But Ole Miss AD makes it clear the Rebels are interested in only the NCAAs or NIT.
By Brad Locke
As the Ole Miss and Mississippi State men’s basketball teams stumble toward season’s end, players and coaches alike must come to terms with the fact that an NCAA tournament berth is the longest of long shots.
So speculation turns to where the teams might land in the National Invitation Tournament. But what if the Rebels and Bulldogs’ seasons end so badly that even the NIT doesn’t offer an invitation?
No problem. This year, there are more postseason opportunities than ever for the 330 teams in Division I.
For the second year, there is the College Basketball Invitational, a 16-team event that has a unique twist: a best-of-three finals. Tulsa beat Bradley in three games last year.
Bubba Cunningham, Tulsa’s athletics director, called the tournament “outstanding.” Tulsa hosted two of the three title series games, and both were sellouts.
“Every game in the tournament got more exciting than the one before it,” Cunningham said.
But what about teams that don’t make the CBI field? There is yet another tournament to “fill a void,” as one former coach calls it.
The CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament will debut this year. Like the CBI, it’s a 16-team tournament, but with a traditional one-game championship. And like the CBI, it has cleared everything with the NCAA, which also runs the NIT. Any teams not invited to the NCAAs or NIT can be invited by either the CBI or the CollegeInsider.com tourney.
Jim Phelan, who won 830 games in a 49-year career at Mount St. Mary’s, is on the CollegeInsider.com selection committee. He’s seen plenty of good teams over the years sitting at home come March Madness time.
Phelan said tournament organizers are targeting young, promising teams.
“They just feel that for a young team in particular that is building for next year that doesn’t get invited but has had a reasonably successful year, it’s a chance for them to continue to play,” Phelan said.
That’s why the CBI was such a perfect fit for Tulsa. Its two best players last year, Jerome Jordan and Ben Uzoh, were sophomores, and the Hurricane finished the regular season strong.
Limited experience is not a prerequisite, though. The main draw for such a tournament is the chance to extend the season.
Rich Zvosec, a former coach and current ESPN analyst, serves on the same selection committee as Phelan.
“I know, you talk to any senior in college, and after that last game, and believe me, I’ve been in locker rooms for over 25 years, and there’s always lot of guys crying after that last game,” Zvosec said. “The tears are shed because they want it to continue.”
Ole Miss and MSU both have young squads. The question they and other teams must ask themselves when invited to one of these alternatives postseason tournaments is, Can we afford it?
That’s one of the questions that nags Ole Miss Athletics Director Pete Boone. In fact, he listed three reasons why the Rebels would have “no interest” in playing in anything besides the NCAAs or NIT.
No. 1: “The NCAA is going to take 65 teams, and the NIT will take another 32. You get to 100 teams in a hurry. What kind of dilution do you have then as far as the quality of college basketball?”
No. 2: “What are you trying to accomplish? The season has obviously been less than successful by most people’s standards. Not only did you miss the NCAAs, but you weren’t invited to the NIT.”
No. 3: “What bugs me is it’s a profit deal for somebody else, and I’m not interested in putting money in somebody else’s pocket when there’s no return to us.”
Dan Loney, communications director for the New Jersey-based Gazelle Group, which runs the CBI, wouldn’t offer specific numbers regarding the financial take on last year’s event. “That’s between us and the teams,” he said.
But, Loney added, “A lot of schools came out very well last year. We had schools in the championship series that did very well, and we had schools that hosted one game that did very well.”
Tulsa’s Cunningham said there is a “financial risk” teams must take when accepting a CBI bid: a $50,000 game guarantee to the Gazelle Group.
“If you sell enough tickets,” he said, “that’s not a problem.”
Greg Byrne, MSU’s athletics director, said the CBI is “not a big moneymaker,” but his comments were more measured than Boone’s. Byrne has worked before with the Gazelle Group, which ran the Legends Classic that State participated in earlier this season.
“We’re going to do what’s best for our basketball program, and that’s obviously a combination of experience for our student-athletes and financial parameters, too,” he said.
A major concern is travel costs, but both the CBI and CollegeInsider.com tournament will try to keep road trips as short as possible with geographical bracketing. All games are played at on-campus sites, which also cuts down on missed class time.
“We think the way the financials are set up for each school, our option is better (than the NIT),” Loney said.
All expenses are covered for teams that qualify for the NCAAs and NIT.
Dilution and motivation
As for Boone’s other two concerns – dilution and motivation – Phelan would have to disagree. While 129 teams will play postseason games, that still leaves 201 at home.
Plus, there are more teams than there used to be. In 1989, there were 293 teams eligible for Division I postseason play. That number was 310 by 1999 and is 330 this year. The total will further increase with 16 teams in the “re-classifying stage” – mostly Division II schools moving up.
Teams have been known to turn down NIT invitations, and the alternative tournaments will probably have to deal with that, too. Many players and coaches view anything short of the NCAAs as a consolation prize, if that.
Missing the NIT, too? See Boone’s previous comments.
And consider Mississippi State. Even though the reality is that the best the Bulldogs can hope for is an NIT bid, they remain focused on an NCAA berth. The only path to that goal is an SEC Tournament championship.
“I feel like we’re going to bring some stuff together and make some noise in the SEC Tournament,” sophomore guard Phil Turner said.
If Cunningham had his way, making the NCAAs would be a greater possibility for MSU and Ole Miss this season. He’s a proponent of expanding the field to 128 teams, which would probably render the two new tournaments totally irrelevant.
But until then, he likes the CBI and thinks there is room for both it and the CollegeInsider.com tournament.
“I think what the CBI did last year,” Cunningham said, “is show there is an unmet need for postseason basketball.”