Wednesday, March 26, 2014

How to Improve the Postseason NIT

The NIT is a joke.

That was the consensus when Clemson, the higher seed and playing at home, defeated Belmont and its students rushed the court. I am very, very pro-rushing the court but even that was a bit much for me to handle.

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So what is to be done about the tournament that once carried so much weight that Marquette turned down an NCAA Tournament bid to play in it.

As a UConn fan, the NIT holds relevance and a place in my heart. My first exposure to the burgeoning UConn dynasty came in 1988 when the Huskies stormed to an NIT title*, a run that would catapult the Huskies from regional basketball team to eventual three-time national champion.


In college football, people watch all the bowl games even if none of them matter. Next year, there will be an actual four-team playoff, rendering the other bowls – a number that is seemingly growing by the day – an exercise in the absurd. Why do we care about the Cotton Bowl when the playoffs start the next day?

In college football, those bowl games are the equivalent of the NIT. While some are mocked, others are lauded – who wasn’t watching Johnny Football on New Year’s Eve?

It is even more curious considering the venue for the NIT is New York City and Madison Square Garden. All this week, players such as Shabazz Napier have been talking about how much the building means to them and the sport as the NCAA East Regional prepares to take over the buildign. As Napier said in a New York Post interview:

“You’re playing on one of the all-time best places to play basketball. It feels like what basketball was meant to be for — performance. It’s like a big performance. Playing on that court, it’s only right that you play as hard as you can, ’cause it’s in the sense of being disrespectful of not playing your hardest ’cause that’s the court that many people dream of playing on. You can date back to the guys who played on that court that I looked up to — Michael Jordan, [Julius] Erving and all them guys played on that court, Magic [Johnson] … a lot of those guys that you see on clips of all-time greats.”

I believe the NIT has potential. In fact, if I had my way, I would make the NIT a big-time tournament that people paid attention to. How? Let’s count the ways…

1) Move the NCAA Tournament to 64 Teams
I can already hear the cries from VCU and Tennessee fans, teams that played so well in the NCAA Tournament after being invited to the First Four. That doesn’t change the fact that neither team earned their way into the tournament proper during the regular season.

I’ve already advocated for the move to 64 teams for health of the regular season, but it would help the NCAA Tournament and the NIT. Look, the First Four is stupid. You can argue otherwise. I simply won’t agree with you.

Look at the four teams that were in Dayton – Xavier, Tennessee, N.C. State and Iowa. These are good teams. They are not going to win the national championship. They never were. They could win the NIT. It would improve the quality of the NIT.

An added benefit of the First Four’s removal would be truer, more accurate seeding. By removing 4 16 seeds, the entire bottom part of the draw is completely out of whack. Mercer was a 14 seed that should have been a 13 seed. A team like Coastal Carolina – a true 15 seed – played Virginia tough for 30 minutes. Could they have beaten a 2 seed like Villanova?

2) InsaNITy
When are the NIT games played? Who knows, right? ESPN dots them throughout the week without rhyme or reason. There was an NIT game going on Sunday afternoon against Wichita State/Kentucky. I guarantee you that was not a good idea.

It shouldn’t be that hard – especially if we eliminated the dreadful, pointless First Four. The first round has 16 games, so let’s spread them out. ESPN has four channels that air live sports now – ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNews and ESPNU. Let’s use all of them!

Do doubleheaders on each network on the first Tuesday and Wednesday after Selection Sunday, first game starts at 7 p.m., second game starts at 9:30 p.m. Run the scores across the top like it’s the NCAA Tournament.

For the second round, which will be 8 games, you can again do doubleheaders on Tuesday and Wednesday, with only the need to use ESPN and ESPN2. It’s just like the NCAA’s Sweet 16.

As for the quarterfinals…

3) Invite 8 teams to MSG
What do we really like about March Madness? Copious amounts of basketball and daytime sports. During Championship Week, my Twitter feed is overflowing when I check it at work with people watching random basketball games. Throw in the availability of streaming devices, the increasing number of people who work remotely, college kids and you have an audience that is always ready to watch basketball.

My suggestion is to invite the 8 quarterfinalists to MSG and treat it like a conference tournament. Play 4 games on a Tuesday, starting at noon. Play 2 at night on Wednesday. Play the final on Thursday night.

The allure of the NIT is not half-empty campus gyms. It’s the Mecca of college basketball. Take last the Clemson/Belmont game – how much more would that have meant for Belmont if they were playing at Madison Square Garden?

The change to the NIT that allowed regular season conference champions into the field is great, and making a trip to NYC and MSG more manageable is worth it.

4) The Winner Wins More MSG
What do you get when you win the NIT? You get mockingly referred to as the 65th-best, or 66th-best or now the 69th-best team in the country. That’s not really good for your program.

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The winner deserves something tangible. I suggest the winner of the postseason NIT gets an automatic invite to the semifinals of the following season’s preseason NIT.

Why does this work? For one, it helps the preseason NIT solidify its field. As the last true preseason tournament left, the NIT needs to find 4 “headline” teams and 12 other teams to fill out a 16-team bracket. Unlike other preseason tournaments, those 4 headliners have to win 2 games just to make it to NYC. It can be a tricky proposition. And since there are now limits on preseason tournaments, the NIT has struggled in recent years to build a decent field.

With this suggestion, 25% of the MSG field is taken care of. And while Minnesota or Clemson may not be Kentucky or Indiana, it will give the preseason tournament a nice storyline – the postseason champs “defending” their title. For an up and coming program, like SMU, they could use the return trip to vault itself into the national discussion. And for a mid-major, like Belmont, an NIT title could turn the return trip into a chance to establish itself as a potential Butler or Gonzaga.

The NIT champion needs to win more than mocking.

5) Create a Perfect Bracket Game with a Great Prize
We all saw how well Warren Buffet’s Billion Dollar Bracket game went. The contest generated a massive amount of publicity for a prize that was never, ever, ever going to be won.

So why not create a contest that people could theoretically win?

It could be a million dollars. It could be a new car. It could be a new house. ESPN needs to partner with a company, like Quicken Loans, looking to get some publicity. There are 31 games in the NIT – picking all of them correctly, like in the NCAA Tournament bracket, is probably impossible. However, you have a much better shot. So use that slight possibility as a way to entice sports fans to fill out another bracket.

Simple question – who doesn’t like filling out brackets?

It leads us back to the first Tuesday after Selection Sunday, as four games are going on across ESPN and people are following their other bracket, hoping they have cracked the code and are on their way to winning $1 million or a new car.

The NIT is not a joke. It just needs some help. The combination of college basketball, brackets and Madison Square Garden means there’s hope. 

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