National Championship. Final Four. Sweet 16. Making the NCAA Tournament.
In no particular order these are the goals set by each and every eligible team before the college basketball season. Each of these goals has their own set of circumstances to overcome. In order to make it to the NCAA Tournament, for the most part, you must win your conference tournament. The rest is moot if this is not accomplished. There are teams that make it to the “Big Dance” without that conference tourney victory, but they have the namesake, the accolades and history behind their program to make it happen.
Teams that don’t have the history, the accolades and namesake to make it as an at-large bid must go through the path of their respective conferences tournament, hoping to end their trip with a victory, securing the automatic bid attached to it. Almost 50 percent of the NCAA Tournament field is made up up the 33 conference champions. The rest are picked by the selection committee as the at-large bids. For a mid-major, it’s tournament champions or bust. Season over. No trip to the “Big Dance”, no Cinderella moment, nothing. Just disappointment and heartbreak.
Except with the world of corporate sponsorship and expansion taking hold of college athletics, there is now more of an opportunity to play in a postseason tournament despite not being invited to go dancing.
The National Invitational Tournament (NIT) is seen as the secondary tournament. Teams that win their conference’s regular season championship but fail to earn the automatic bid are placed into the NIT almost automatically. It’s seen as a consolation prize for a great season now, but there was a time not too long ago when the NIT was the more prominent tournament. Many a story has been shared about coaches declining an invitation to the NCAA tourney in favor of an NIT bid (this mostly occurred during the years of John Wooden and the UCLA Bruins dynasty).
Now it’s not just the NIT, since the College Basketball Invitational tournament as well as College Insiders Tournament have joined the fold, bringing the total to four tournaments for college basketball teams to play in. Except if it’s not an NCAA Tournament or NIT bid, teams have a hard time grasping the fact that while they are still playing for a championship, it’s one that very few people acknowledge except for the inner-circle of those running the tournament and the schools participating in it.
Take this hypothetical (of something that actually happened but specifics have been omitted) for example. You’re a senior about to graduate in a few months. Your team was good all season but not great. You came in second or third (depending on who you ask) in your conference standings. You enter your conference’s tournament expecting to at least challenge for, if not win, the tournament championship.
You play well in one game but fall victim to a good team you know you can beat in the semi-final of the tournament in the closing minute of the game. As the buzzer sounds you realize your dream is over. Your spirit crushed, everything you had been working so hard for all season long (another NCAA Tournament bid) was just ripped away from you. The dream is over and now it’s time to face reality.
You go into the locker room, let everything you’ve accomplished sink in and let the reality of the situation hit you: your college career is essentially over. It’s a lot of overcome in a short amount of time. You have a good cry and start to thank your teammates and staff for all they’ve done during your career. Except then you realize that because you had a successful season to a certain extent your season isn’t over. No, you won’t be getting an at-large bid to the “Big Dance”, nor are you likely to get into the NIT, but your team has been invited to play in either the CIT or CBI. Suddenly you’re expected to pick yourself up from the emotional devastation, get your mind right and start playing high-quality basketball again.
It’s a hard situation to see yourself in, but that’s exactly what teams in the CBI or CIT have to deal with. They’ve emotionally heartbroken, what they’ve worked so hard for is gone yet they still have games to play.
There have been some success stories from the CBI, however. The Pittsburgh Panthers won the CBI in 2012 then returned to the NCAA Tournament in 2013 as an 8-seed. The Saint Louis Billikens advanced to the CBI final in 2010 with a team made up mostly of freshmen and sophomores. Those same players are still playing for Saint Louis and have gone on to have very successful careers and have been leaders to the new guys because of that experience.
The CIT has had its fair share of success stories as well. Damian Lilliard made a name for himself at Weber State playing in the CIT and has gone on to have a pretty solid start to his NBA career with the Portland Trail Blazers. The tournament committee also likes to tout that Jeremy Lin played for the Harvard Crimson team that played in the CIT.
So what’s the point in all of this?
Essentially the point is that the teams that are not in the NCAA Tournament often have a difficult time accepting the fact that while in their minds the season is over, the CIT and CBI each gives a combined 48 additional teams a chance to play in the postseason. No, not many people pay attention to these smaller-level tournaments, but they do play a role in the adaptation of mid-major college basketball.
These are the tournaments made to give the mid-majors a chance to continue their season despite the thought a week earlier it was over. Losing in your conference tournament at a mid-major level doesn’t mean your season is over anymore. In fact, what the CIT and CBI really do is provide an additional reason for these smaller, under-appreciated teams to give it their all during the regular season. A successful regular season can get you a spot into some form of postseason play despite not making it to the “Big Dance”. There’s nothing wrong with a small dance party in somebody’s garage. Prom is overrated sometimes anyway.
In the hypothetical it was the seniors whom were the focus. However, no team is made up entirely of seniors. While their hearts may not completely be in the idea of a CBI or CIT bid right away, those games will have more of an impact on the players returning next season. It allows those players to get games against some very talented teams with very talented players that they couldn’t possibly get on their regular season schedule. Where else could you get teams like VCU, Pittsburgh and Saint Louis into one tournament and possibly play all three? It’s hard to argue with a chance to play against top-notch opponents.
While winning a national championship, making a Final Four or a Sweet 16 or the NCAA Tournament may be the main goals at the beginning of the season, the consolation prizes are often quite good. It’s a grouping of the best of the rest in college basketball. There are no bad teams playing in the postseason despite what some may say.
We won’t know who’s playing in what tournament until after the NCAA Tournament field is set. We won’t know how these disappointed teams will respond. It’s the last chance for these seniors to go out on top. It’s another chance for the players returning next season to get high-quality games under their belt. It’s another chance to make a statement.