Sunday, April 5, 2009

Penn State are NIT Champions

The PSU men's basketball team won the post-season National Invitational Tournament, a monstrous achievement at a school where the b-ball players are valued somewhere below the most recently born dairy cow*.

It is likely that their late-season loss to Iowa pushed them out of the big-deal NCAA tournament and into the lesser NIT, which makes me wonder which is the better accomplishment: to make the NCAA field or to win the NIT.

Here at Life At The Margin we believe the NCAA tournament is an over-rated goal. Now, I am not trying to say that it is better to not make the tournament, rather that being invited is not, in itself, an accomplishment.

The best examples of this are the champions of the minor conferences. To illustrate my point, I arbitrarily selected the America East conference. The champion of the America East conference tournament, this year, was Binghamton. But you are not likely to hear or see this event reported as such; instead, the media announces something like "Binghamton Earns NCAA berth" or "Binghamton Headed for the Big Dance."

For Binghamton, though, the berth in the tournament is ceremonial; winning the America East, on the other hand, is a real accomplishment that required real work. The invitation to the NCAA tournament is merely a trophy.

Some would say that Binghamton was given an opportunity to win the national championship. Hogwash. 65 teams were invited. Realistically, maybe 15 or 20 had non-trivial chances of winning. Even Purdue, the 2nd best team in the Big Ten, probably had to experience strange planetary alignments to win. Binghamton was sacrificed to Duke in round 1.

A few years back, the University of Washington won the PAC-10 tournament. A big deal. A real accomplishment. It received significant media attention in Seattle. Nowhere near, however, the attention the team got when they were "awarded" a number 1 seed (one of the top 4 positions) in the NCAA field. So why do I put awarded in quotation marks? Well, anyone paying close enough attention saw that the award meant the Huskies would play Louisville in the 3rd round.

A #1 seed should be a reward for a well-played season. It should mean a relatively easy road to at least the 4th round. Playing Louisville so early meant the Huskies got screwed. Louisville and UW were probably the 5th and 6th best teams in the country that year. Neither should have had to play a team as good as the other until at least the 4th round, but they met in the 3rd round and one had to lose. Washington would have been much better off with a #2 seed, but the Seattle sports media were fawning over the "accomplishment" of a #1 seed. Many called it "historic." Strange word, historic.

Back to Penn State. Had they won that game against Iowa, they would have likely been invited to the NCAA tournament as a 12-seed. They could have realistically set 2 wins as a goal; they almost certainly would have lost in round 1. Instead they won a real tournament, emerged on top of 31 real basketball teams, and knocked off Florida and Notre Dame along the way.

I haven't answered the question that served as premise for this writing, nor will I. I will write this, however: The difference between selection to the NCAA and being relegated to the NIT, for Penn State had a lot to do with a bunch of out-of-shape guys in suits sitting around flipping various coins; the difference between winning a tournament and not winning that tournament... is obvious.

*Various dairy cows were emotionally scarred in the making of this piece of writing.

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