Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Last NIT Ever? If So, A Nice Way To Go

As I watched Dayton defeat North Carolina for the NIT Championship tonight, an ominous headline came across the WWL's bottom ticker (WWL=World Wide Leader=ESPN) - "NCAA concludes expanding to 96 teams is a better option than 68 or 80 teams." After the end of the NIT game, I read up on the story. That brilliant voice of reason, No Clue At All Vice President Greg Shaheen stated going to 96 was "a better fit logistically and financially."

A better fit financially? Well yeah if you are the No Clue At All, of course "better fit financially"= MORE MONEY! As for logistically, well the No Clue At All can try to tell teams that have to scramble out for Tuesday and Wednesday night regional sites that it's better "logistically".

And the article noted that a 96 team tournament would also end the play in game venue, which is the Dayton Arena. As much as I don't love the P.I.G, (and I really don't) at least the Dayton community rallies around it. Great, go to 96 teams AND take that away from Dayton and Kyle Whelliston.

As the WWL notes, "the plan still needs to be approved by the Division I Men's Basketball Committee and passed on to the board of directors." Maybe there are voices of reason in either NCAA body, but again it's the No Clue At All, so I am not holding out hope.

And if any of those people read this site, I have written a couple articles in the past few months on why a 96 team NCAA Tournament will be a disaster. So take a quick read on the two articles below and then move on with the rest of this article.
Very simply put, if you read the second article, the 96 team tournament will water down the term "upset" once and for all and the second aforementioned article listed above gives clear evidence on that. There was a reason the NCAA went from 48 teams to 64 teams in only a few short years.

But even with all that, the No Clue At All has decided to press on with this god forsaken idea. And we will have to hope that the Division I Committee or the Board of Directors are made up of mostly Joe Lunardi's or Kyle Whelliston's relatives.

Back to the main gist of this article. After a surreal trip into New York City knowing that Hofstra had a new coach before just about anyone else did, we got to the "World's Most Famous Arena" for probably the last NIT Semifinals anyone would ever see.

We got there early in the first half of the Ole Miss - Dayton game. And basically the crowd in the beginning was red for the most part, which are the colors of Dayton and Ole Miss. The three of us, Tieff, Mal and me first sat near the Flyers basket, as you can see from the picture of the band with their bicycle flyer helmets. Cool!

And the first half was a forerunner of things to come on the night. Though the game was exciting and you could see both teams are very talented, there was a lot of sloppy passing and even worse, horrible shot selection. This is probably why both teams were in the NIT instead of the NCAA Tournament.

As Tieff noted to Mal and me, teams now just are three point shooting happy. And instead of working the ball around, Ole Miss and especially Dayton chucked up a lot of bad three pointers. The picture of the scoreboard shows you how bad Dayton was at shooting threes in the first half.

Yet somehow, Dayton was ahead at the half 34-30. All three of us were impressed with the athleticism of Flyers' junior forward Chris Wright, who has a NBA future written all over him.

We decided to move to the opposite side of MSG because there were more open seats than where we were currently seated (more on that later). At the start of the second half, The Flyers went on an 11-4 spurt and were up 45-34 with about 17 and a half minutes to play. Dayton had hit its first three shots and made all of its four free throws.

At that time, Mal turned to me and said "Game over". Having seen Dayton fall apart in so many second halves of games this year, I turned to him and said "No, Dayton will somehow allow Ole Miss back in the game." Sure enough, in the span of a minute, the Rebels made an 8-0 run and cut the lead down to three, 45-42 with 16:34 left. Mal turned to me and said "Game still over." I just laughed, knowing Dayton had given away second half leads before like a 15 point second half lead vs. Xavier in the A10 Quarterfinals.

The game stayed very close for the next seven minutes, with Dayton nursing a 51-50 lead with 9:46 left. But then the Flyers went on an 8-0 run to go back up by nine, 59-50 with 8:14 left. For the third time, Mal turned to me and said "Game over!" And I replied nope, seen this before and I know what's coming.

And sure enough, the Rebels chipped away, helped by a few Dayton turnovers and the Flyers taking a page out of Hofstra's playbook and dribbled down the clock on several late possessions which resulted in missed shots. And when Ole Miss' Chris Warren hit two free throws, the lead was now only two 64-62 with a little over a minute left.

The Rebels got the ball back off a Chris Johnson miss and had a chance to tie with free throws. But Murphy Holloway missed the second free throw and Dayton was up one 64-63 with 36 seconds left. Then after the Flyers' London Warren hit only one of two free throws, Ole Miss again had a chance to tie. But Trevor Gaskins inexplicably missed an easy layup. The Flyers for once held on in a close game, in large part due to Ole Miss giving up the game more than Dayton did. The Flyers won 68-63.

During the latter part of the first game, the crowd started really filling up with fans wearing powder blue for the North Carolina - Rhode Island game. Now if you know your college team colors well, both North Carolina and Rhode Island wear powder blue colors. So when both teams went out on the court for warmups, if you had not seen the teams enter out from the entrance ways, you would not know which team was which.

