Madison Square Garden. It is often said that if you can sell out MSG just once, you have made it. Bruno Sammartino had 211 wrestling matches there. It was sold out 187 of them. He will be inducted to the WWE Hall of Fame on Saturday inside the "World's Most Famous Arena" as part of Wrestlemania weekend. It will be sell out 188. That's part of why Bruno was one of the greatest of all-time. New York not only cared about him, they loved him. He was the best.
On Tuesday, BYU will be playing just 9 blocks from Times Square in the semifinals of the National Invitation Tournament. The team, school, and fans are buzzing about this. New York City is not; MSG won't be sold out.
It doesn't matter, come 5 o'clock Mountain Standard Time tomorrow, I'll be glued to ESPN2. I'll be cheering on the Cougars. Furthermore, if they beat Baylor, I'll be inside MSG hoping and cheering for BYU in the NIT final on Thursday. (It just works out, I'll be in NYC for Wrestlemania 29, and the NIT final might just be part of my trip.) I'll hope they win the tournament and give me the right to declare, "We're 69th! We're 69th! We're 69!"
I've enjoyed this NIT run, but it has never been lost on me that we are playing for a trophy of little significance. Winning the NIT would be more exciting and impressive than when BYU won the 2010-11 South Padre Island Invitational, but less impressive than a regular season title, conference tournament title, or even an NCAA tournament appearance.
There has been considerable sentiment among fans that I disagree with completely. The notion sounds something like, "This is way better than going to the NCAA's. We are getting more experience. A couple more home games. We've won a few games, ending the season on a more positive note because all we would have done is lost in the 1st game in the Big Dance." I've heard it at work, seen it on twitter, and even read it online.
How is making a NIT run better than competing for a National Championship?
Amazingly, there are many who believe that winning at Southern Miss in the third round of the NIT was better than losing in the round of 64 in the NCAA tourney. Sure, winning feels better than losing. But I'd trade the 2 home games, 5 Zylstra 3's in a half, Carlino's 9 assists games, Haws' 28.7 ppg and the 3 BYU victories to have had St. Mary's outcome. How exhilarating was Dellavadova's last second air ball versus Memphis? I promise you St. Mary's wouldn't trade spots with BYU for the world.
Have any of these NIT games made you feel the way you felt during the "First Four" game against Iona last year?
It doesn't even compare for me. The first round loss to Marquette last year will hurt more than if BYU loses to Baylor on Tuesday.
So, I've had to ask myself an important question. Why are so many people advocating this post season outcome to be better than a NCAA appearance?
Maybe the fans with opposite view from me would rather win with little at stake than lose with a lot at stake. Isn't that the premise? BYU would just lose immediately in the NCAA's, so I'd rather win a few NIT games. All-time records explain this attitude.
BYU has the notoriety of being the team with the most NCAA appearances without advancing to the Final Four. BYU is 13-27 all-time in the NCAA tournament excluding old school consolation games. In 1985, the NCAA tournament expanded to the traditional 64-team format. Since 1985, BYU is 7-16. Advancing out of the round of 64 just 5 times out of 16 appearances.
BYU's performance in the NIT has been much better. All-time the Cougars are 15-8 with 2 championships. Since 1985, they are 9-5. Only losing in the first round once.
Clearly, BYU is more comfortable in the NIT. There are reasons for this. Opponents aren't as good. Games are usually played at home. Stakes aren't as high. Comfortable.
The reaction of some fans of preferring the NIT has caused me to realize a bitter truth about my favorite sports team.
BYU basketball is a great NIT program, but a below average NCAA tourney team. They live in college basketball's no man's land. Generally better than the NIT competition, but not quite good enough for the NCAA's. Occasionally, BYU will galavant as a real player in the tournament when a Jimmer or Ainge come around. Otherwise, unless the Cougars have one of the 10 best players in the history of the program on the team, the Y is losing in the first round.
But what about using the NIT to build for the future? History answers some of that for us too.
In the 1985-86 season, Jeff Chatman led the Cougars in scoring and was 2nd in scoring as a sophomore. They had a NIT run where they won two games at home against SMU and Cal-Irvine, and then lost to Ohio State on the road. After that, two years later, Chatman as a senior advanced in the NCAA by beating NC-Charlotte in OT. It was helpful that Michael Smith joined the team as well. Regardless, NIT success has yielded NCAA success once since 1985. Otherwise, no other team or player with a NIT appearance has then went on to win a NCAA game at BYU.
Tyler Haws will play in the NCAA tournament in the coming years. I would bet that he will record a round of 64 win. He's too good not to. I'm just not sure that having extra games against Washington, Mercer, Southern Miss, and Baylor (and more?) are pivotal in future success. But they certainly don't hurt and that's why teams play in the NIT.
Wrestling legend Ric Flair famously said, "To be the man, WOOO!, you gotta beat the man!" NIT experience doesn't provide more value to a program than playing for a National Championship. Even if it is usually for just one game. Its the only way to get comfortable on the big stage. When that happens, maybe the Cougars will sell out Madison Square Garden.