I took a lot of heat this past week when I told my friends that quite frankly I didn't care whatsoever about the NIT. I was accused of "not supporting the team," and of "throwing them under the bus." I was not pleased with the NIT bid and upon watching these recent NCAA tournament games, I've even less pleased with the reaction of the Northwestern student body towards the bid.
Everyone is acting like the NIT bid was some great accomplishment that should be celebrated. It was the first 20-win season in NU history. It was the first time NU has EVER been in back to back postseason tournaments. They did it without Kevin Coble, who was lost for the year due to injury. These are undeniable facts.
But quite frankly I had higher expectations for this team. After they beat Notre Dame, Iowa State, and NC State in a row, there was no doubt in my mind they should make the NCAA tournament. Even right after Coble and Ryan went down at the very beginning of the year, I said they'd still make the tournament. People called me delusional at the time.
Then Northwestern started winning, a lot. They won so much they actually debuted in the AP top 25 for the first time since the Nixon administration. That didn't last long as they lost a heart breaker to Illinois in overtime, but in my opinion, the new bar had been set, Kevin Coble or no Kevin Coble.
No matter what your initial expectations were for the team, their play through the first few months of the season should have made you realize that this team had the talent to make the Big Dance. Thus, that should have been the new expectation, not some vague hope.
But when a team loses four of seven to Penn State, Iowa, and Indiana down the stretch, they don't deserve to make the NCAA Tournament. That was the biggest source of my disappointment. Those three teams are simply awful squads, and if Northwestern wins four more games this year, they're probably dancing, despite their weak schedule and lack of signature wins.
So pardon me, but no, I was not pleased with a NIT bid. I also would argue that the NIT is absolutely meaningless when you compare it to the NCAA Tournament. One dramatic win in the NCAA tournament and you're immortal in the minds of college basketball fans. All you have to say is "Valpo", and fans will immediately remember Bryce Drew's amazing game-winner against Ole Miss years ago.
This year, watching Quincy Pondexter of UW lead the Huskies to a dramatic win over Marquette, I realized he'd be a campus legend for all-time. Only the most committed NU basketball historians could tell me who led NU to their last win in the NIT .
One win in the NIT, no matter how dramatic or entertaining the game, isn't remembered by anyone outside your school. This brings me to the argument a lot of my friends were making.
"This is Northwestern, Aaron. A win in the NIT would mean a lot for the players and the program, especially considering our history."
I reject wholeheartedly the premise that a poor history justifies lowering our expectations. I don't care what the past NU teams did, I only care about the current version of the Wildcats. In my evaluation of THIS team, I saw the talent necessary to make the NCAA Tournament.
You can agree or disagree with that, but as I said before, if they had taken care of business late in the season against the teams they should beat, we wouldn't be having this discussion right now.
History is an unfortunate burden that is really weighing down both the football and basketball programs right now. When a school hasn't won a bowl game since 1949 or has never made the NCAA Tournament, believe me, the players know it. Fans see it as nearly an impossible task, so they lower their expectations.
I still hear people calling the Outback Bowl a moral victory. No, no, and HELL no. No one who truly supports NU athletics should consider the Outback Bowl...or the NIT...a moral victory.
I believe it does a great disservice to the players, our peers, when you say "Congratulations on making the NIT." That is the equivalent of walking up to Zeke Markshausen and telling him "Congrats on almost winning the Outback Bowl."
This team's goal was to make the NCAA Tournament. They did not want to be in the NIT. It must be such a letdown to work so hard all year, and find yourself "rewarded" for your efforts in a trip to Rhode Island for a game no one in this country besides your most die-hard fans will see or care about.
I listened to Dave Eanet call the game. I hoped they'd win. I was frustrated when they didn't because I have a ton of school pride. But in the end, the result of that game was meaningless. Even winning the whole NIT doesn't mean much. Ask Penn State.
The only tournament that matters in college basketball is the NCAA Tournament. Until Northwestern makes that, the players will not be satisfied, and if we are even half-decent fans, neither should we.