Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Whelliston, Beach and Post Season Tournaments - Finality and the Love of College Basketball

Apologies for the long title, but trust me, it's perfect for this article. My two favorite sports are college basketball and baseball. And I always loved Peanuts and I have had a special affinity for Charlie Brown, the ultimate underdog.

What I always really admired about Chuck, or how Charles Schultz made him out to be, was that he loved the game of baseball. The Peanuts gang never won a game and Chuck would get line drives smacked up the middle that resulted in him tumbling over with all his clothes flying apart. But Charlie never gave up, he always tried to win, but more importantly, he always wanted to play. How many times would you see Charlie in the rain, standing on on the mound like this picture, ready to throw the next pitch? Even if his glove was floating away from him.

And I always was like that in intramural basketball and later in life with softball. In organized softball leagues, I played on 22-2 championship teams and 2-22 last place teams. Winning is always sweeter (and food and beer always taste better after a win), and I love to win, believe me I am very competitive. But deep down, I just wanted to play. I loved the camaraderie of playing with friends and more importantly just the game itself.

I remember one of my last times playing organized softball was in a law school tournament down in Virginia. Our team got killed, but there I was pitching on the mound with a smile on my face for the run rule game. The umpire and I struck up a friendship and from talking he knew I played in a lot of leagues and that this was just for fun for me. Our team manager, now an alum I am still friendly with, admired the fact that I never got upset, though our team was making a ton of errors around me. I said to him, "It's just fun to be playing and being out in the sun."

You see, I knew that once I had kids, my softball playing days would be done and my days would be spent following their exploits. And I would just miss playing. So I enjoyed every moment of that last game in the tournament. If you ever saw the movie Major League, after Taylor, Vaughn and Willie Mays Hayes make the Indians, Taylor takes them out to dinner. In his toast before Dinner, Taylor ends with "And for me, here's to one more good year in the sun" (the scene is at the end of this clip). That was the feeling I had.

Once I retired from playing organized softball, I took up my other passion, following college basketball. And that's how this blog started. It doesn't matter to me if it's the power six conferences, mid majors, Division II, Division III, or women's basketball, I will cover them all. I just love the game itself. Always have. Always will.

So I found it very fitting that two of my favorite internet writers, Kyle Whelliston, founder of the best sites on College Basketball;the Mid Majority and Basketball State, and Jerry Beach, author of the always entertaining Defiantly Dutch, wrote two sides of the coin articles on post season college basketball.

Before I delve into their articles and give you my thoughts, I have been very fortunate to be able to get to know the both of them very well this year.

Kyle is a brilliant man, incredibly insightful, but down to earth and very funny. He is tireless, thought provoking and a tweeting, blogging machine. And I really feel he is the best college basketball writer in the country. He was kind enough to spend time with Tieff and I after the Hofstra-VCU game (which he was covering). And it was one of the best experiences of this season hanging out with him. And I can't wait for the Bally Book. I signed up for a copy the first day he announced it.

I am proud to say I have broken bread with Mr. Jerry Beach at the CAA Tournament and found out that he too has a wife named Michelle. As I have previously noted, all great women have the name Michelle (a shout out to Mrs. Moore). Also his wife's initials are MLB, which were my wife's initials before we got married and she changed her middle name to Bosco, her maiden name. As previously noted, I have a love of baseball. Nothing better than a wife with initials MLB!

Jerry is the ultimate researcher. He finds facts that are astounding and I am like, "where did he dig that up from?" Jerry was a former beat writer for the Red Sox and it shows. He is a terrific writer and he writes with passion (as does Kyle). He is the ultimate Hofstra supporter, but is fair and is not afraid to criticize. Beach is a straight shooter. Defiantly Dutch is also often delightfully daffy and often a laugh out loud howl. Beach is just like Kyle, a blogging, tweeting machine. I wonder if those two ever sleep.