And when the teams' starting lineups were introduced, we made a surprising discovery. North Carolina, as always, had a good turnout. But the largest fan base that turned out for the semifinals happened to be Rhode Island. We happened to be sitting in the Rhode Island section and a large chant of "Let's Go Rhody!" started up during their player introductions.

I mentioned to Mal then that the crowd had to be 10-12,000. I hadn't seen that many people at MSG for a college basketball tournament game in a long time, outside of a Big East Tournament game. And I have seen a lot of Preseason NIT , Coaches vs. Cancer, Holiday Festival, NIT and St John's games in the past several years. For once, it didn't seem like the "Empty City" or my St John's game experience in February. It felt somewhat like the glory years of St John's games. It was loud and it was fun, especially in the second game.

And the Rams' fans surrounding us got into the game early. The game was tied at ten after the first five and a half minutes. You could already notice a few things about the game. First, Rhode Island couldn't keep North Carolina off the boards. And second, North Carolina couldn't hit the side of a barn from beyond the arc.

And that was basically the first half in a nutshell. The game was tied 30 all at the half. And the second half wasn't much different. The teams traded the leads several times through the first ten minutes of the second half. And the game was tied at 46 with ten minutes left. Rhode Island had done a better job in the second half rebounding, but North Carolina's outside shooting woes continued and actually got worse.

The Tar Heels actually took a five point lead, 51-46 as Deon Thompson hit one of two free throws with 7:27 left. But led by Keith Cothran, the Rams would respond with a 13-3 run over the next nearly six minutes to go up 59-54 with 1:47 left. It looked like we were going to have an all A-10 final.

But Rhode Island went ice cold from the field and from the line over those last 107 seconds. Meanwhile Larry Drew would score all five of his teams points in a 50 second span to tie the game at 59 with 55 seconds left. Everyone was now standing in the arena for the final minute of play.

The Rams' Delroy James was able to drive the lane and draw a foul with 28 seconds left to play. James had a chance to give the Rams a two point lead. I even took this picture to note to the critical point in the game with the entire crowd up on its feet.

James missed both free throws. However, North Carolina would miss its opportunity to win the game in regulation and we went into overtime. In overtime, it was more of the same. The Tar Heels took the lead in overtime. The Rams came back and took the lead 65-63 on a Marquis Jones layup.

But the Tar Heels came back on a pretty three point give and go play from Larry Drew III to Tyler Zeller as Zeller was fouled as he hit the basket. The free throw put Carolina back up one 66-65. Two Deon Thompson free throws extended the lead to three 68-65. But Cothran again hit a jumper to cut the lead to one, 68-67 with two minutes left.

This brought us to the exciting conclusion. After Carolina turned the ball over, Rhody had a chance to take the lead. But Cothran missed a jumper and the Tar Heels had the ball with a 1:18 left. For some reason, North Carolina would wind down the clock and Drew missed a shot. But the old rebounding bugaboo tripped up Rhode Island again. Thompson grabbed the Drew miss, tried a tip in, missed, but North Carolina grabbed the rebound with 40 seconds left. Roy Williams called timeout with 22 seconds left with the Tar Heels up 68-67.

Now with only five seconds difference between the shot clock and the game clock, we all thought Rhode Island coach Jimmy Baron would tell his team to foul. But they inexplicably didn't. Drew would miss a jumper with 8 seconds left but Rhode Island wouldn't gather in the rebound till LaMonte Ulmer got it with a few seconds left. He tried to drive up court but, tripped, fell and turned the ball over.

But Tieff yelled "He was fouled!" And so did many of the Rhody fans. But no call was made and North Carolina held on for the 68-67 nailbiter win. However, we had sat ourselves right behind by a seating area with TVs and Mal turned them on during the game. Several Rhode Island fans ended up seated there, but we were able to watch the TVs. We clearly saw the replay and it appeared as Ulmer was trying to corral the ball and drive up court, a Carolina player grabbed his heel and that's why he tripped. Oh well.

But the result of the non call didn't damper my spirits from watching the game. I soaked in the loud Rhode Island contingent and the large crowd itself. It turned out the crowd was 11,689 for the NIT Semifinals. Perhaps many of the schools were on Spring Break and thus the large crowd for the semifinals. Only 9827 came out for the championship game tonight, won by Dayton. And that in itself was fitting, since Dayton won the first ever NIT Championship in the current Madison Square Garden in 1968 and now apparently will win the last ever NIT championship in the Garden.

However my last NIT memory will be that nearly 12,000 people came out for the NIT's apparent Semfinals swan song on Tuesday night. It was a fitting tribute to a grand dame, the oldest college basketball tournament in the country.

And on that Tuesday night, it showed what city basketball could be like. For one night, NYC felt like the center of the college basketball universe again. Let's hope it can be again.

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