The National Invitational Tournament (NIT) has a rich storied history dating back to pre-World War II days. The Women’s NIT since 1998 has tradition as well — just not as long as the men’s. However, present-day hoops fans and snobbish media types give both the Rodney Dangerfield treatment:
No respect for either of them.
While there are those who only see one tournament, and while the men’s NCAA annually gets marathon King Kong coverage and barely Timberbell-like coverage on the women’s side, this reporter gives four-fold attention to the two bigger tournaments, as well as the NIT and WNIT.
Both men and women Gopher squads this week are in their respective NIT sweet 16 — the men play Southern Mississippi Tuesday at Williams Arena, and the women go to South Dakota State on Thursday.
“There are good teams in this tournament, and there’s 16 teams left in this tournament, and there’s 16 teams left in the NCAA,” says U of M Coach Pam Borton. “There aren’t too many teams left playing, and we are really appreciative of the opportunity to keep playing at this time of year.”
Adds Men’s Coach Richard Pitino: “I understand the NIT is tough for everybody because the ultimate goal is to be in the [NCAA] tournament. But you can tell these guys want to keep playing. Our guys didn’t want to be done.”
“I think it’s unfortunate whether it be the men or the women,” on the obvious disinterest on the two so-called ‘step down’ tournaments by fans and media, admits former U of M athletic director Joel Maturi. “These kids have won 20 games and played hard all year. They are being rewarded for their seasons to play on.”
“I told the kids [beforehand] that the best 64 teams are not in the NCAA tournament,” continues Borton. “We can’t wait to play them.”
“I think any opportunity for teams to continue on is always a positive,” believes Big Ten Associate Commissioner Andrea Williams. She briefly talked to the MSR during Sunday’s Minnesota-SMU contest at the Barn.
“We have relegated the NIT to a lesser level because of the media and the attention given to [the NCAA tournament],” says Maturi. “Usually the teams that win don’t look at it that way.”
“Everybody wants to win a national championship,” reiterated Williams, noting that the WNIT “is a different type of championship. There are only 64 spots… But having a tournament like the WNIT still allows teams to compete at a very high level, in a championship environment.”
“Instead of being sad and feeling sorry for ourselves, we have to go out there and play angry because we deserve to be in the NCAA [tournament],” states U of M freshman center Amanda Zahui B.
Junior guard Rachel Banham adds, “We don’t want to be done.”
“It is good for us to play three more home games,” says U of M senior guard Maverick Ahanmisi of the Gopher men’s post-season thus far. “For a team especially like us that was on the bubble, you want to make a statement saying that we should have been in the NCAA [tournament]. I feel like we are showing people that we should’ve been there.”
“That was the first thing coach [Clem] Haskins pointed out to us — when you feel like you got shafted or you feel like you deserve to be in the ‘big dance,’ the only way to prove everybody wrong is to go ahead and win this one,” remembers former Gopher Randy Carter, a starter on the school’s 1993 NIT championship team. They too were disappointed about not getting in the NCAA — this reporter was in the same room with the Minnesota players the night the bids were announced and their names weren’t called.
“It was a shock to us,” recalls Carter. “We were 9-9 in conference, and we fully expected to get to the tournament. And [when] we didn’t, it was heartbreaking.”
Minnesota later defeated Big East foes Providence and Georgetown at the ‘Gar-den’ for the first national basketball title in school history. “Without a doubt, [they were] two of the most physical teams that I have seen. We were used to the Wisconsin’s, Indiana’s and the Michigan State’s [in the Big Ten], whose teams are physical year in and year out. Those east coast teams had a faster physicality, and in the Big Ten we were used to slugfests.
“When we got on that plane and flew to New York,” he continues. “[for] some of us, it was our first time going to New York. Coach let us get out on Times Square and see the lights before the game.” The former U of M coach told Carter and his teammates to have a good time in the Big Apple because “this was a once-in-a-lifetime deal. So we got to see New York, play on that floor, and be in the locker room where some of the greatest basketball players of all time. It was a wonderful experience.”
Once upon a time, the NIT was a more prestigious tournament than the then-upstart NCAA. Several Hall of Famers who were NIT MVPs included George Mikan (1945), Lenny Wilkens (1960), Walt Frazier (1967) and Reggie Miller (1985).
The late coach Al McGuire, miffed by the NCAA putting his Marquette team in Texas rather than a regional closer to home, rejected that bid and went on to compete in and win the 1970 NIT. His “choice” was the last time a team selected by the NCAA could turn them down and play elsewhere.
“Madison Square Garden is a historic arena,” says Ahanmisi, who was on the Gophers’ 2012 NIT runner-up squad.
The WNIT is now in its 17th year. Minnesota got an automatic bid, one of 32 automatic slots, and then the tournament officials “select the 32 best available at-large teams in the nation.”
“There are more good teams in women’s basketball than there used to be,” believes Borton, who has guided the 2013-14 Gophers to its first WNIT sweet 16 position.
Both the NIT, WNIT and NCAA all use the same ‘advance and survive — lose and go home’ format. However, only the NCAA brings in the really big bucks. “You don’t expect to make money” on NIT and WNIT games, “and you are not expecting to lose money, either,” says Maturi.
The WNIT guarantees schools hosting first-round games $6,500 and $7,500 for second-round games. Tournament officials “help offset those costs and assumes all risk for high-cost travel” but tries as much as possible to schedule early-round regional pairings.
These tournaments nonetheless “set the tone for next year” for the teams that didn’t get in the NCAAs, adds Williams. “They have a taste of what the post-season [tournament] environment is like, and something to strive for next year.”
“It is still a good tournament, and you want to win and make it to New York and cut down the nets,” says Ahanmisi.
Finally, as other teams around the country are watching, both Minnesota basketball teams still are playing in the final month of the college basketball season. It might be the NIT and the WNIT, but the coaches and players rather be playing than watching.
Minnesota freshman guard Stabresa McDaniel did not play in Sunday’s win due to a concussion reoccurrence. “She got hit in the last game… her symptoms have come back,” reports Borton on the 5’-10” guard who has averaged nearly 12 points per game in the post season.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman @ spokesman-recorder.com