So when they wrote their respective articles at the same time, I thought a followup article about them both would be a perfect article for my site. I have once in a while done a take on Kyle's articles, including the captivating "Empty City", which goes in depth about the near death of NYC basketball. So I am pretty sure he won't mind me discussing his latest article. And I reached out to Beach about my idea and he was honored, so here it goes.

Recently, Kyle wrote an article entitled "Love vs. The Loophole." It's an article about how there should be finality in college basketball, an end to the season. Kyle's view is that the two weeks of conference tournaments should provide finality. His basic view is either win the conference tournament and thus go to the NCAA Tournament, or go home. Later on, discussing our country's history as an underdog, yet it's propensity for giving second chances, Kyle notes this.
"A loss in context should be terminal, because there's no lesson otherwise. (Would we give the British another shot to defend their North American empire? Hell, no!) It should be the end, goodbye, that's it. It's a big reason why l love the Olympics so much -- there's no National Invitation Podium, and that's why those five rings inspire such ultimate, urgent performances."
Kyle goes on to further say that 35 years ago, is when the two weeks of the season really mattered. Prior to 1975, the NCAA Tournament consisted of only one team per conference, the conference champion. And for those not fortunate enough, they went to the NIT, which Kyle now calls the "Irrelevant First Tournament". Now thanks to the 34 at large bids, the NIT, the CBI and the CIT, there is no longer finality in college basketball. And Kyle believe that affects the play of college basketball teams, especially now in the mid major conferences.

"...the CBI and CIT are eating into the do-or-die drama of the Other 24 conferences' tourney events. You can see it in the faces of the players this week -- they know there's an escape hatch, a slipknot, that can keep the team together for another couple of weeks. Just like in high school, they think there is always going to be another game. Winning isn't paramount."
And for a long period of time, I most certainly agreed with Kyle (and I still see his point). In fact, I wrote an article nearly a year ago about defending Hofstra's decision to not play in the CBI or CIT. My article talked about how despite the negative press that Hofstra got on CAAZone, Hofstra did the right thing on not playing in either tournament. My main reason was in tough economic times, a school shouldn't pay to play in a postseason tournament, which is what you have to do to host a CBI or CIT game. I went on to say the following;

"A friend of mine very aptly put it. 'It's games for the sake of games'. You are paying sixty grand or twenty-eight grand per game for what? So that you can say you beat the leftovers of the NIT? Seriously, that money can be better spent for example on recruiting that next big player in 2010-11, or financing a preseason tournament trip to say the Charleston Classic or the Great Alaskan Shootout. Tournaments with real big conference teams in them (again the inaugural Charleston Classic had THREE out of the eight teams there make the NCAA tournament. Not bad)."
Yes, you have to pay $28 grand to hot a CIT game and $60 grand to host a CBI game. It's unlike a Bowl game, which in my article I refuted one CAAZone board writer who said "It would be like a MAC school refusing to participate in a lesser bowl..." That's because the team GETS money from the bowl game to play. And that's a big difference.

Finally, I finished my article with the following;

"Hofstra had a nice season, 21-11. They just weren't good enough for the NIT. They have a good future with probably one of the two best returning players in the CAA coming back for two more seasons in Charles Jenkins (ODU's Gerald Lee the other). A seemingly good recruiting class. If you're a Hofstra basketball fan, appreciate the season you had and hope for a good future. The future isn't going to change because you're not in the CIT or CBI. Trust me on that."
And I believed that and still do to this day. Plus that team had six graduating seniors and it made very little sense for that team to continue playing for the sake of playing. But one of the reasons I wrote that article was because I, along with other season ticket holders and Pride Club members, received a letter from Jack Hayes and Tom Pecora stating their reasons they chose not to be in the CBI or CIT. It turns out a lot of people felt otherwise. They felt Hofstra was worthy of playing in those games just like other teams of similar ilk and why wasn't Hofstra making a commitment to its basketball team.

