As the final seconds of BYU's loss to Gonzaga in last week's West Coast Conference tournament ticked away, one could sense a perceptible exhale of disappointment from the Cougar fanbase.
That was it.
The dream was dead.
The season was over.
With their run at an automatic bid cruelly ended at the Zags' hands and the hope of an at-large bid long since put out to pasture, it was abundantly clear that the Cougars would not be dancing in the NCAA tournament this season, for just the third time in coach Dave Rose's tenure in Provo.
With so much consistent success in the Rose era, making the tournament has become almost like a birthright for BYU fans. It's where we feel we belong, and if we don't get there, it's cause for great consternation. And that's not wrong — BYU does have the requisite talent to expect a bid to the Big Dance in most years. When it doesn't happen, it should be a disappointment — because it is.
But therein also lies a small problem. Because BYU fans are (understandably) of the NCAA-or-bust mindset, many of us are missing the silver lining in the storm cloud of our team's underachievement. That is to say, we're not sufficiently excited about the National Invitation Tournament — and we should be. (I promise I'm typing all of this with the straightest of faces.)
Here are a few of the many reasons why the NIT is actually a lot of fun and you should be more excited than you (likely) already are about BYU's impending run through college basketball's second most famous postseason tournament:
You get to see your team play more basketball games...
This feels like a no-brainer to me. If you really like basketball, chances are you want more of it. Now, instead of watching your team inevitably fall apart at the seams on national television in a single play-in game just to get to the big kids' table, you have the realistic potential of watching them play (and win!) multiple games in the pursuit of some greater, (somewhat) meaningful goal.
Wait, am I saying that I'd rather have BYU make a deep NIT run than get smacked around in the first round of the NCAAs? Of course not. The NCAA tournament is the best, now and forever and always. Just making it there is a complete and total rush every single time, no matter what happens. But if you can't have that for a year, you might as well enjoy the opportunity to see your team play a couple more times and maybe even win some kind of trophy.
This is the really fun thing about the NIT, particularly for those who live in close proximity to Provo: BYU almost always plays at least one of their tournament games at home! This year won't be any different. Due to seeding, if the Cougars keep winning, they are guaranteed to play at least their first two NIT games in the Marriott Center, with significant potential for a third depending on other results.
This setup is great for a couple reasons — including the fact that it usually means a significant home court advantage (and thus, more wins) for BYU. But mostly it's awesome because it gives committed fans who showed up for games all year long — including the crappy ones against bad teams in mid-December — the opportunity to see some postseason basketball without shelling out big money to fly their entire family to an NCAA regional location and then auctioning off their children's limbs for tickets. That's a win for me.
...against good competition.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I already know what you're thinking. It's the NIT, bro. It's a bunch of teams that weren't good enough to make it to the real thing. All these teams suuuuck. And you're partially right about that — but only partially.
It's true that the NIT field is comprised of flawed teams that failed to qualify for the NCAA tournament. By definition, that's what it is. But that doesn't mean these are bad teams.
On the contrary, they're actually good teams. In fact, 27 of the 32 teams in the 2016 field are ranked in the RPI's final Top 100 — and several are even in the Top 50. Just look at BYU's likely path to the semifinals, for example. The Cougars will start by hosting No. 83 UAB, then potentially move on to play either No. 38 Princeton or No. 89 Virginia Tech, before likely facing off against No. 30 Saint Bonaventure, No. 73 Alabama or No. 100 Creighton for the right to fly to New York. NIT or not, that's no cake walk.
The reality is, these are the types of teams that you probably spent time complaining about BYU not being able to schedule (and beat) in the regular season. These are the types of teams that NCAA-caliber squads base their entire resumes on beating. These are good basketball teams. They just weren't quite good enough to qualify for one of only 36 at-large slots to the big show — you know, kind of like BYU.
So if you've ever bemoaned the Cougars not being able to get enough "quality opponents" on their schedule (and I think most of us are in that boat), you don't get to discount the NIT.
Of course, there are many other reasons why you should embrace the NIT, too. It's a great opportunity for beloved seniors like Kyle Collinsworth and Chase Fischer to say an extended goodbye to their collegiate careers. Young players like Nick Emery, Zac Seljaas and Jordan Chatman will gain valuable postseason experience that will undoubtedly benefit them under even brighter lights and on even bigger stages in the future. If BYU wins enough, they'll get to play at Madison Square Garden, which is pretty much one of the coolest things you can do in basketball. The list goes on.
But the point is clear: Yes, it is a giant bummer that BYU didn't make the NCAA tournament this year. Yes, they underachieved. Yes, you should be disappointed. All of that is good and fine and true. But that doesn't mean that you shouldn't wrap both of your arms around the glorious sideshow that is the NIT and give it a big bear hug. Because who doesn't want to have a bit more fun before the lights go dark?