By Parrish Alford/ NEMS Daily Journal
Ole Miss basketball players went out to see the sights of New York City on Sunday afternoon.
Ground Zero, Battery Park – where they waved at the Statue of Liberty – some ethnic neighborhoods.
Today they say their focus will return to the business at hand, bringing back a “championship.”
Hold your giggles please.
With March Madness becoming the spectacle that it has, the quest for one of college sports’ most watched national championships, there hardly seems room for another national college basketball crown.
But when you get past the sound bites, the one shining moments, the references to Bryce Drew, there is value in the NIT.
The tournament champion is more than the 65th best team.
The NCAA tournament on your resume, even compared to NIT champion, carries a certain bit of status.
But while there’s not much magic for the NIT one-and-dones, the champion is surely among the top 35 teams in the country once the NCAA’s automatic berths from directional schools and questionable at-large bids sort themselves out.
Keep peeling back the onion, and the NIT carries great significance for teams that make it this far.
Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy talks about the exposure, and there is some of that, but if you’re playing in the SEC, with the ESPN contract it’s hard not to be exposed.
The real benefit for teams that win three games, in addition to the opportunity to buy discount Rolexes on the streets up here, is simply playing high-stakes games. It’s young players – sophomores like Terrico White, Terrance Henry and Murphy Holloway – helping a team rally from 10 points back with 2 minutes, 27 seconds to play. It’s Zach Graham knocking down a big shot in overtime.
Baylor, an NCAA 3 seed that took on Duke Sunday for a shot at the real Final Four, is everyone’s example of NIT growth and maturity.
That blastoff didn’t happen for Ole Miss in 2009 after the Rebels reached the NIT semis here in 2008. That team had seniors in prominent roles who weren’t around for growth the next season.
The players who could have benefited were guards Trevor Gaskins, Eniel Polynice and Chris Warren. They all tore up knees before SEC play began.
So what becomes of the Rebels in 2011?
First, attrition doesn’t only mean seniors leaving. Some players may decide not to return. The nucleus of a very talented team should be back, however.
That, in itself, should make Ole Miss better. Add freshman Demarco Cox in the mix, and the Rebels have a big body in the post, a look they haven’t had since Dwayne Curtis and his bunch got here in 2008.
For a program in a perpetual state of “next year” for the NCAA tournament, many thought this would be the year. The Rebels got close but not in.
Hopefully, “next year” will arrive before Warren, a junior, leaves. He’s certainly put in his dues. There are parts and pieces in place a year from now to believe it will be so.
And, by the end of this week, maybe a championship to jumpstart it all.
Parrish Alford (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers Ole Miss for the Daily Journal. He blogs daily about Ole Miss athletics at NEMS360.com.