Which brings me to today and Jerry Beach's articles, all of which have a common theme about postseason play. In his first article, "Let Them Play! Let Them Play", which of course has a "Bad News Bears" Youtube clip, Jerry writes the following.
"I knew I’d sit here at some point in the week leading up to Selection Sunday and write that the Dutchmen should seek an invitation to either the CBI or the CIT, the two newer and admittedly second-tier tournaments, because the team deserved another game (or four) after turning its season around in such remarkable fashion."
Beach would go on to give an additional reason why Hofstra should make the investment to play in the CBI or CIT.

"The season began with a game at top-ranked Kansas and four games in the preseason NIT. Participating in the CIT or CBI won’t be as prestigious, but what if further solidifies the foundation for an NCAA Tournament run next year?

The administration need look no further than Monday night for proof it’s possible. Freshly minted CAA champion Old Dominion won the CIT last year (and had three home games before beating Bradley on the road in the title game). Hard to argue that the feeling and experience of winning a title, no matter how secondary, didn’t have something to do with the Monarchs returning to the big dance this year."

And to further prove Beach's point, UTEP was in the CBI last season and made the tournament final before losing to Oregon State in three games. The Miners got an at large bid this season to the NCAA Tournament. Oakland played in the CIT and perhaps that propelled them to their dominant season in the Summit League, which was capped by winning the league tournament and a date with Pittsburgh in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Finally, Beach hit home with his final comment;
"I also applaud Mason’s decision because that’s what schools without football do: They make a commitment to basketball, even if it means playing in the hoops version of the Tangerine Bowl. If Hofstra isn’t going to pour extra resources into the basketball programs now—with football gone and the men’s team having earned the opportunity to keep playing with 10 wins in its last 12 games—then when will it?"
Beach makes an excellent point. With the Hofstra Football team now defunct and the Administration's promise that the budget money spent on the football program would not be cut, why not make an investment with the basketball team? As Beach noted in an article last season criticizing the decision not to play in the CBI or CIT , if there is a fan base willing to put five pages of negative comments about Hofstra's decision not to play in the CBI or CIT, why not invest the money in playing a tournament.

I was always curious to get a little insight on how the CBI or CIT got started, and Beach was able to feed that curiosity, by getting an interview with CIT Committee member Rich Zvosec. In the interview, Zvosec, the former head coach of St Francis (NY) and UMKC, talked about how a few years ago, Akron lost on a heart break three pointer in the 2007 MAC championship game. The Zips, the best team in the MAC regular season were 26-7, yet didn't play in the NIT.

When Zvosec contacted his good friend and Akron coach Keith Dambront, he said to him "It was a shock seeing you guys are too good for the NIT, you turned them down." Dambront responded "Rich, we never got a call." Think about it, a 26-7 team never got a phone call. And it makes sense, because the NIT is an "Invitation Tournament. And when you have CM Newton and the boys, you end up getting teams like North Carolina and North Carolina State in the NIT over teams like IUPUI, Charlotte and Akron who have higher RPIs (Akron and IUPUI each eventually took a bid in the CBI while Charlotte is at home and Coach Bobby Lutz got fired as a result).

As Zvosec puts it, the CIT "
was set up with the idea of rewarding mid-major teams who have a good year and get left out of the NCAA or NIT". And if you look at the tournament field, it's all mid majors. In fact the CIT gave the Great West champion an automatic bid to the Tournament. Thus South Dakota got to play in a postseason game where most likely they would not have if there was no CIT.

So after thinking about how the NIT Tournament committee is possibly even a more warped group than the NCAA tournament committee (and courtesy of Brian Mull, here is further proof), I can now see why teams like Hofstra should play in the CIT or CBI.

And here's another thought, why are fans willing to come out and pay $10 to see an NIT, CIT, CBI game, as I can tell from the large crowds at UTEP and Oregon State last season or for the NIT games I have watched the past several seasons? And why are Hofstra fans willing to type five pages of criticism about Hofstra not playing in the CBI or CIT?

