schools. Talk about watering down the product but that’s for another time and place.

But, the old girl, this N.I.T., was still standing tonight and for the college basketball teams that didn’t get the invite to the Big Dance as one of those 65 teams, this tourney has become a very good consolation prize. These teams may not have chosen the NIT as their preferred way to end their seasons but if they make it to the Garden, it sure as hell makes for a fun couple of nights to become champions on the last Thursday night of the season, as opposed to the final Monday night when the whole country tunes in to watch the crowning of the national basketball champion.

There were 32 teams invited to the NIT this year and tonight, we had the final four of those 32 come in and take over the Garden to decide who would play in Thursday’s championship game. For schools such as Rhode Island and the University of Mississippi and Dayton, this is still a prestigious event that adds to their teams’ legacies. For the other team among the four, the North Carolina Tar Heels, this is a tough place to be playing at the end of March. Given their national championships and Atlantic Coast Conference championships, and the legendary players that have worn the powder blue uniforms with top of the line results, this wasn’t what North Carolina coach Roy Williams had in mind.

“You know, I have a great appreciation of this tournament,” Williams told me after his team held on to defeat Rhode Island in overtime,  68-67. “I have a great appreciation of the tradition, the history of the N.I.T. If you win this tournament, you have to feel good about it.”

I wondered how this compares to the “other” tournament, for his team.

“Now, is that your goal at the start of the season? Let’s be honest, that’s not our goal at the start of the season, but we put ourselves here. And so, it would be a very positive thing for us because we didn’t play as well as we needed to play. We’ve accepted that and have tried to do the best we possibly could in this game and this tournament. So, from that viewpoint, it would be a positive spin on it but it would not be our dream and our goal.”

Coming off of last season’s national championship, the school’s fifth in its history and second in five seasons under Williams, the Tar Heels are not used to playing among the Daytons and the Rhode Islands of the college basketball universe at season’s end but, here they are.

“We enjoyed playing the last Monday night of the season last year and you know, we’re playing the last Thursday night this year. Playing the last Monday night is better, there’s no question about that. But I do believe if you’re playing and if they keep playing until there’s only one team standing, it’s very important to be that one team standing.”

Good spin by Roy.

As for his game, Deon Thompson had 16 points and 13 rebounds, helping North Carolina survive a frantic final few seconds and defeat Rhode Island in overtime.

Will Graves added 14 points and Tyler Zeller had 13 for the Tar Heels (20-16), who will try to make bittersweet history against Dayton by becoming the first school to follow a national title with an NIT championship at Madison Square Garden.

In tonight’s first game, Dayton held off Mississippi 68-63 behind Chris Johnson’s 22 points, including five key free throws down the stretch.

With Ole Miss alum and New York Giant quarterback Eli Manning sitting behind the Mississippi bench, the Flyers (24-12) slowed Mississippi’s high scoring offense and advanced to the N.I.T. championship game against the Tar Heels for the first time since winning their second NIT title in 1968, when Don May was their star player.

Terrico White had 19 points for the second-seeded Rebels (24-11), eliminated in the NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden for the second time in three years.

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