With the NCAA tournament looming, the BYU basketball team will be left out of the field of 68 teams. They didn’t play well enough to belong.
However, the Cougars season isn’t over. The Y wasn’t good enough to be one of the 68, but they were good enough to be among the field of 32 after the 68 — the National Invitation Tournament.
The NIT isn’t exactly what any team is looking for at the start of the season, but it still has it’s prestige. Prestige in a “who’s the 69th best team in America” sense. While BYU is playing for 69th instead of a National Championship, it is only natural to grasp for silver linings. With this being the Y’s 3rd trip to the NIT in 5 seasons, BYU fans are well acquainted with the half-full benefits of NIT play.
BYU may get to play more games in the Marriott Center. So that’s more chances to cheer on the team.
Tournaments are fun because of the dramatic win or go home stakes.
The Marriott Center PA system will blare Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” following a quarterfinal win.
Teams that would never play in the Marriott Center otherwise are forced to play in Provo and the Cougar fans feels a sort of obligation to prove the reputation of the building to the unusual visitor.
The NIT can even provide what I felt was the BYU game of the year in 2016.
For this particular year, there is another tasty element of the NIT. It is possible that after Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak paid $80,000 to cancel the BYU vs. Utah basketball series due to (bogus) concerns for player safety while he (cowardly) ascribed the blame to college freshman (when he was actually trying to poke his nose into and legislate how Dave Rose ought to discipline his player) his team could still have to play the Cougars. If the bracket played out that way, it would be hilarious. Win or lose to the Utes, it would prove once again no matter what they want to believe in Salt Lake City the U of U and BYU are cosmically tied. The programs are measured against each other and are forever linked. Stop scheduling football games? Fine, see you in a bowl game. Pay $80K to cancel the basketball game? Fine, see you in March. It is the college sports version of “The Cat Came Back” down to the Cougars actually being a cat. Please let this happen.
All of this makes for some intrigue and fun in the NIT. But notice, that all the benefits have to do with this team in this moment.
The “look on the bright side” parts of being in the NIT should include absolutely nothing about how the NIT experience positively impacts future play. It doesn’t.
The idea is that a program will build momentum off strong NIT showings. Over the past 3 seasons, 12 teams reached the NIT semifinals in Madison Square Garden. Of those 12 teams, only 3 were able to qualify for the NCAA tournament the following season. Only 1 of them won a game in the Big Dance the season afterward. The past 3 NIT champions? None of them have made the NCAA tournament the next season.
The Cougars have made the NIT several times. Of all the players that have played in the NIT at BYU, only 1 player has ever followed NIT victories with NCAA tournament wins — Jeff Chatman.
Chatman was the best BYU player on his 1985-86 team. As a sophomore, he led the team in scoring and was 2nd in rebounding. His team had a NIT run where they won two games in the Marriott Center against SMU and Cal-Irvine before losing to Ohio State on the road in the NIT quarterfinals.
Two seasons later, Chatman’s squad advanced in the NCAA tournament by beating NC-Charlotte in overtime.
So, it has happened before. BYU has turned NIT success into NCAA success in seasons to come. Just once in the 12 times BYU has played in the NIT. And only for one player, Chatman, is this idea pertinent.
By the time Jeff Chatman’s team won in 1988 at the NCAA tournament, the entire roster had turned over from the 1986 NIT team. Seriously, of the 15 rostered players on the 1985-86 team, only Chatman was on the 1987-88 team.
Call me crazy, but I would argue that adding Cougar legend Michael Smith, who was WAC player of the year in 87-88, to the roster along with 6 All-Conference performers in Marty Haws, Steve Schreiner, Andy Toolson, Gary Trost, Nathan Call, and Brett Applegate, plus, great role players like Jim Usevitch and Brian Taylor had more to do with winning a NCAA tournament game than Jeff Chatman’s lone experience beating the Anteaters of Cal-Irvine in the NIT two seasons prior.
The NIT can be compelling basketball with fun story lines. It is worth playing for that reason, but that’s where the value of the experience ends.
The notion that BYU’s playing against a team’s whose bubble burst — who will more than likely not be in the NCAA tournament again next season — will somehow enable them to win the West Coast Conference next season, help to win a conference tournament, or even qualify, much less advance in a NCAA tournament is foolish.
The Cougars improvement will come during the summer months in an empty gym as they refine their bodies and skills. The team will get better as roles on the floor are more clearly defined. BYU Hoops will improve when they can add a single bench player that can enter the game and give them a lift offensively. These are the things that matter to the future success of the program.
So, just have fun with the NIT. Enjoy the exhibition. Root for BYU to keep their season going. Passionately pull for them to win the goofy prize at the end. Just don’t impute some grander outcome. None of what is offered in the NIT is meaningful, but it is entertaining.