March Madness Pop Quiz: Can anybody out there name the NIT defending champion?
I asked that same question a year ago and was greeted by crickets. Tennessee is back in the Little Dance so I’m asking again.
The point is that, by playing in the NCAA tournament’s shadow, the NIT is under the radar, if it’s even on the radar.
By the way, Stanford won last year, defeating Minnesota in the title game. To its chagrin, Stanford is back to defend its title.
To its chagrin, Tennessee is back, hoping to advance beyond the second round.
When UT coach Cuonzo Martin held his Monday media luncheon, Wednesday’s (TV: ESPNU, 8 p.m.) game against Mercer was barely mentioned. The Vols being snubbed by the NCAA selection committee was the topic du jour.
“When you look at Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky,’’ said Martin. “those are NCAA tournament teams, just not playing in the NCAA tournament.’’
It went pretty much the same, I imagine, in media sessions in Lexington, Tuscaloosa and Charlottesville, to name a few sore spots.
At least the Vols aren’t being shipped to a 3,000-seat gym at Robert Morris.
That’s Kentucky’s culture shock. You end one March Madness cutting down the nets in the Superdome and begin the next at a bandbox in Pittsburgh.
Meanwhile, in Macon, Ga., home of the Mercer Bears, the mood is considerably lighter.
“They were pumped when our name came up, even though you knew it was going to come up,” coach Bob Hoffman told the Macon Telegraph.
“We hadn’t really experienced any of that, just to see your name appear and know that you’re in something special and in a great tournament like this.”
Therein lies the gist of the NIT: It’s an uneven playing field in terms of motivation.
Some teams don’t want to be there, feeling disrespected by the NCAA snub. Others are chomping at the bit to make some postseason noise.
I’ve been mulling a proposal to fix that inequity.
Every player on every team in the nation lives for the opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament. And that even goes for the “first round” play-in games in Dayton tonight and Wednesday.
The NCAA expanded the play-in format from one game to four games in 2011, awarding 68 bids instead of 65. The wrinkle has been almost universally praised.
In 2005, the NCAA purchased the NIT, a former prestigious rival that has declined into an also-ran event.
The NIT has improved under the NCAA’s umbrella, but still generates minimal interest outside the campuses involved.
What if the NCAA took those 32 teams destined for the NIT and incorporated them as play-in entries for the only bracket that everyone cares about?
Instead of four play-in games in Dayton, there would be four play-in games in each of the four NCAA regionals. And every one would matter. Motivation wouldn’t be a problem.
By now you’re thinking, especially if you’re a purist, “A 96-team bracket? The horror, the horror.’’
I bounced this proposal off a colleague. He attempted to throw a drink in my face and shouted, “What, and reward mediocrity? Never.’’
I know, I know. I’m not sure I buy a bloated bracket myself. We already have a bloated bowl schedule in football.
But, unlike the San Diego Credit Union Bowl, these play-in games would be relevant enough to generate interest.
That remains the challenge of the NIT as we know it and for its reluctant participants like the Vols.
Somebody’s going to cut down the nets in Madison Square Garden on April 4. Will anybody remember who it was?
Mike Strange may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at Strangemike44.