Answer - Because those fans are like you and me. They love college basketball and if they think their team is worthy to play postseason, they are willing to go pay and see them. And I am evidence of that. Tonight, I am going to the first half of the Hofstra-IUPUI game, then travel to Stony Brook to see the Seawolves host Illinois in the first round of the NIT. Besides, what else will we do. Watch hours of non stop Tiger Woods is playing in the Masters coverage? Or in our case in NY, watch the horrible NHL or NBA teams?

And that thinking changed the minds of Pecora and Hayes, though I think the fact that they have a younger team with only two seniors graduating also had a lot to do with it. Here's what Pecora said in Beach's article.
"Last year I turned down the opportunity because we had six seniors. This year with all the freshmen, I think it’s important for us to play. If we got one more game, that would be great. If we can get two, even better. Keep on winning, you know?”
Hayes went on further to say in an interview with Jerry the following;
"Five of the top seven players, in terms of minutes, are people that would be coming back next year. When you have a team that’s going to return the Player of the Year in the conference, a member of the all-defensive team and two members of the all-rookie team, we felt like ‘Let’s continue to play as long as we can.’ And in conversations with the CBI and the CIT, we communicated to them that we would be interested in playing if we were invited."
So there you have it, two sides of the coin. Whelliston's belief of "Finality" and Beach's belief "Let Them Play". So, who's right?

There's a lot of merit to what Whelliston says. A lot of power six conference teams and even I believe the Mountain West teams didn't play with a sense of urgency this postseason and got knocked off in their tournaments by teams who did have that sense of urgency. This is because those teams without a sense of urgency knew that they had a locked up bid in the NCAA Tournament.

However, having been at the CAA Tournament seven of the past eight years, I definitely see a sense of urgency in those teams. And this season, I saw a lot of heartbreak and the end of the Hofstra-Northeastern, VCU-ODU and Northeastern-William and Mary games, those players all left their hearts on the floor. Many of those players at the end of those games were sprawled out on the court, with their heads in their hands in disbelief. That's because in a one bid conference like the CAA, the NCAA Tournament is the ultimate prize.

But, I still agree with Kyle about the CBI and CIT. It seems like a sort of basketball extortion to have to pay upwards of $60,000 to host a basketball game. In football bowl games, even the lowly ones like the New Orleans or GMAC Bowl, the bowls invite your team and pay your team to play. This isn't the case here.

And as long as you have the CBI or CIT, I worry that the NCAA will have justification to expand the NCAA Tournament to 96 teams. And if the NIT is any indication of who those extra 32 teams will be, then the good ol boys like CM Newton will say "That's ok, those little fellas have the CIT or CBI tournaments." And also, judging by the crowd I saw at GW for last night's CBI game vs. VCU, the CBI at least may have trouble existing over the next few years.

But I see Beach's side as well. If there is no 96 team expansion, as long as you have CM Newton and the boys running the NIT, thus teams like Akron, St Louis, IUPUI and Charlotte will get jobbed out of bids. And they have been for the last several years.

Also, if teams are willing to invest in their basketball programs, especially those without football, isn't that a good thing? This is especially important for the mid major teams that we want to have compete on a level with the Power 6 and maybe this will result in more bids for non Power 6 teams. It apparently worked for ODU and UTEP this season.

And more importantly, if the players want to play and fans want to see them, why not? Ultimately, there is finality for many of these teams. First for 250 teams, nearly 70 percent of the teams in NCAA Division I, there is finality at the end of the conference tournament season. No NCAA, No NIT, No CBI, No CIT.

And second for those who do get to play in the non NCAA tournaments, one loss and that's it for their college basketball and often their basketball career. It's not like high school, where there is AAU in the summer. Many of these kids are graduating. A very select few will play in the NBA, a few more will play professionally overseas. But most will end their basketball careers and go into the job sector. So why not let them be Charlie Brown and "let them play".

So who's right? Well it's not a question of who's right, because both Whelliston and Beach are entitled to their thoughtful opinions. There is one thing certainly they will agree on. Their love of college basketball (and that comes through their brilliant writing).

Isn't that all that matters?

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