March 16, 2013

Learning to Embrace the NIT

Okay, yes, yesterday sucked.

And with Ole Miss coming back to beat Mizzou coupled with Maryland's stunning upset over Duke, we probably slid out of "last four in" territory and into the "first four out" or "next four out."  (Screw you, Lunardi.)  In any case, I'd be shocked to see Virginia in the NCAA Tournament bracket when it is unveiled tomorrow evening.

Yes, I'll be butthurt to see teams like Middle Tennessee State, La Salle, and mother-loving Boise State sneaking into the Big Dance while we are left out, but whatevs.  That's March Madness, right?  I just hope some of these shitbag mid-majors can give us good basketball games once the tourney action begins.

Meanwhile, we've had a good season.  Losses against George Mason, Delaware, the worst Old Dominion team in quarter century, Wake Forest, Clemson, Georgia Tech, Boston College, and Florida State kept it from being a great season.  But anytime you win 20 games, including victories at Wisconsin, at Maryland, and home against tourney-bound Tennessee, UNC, NC State, Florida State, Maryland, and Duke, it was a pretty good season.

I think it's important to remember what our expectations were earlier this season. This is what I predicted on December 30th: We get - and stay - on the NCAA Tournament bubble during ACC play. We end up either barely in the tournament or barely out of it. If we're in, we give our first-round opponent a scare, and if we're out, we advance deep into the NIT. Hoofans everywhere deem the season a success.  The first part of that pretty much happened, right?  Now it's time for the NIT run.

So as we slink off toward that destiny, I think it's important to note that there are really three types of NIT teams:

1) Regular season champions of mid-major conferences who lost in their conference tournaments (they get auto bids to the re-vamped NIT now, FYI), and hit the NIT with a chip on their shoulders and something to prove.  These teams are usually pretty good, if a little under-talented.  They are usually upperclassmen-laden, and play with a dangerous sort of desperation.  Think Stony Brook, Long Beach State, Niagara, and Robert Morris.

2) Power conference teams who realistically knew they wouldn't make it to the NCAAT but played hard to stay above .500 and earn a crack at the postseason.  These teams are usually flawed, even damningly flawed, but are proud to be playing in the NIT in a rebuilding season.  They are usually talented enough in enough key spots to be dangerous in a tournament setting. If one of their studs gets hot, they can beat anyone.  (Kinda like us with Joe Harris beating Duke.)  Think Arkansas, Stanford, LSU, and Florida State.

3) Teams whose bubbles popped.  These are usually the best NIT teams, but finding proper motivation can be an issue.  It's hard to get so deflated on Selection Sunday, and then try to bounce back to play an NIT game two or three days later.  But if these bubble-burst teams can survive that first game, they have a tendency to rise to the occasion.  Most of the time, a bubble-burst team wins the whole shebang in Madison Square Garden.  This year's crop of bubble-burst NIT contenders could include: Virginia, Kentucky, Alabama, Baylor, Iowa, and Arizona State.

Click on the pic to enlarge it and take a look at the 2012 NIT Bracket.

The NIT was re-vamped in 2006.  It's no longer the sprawling, all-inclusive 48-team garbage tournament it once was.  Now chiseled down to a lean, mean 32 teams, and with the auto-bids I mentioned above coupled with the dawn of parity in college basketball, there is quality in the NIT.  There is... not prestige... but a certain level of respect to be earned by performing well in this setting.

I have some questions about Tony Bennett's roster management and ability to properly motivate his team late in the season, in March.  I am not alone in leveling those questions at our coach.  Playing in the NIT will give him the perfect chance to answer those criticisms.  If we do well in the NIT, it's a springboard to next season's inevitable success.

If you're a UVA fan, I encourage you to not look down your nose at the NIT.  Remember, we failed to make the postseason - any postseason - in 7 of the last 11 seasons.  Take what you get and embrace it, I urge you.  Know that brighter days are ahead in 2013-14, but this NIT appearance can be an important part of that narrative.

I'll be watching the Selection Show tomorrow.  I'm not expecting us to get in, but I'll be watching. And if we miss out on the Big Dance, I'll be churning the internet for the midnight release of the NIT bracket.  Because I think it's an exciting tournament, and a fine place to be playing after a good season that fell short of greatness.

Yep, that's right, NIT Bracketology.  It exists.

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