BY REBECCA AGULE
March comes round each year, and with every Selection Sunday we hear the same talk of Cinderella stories. Small conference teams with big time voices. This year’s Bucknells and UW-Milwaukees. Teams not expected to make a peep are suddenly roaring. These teams are dancing, trying on the glass basketball high tops and finding they fit.
When looked at fully, March Madness really is the quintessential Cinderella story, complete with the ugly stepsister no one really wants to admit to knowing, the girl about whom you will never tell your friends, and you certainly don’t want to have to bring her home to meet your family. There in the shadows, she will never meet Prince Charming, never dance the final waltz. Without even one shining moment, she can be a consolation prize at best.
You know very well that you ignore the NIT, year in and year out. When a season ends with only an NIT berth, you mumble under your breath about injury depletion and recruiting slumps, trying to portray it as a sign of better things to come, as a stepping stone, never as your real fate. The University of Maryland currently exemplifies this attitude. The Terps, national champions as recently as 2002, meet tiny Davidson College on March 23 in the second round of the NIT. A late season slump and poor ACC tournament showing kept Maryland from bursting through their bubble and moving into the running for a “real” national championship. Rather than an experience to be enjoyed, NIT games serve as practice, rehearsal for when something real comes along.
Back in the day, the NIT didn’t signify shame, decline or missed opportunity. It wasn’t the death knell it has become today. Instead, it showcased the glory of your program. Teams clamored for an invitation to New York City, and that ticket to Madison Square Garden in the middle of the 20th century meant an upswing in recruiting success and media coverage. But a gambling scandal in the 1950’s sullied the NIT’s reputation, and later rule changes governing tournament participation allowed the NCAA to dominate post-season play. Now, by both name and common recognition, the NCAA determines the national champion.
The basketball heritage of my own alma mater began with a gust of prestige, at least prestige by association. The NCAA tournament began its storied history at Patten Gymnasium on the North Campus of Northwestern University in 1939, as the Oregon Ducks beat the Ohio State Buckeyes by a football-esque score of 46-33. But this tenuous connection quickly vanished. Since that first game, the Big Dance moves further and further away from its conception in Evanston, any link between the two dimming year by year.
But that doesn’t stop fans from hoping, and that small glimmer of a future permits us to revel in any success at all. As such, I still have NIT dreams, as measly as they might be.
My junior year in college, Northwestern received a bid to the NIT, meeting DePaul at Rosemont Horizon in Chicago. While headlines about DePaul read like, “Poor Finish Leads DePaul to NIT,” Wildcat fans happily took what we could get. We snatched up tickets as quickly as possible, ready to watch our Wooden All-American Evan Eschmeyer take on future Phoenix Sun Quentin Richardson. The ‘Cats managed to rally late, coming within two of the Blue Demons, but never managing to gain full control. And with that our post-season aspirations ended. Rife with disappointment, I could taste something new, and a hope against hope for a new direction. Esch graduated, moving on to a quiet and truncated career in the NBA. But his legacy, his ability to allow fans to fantasize has not quite left the campus.
For Syracuse graduates, people raised in Indiana, anyone who could actually say “Krzyzewski” correctly the first time without assistance or a phonetic spelling probably cannot understand this perspective. This notion of looking at the NIT as something special seemed improbable even to me. I still cannot separate myself from my Carolina basketball roots. I attribute this to a sense of loyalty and a decent upbringing, of course. But in all honesty, having attended a college without a program of repute, nothing has come to take the Tar Heels’ place. Even as I follow the new Roy Williams venture in Chapel Hill, I want Northwestern to find a place in the national spotlight, for anything, really. I cheer my Wildcats at every chance, and I rally myself to follow even their burgeoning women’s lacrosse program. I followed them to San Antonio for a shellacking by Nebraska in the Alamo Bowl. It all falls under the great American dream, that one day I will actually get to root for revenue sports.
So mock the NIT. Ignore it. To say I am any better would be an outright lie. But even as I watch the Sweet Sixteen begin, I realize, with all honesty, I would be a happy fan to see a little purple these days, even in the nether regions of the NIT. And attending Harvard does not appear a solution; without winning the Ivy League, nothing can really be expected. Anyone with a diploma from a school that cannot quite get itself out from under the bolder of the larger programs would understand. Maybe it is just the NIT, but at least you aren’t at home in March.