Wolverines Back on Top- Sort Of

Michigan's NIT title is a mixed bag for its players and its fans.

Tommy Amaker can only hope his Wolverines build off their NIT success next season.

Tommy Amaker can only hope his Wolverines build off their NIT success next season.

April 2, 2004

By Brian Litvack
CollegeSports.com Columnist

On Sept. 26, 2003 the Michigan basketball team was allowed to once again hope. On that day, the University won an appeal against the NCAA that lifted its postseason ban. The Wolverines could dream of a storybook season, playing ball into early April and perhaps even cutting down the nets, and raising banners to the rafters.

Against the most improbable of odds Michigan's dream came true on Thursday night. Well, sort of.

Michigan just so happened to win that other tournament, defeating Rutgers to win the little dance known as the NIT. The scene at the Garden was quaint. Guard Daniel Horton was a fitting MVP as he, like the NIT, is below the radar of stardom. Senior Bernard Robinson cutting down the nets was a touching completion to a trying career. Coach Tommy Amaker said all the right things about his team's poise and building for the future. The Wolverines got to don the post game championship t-shirts and hats (tags intact) that are fast becoming the Gatorade shower of the 21st century.

The truth of the matter is that the NIT is the most awkward, out of place event in sports. No team ever goes into a season with the goal of making the NIT. Furthermore, the eventual champion will look back on its season, realize its capabilities and lament the missed opportunities.

Victories are sheepishly celebrated in the same manner as when a sharp-shooting guard accidentally banks in an open trey. Yeah it counts and your stoked, but bragging is out of the question because your success comes from not being that good.

The importance of the NIT lies somewhere between those preseason exhibition games against the Moscow Junior Nationals, and you playing your big brother in the driveway. Even the preseason NIT has become a bigger event, with more media attention and perceived importance than the original tournament.

There are legit reasons why NIT gets less respect than Rodney Dangerfield. Schools often have trouble shaking off the hangover of not making that other, slightly more prestigious tournament. Every once in awhile a group of punks who have underachieved all season will even say "no thanks" and quit on the season to hit the frat parties. Until a few years ago the NIT didn't even have brackets. Let's just say that a tournament without brackets is like an Oreo without a glass of milk.

The coaches involved or those fans and journalists with too much time on their hands might argue that the NIT is a great steppingstone for the future. Surely, Tommy Amaker hopes that his young team's success will translate into a more mature and experienced club next season. But last year's winner, St. John's blows that theory into outer space by following up its championship with such a dismal season that it couldn't even defend its crown. Which only begs the question; does a team ever really want to defend its NIT crown?

The NIT was once as desirable and prestigious as the NCAA tournament. That all changed in 1970 when Marquette, at the time an independent, shunned the NCAA to participate in the more homely NIT. Even way back then, the NCAA felt the need to flex its muscle and crack its whip and decreed that a team must accept an NCAA bid or be ineligible for any postseason play. After that, any prominence that the NIT still had went down the same path of insignificance as freshman teams, varsity letters, and poorly lit field houses.

Perhaps the NIT's greatest value lies in its therapeutic powers for fans, players and coaches. It allows seniors like Robinson, or St. John's Marcus Hatten to go out as champions. It allows stars like Luke Jackson to take over games without any pressure, or for young talents to emerge like Rutgers' Quincy Douby or Iowa State's Curtis Stinson. It allows fans to take in a few more home games as their team battles to be the 66th best in the nation. It allows coaches to coach.

The NIT is doomed to remain in college basketball limbo. Unless a David Sternesque spin doctor can somehow get people watching, it's popularity will continue to be on par with laser disc, neon golf balls, and Billy Packer.

Brian Litvack, a Michigan grad and a lifelong St. John's fan, owes much of his college basketball happiness over the last two seasons to the NIT.

Related Stories