The world of the haves and the have nots in college athletics ebbs and flows in any given year, and this time of year the hope for Cinderella trying on the glass slipper in March Madness is what keeps fans up at night. However this year, perhaps more than ever, Cinderella might find her way further along, with so much uncertainty amongst the traditional powers as we approach Selection Sunday. The little guys it seems, may go home early this year. Still that doesn’t mean that the NCAA Tournament is any less interesting, fun or compelling to watch.
For someone cruising the dial in the coming weeks on a Monday or Tuesday, a hoops fan might wander on to the mayhem in a smaller home gym away from the bright lights shining on Turner and CBS for the NCAA Tournament. The game may have all the feel of an NCAA matchup, and for these schools even more at stake perhaps; something to prove as teams that missed the field of 68. One tournament even has the carrot of the “World’s Most Famous Arena,” Madison Square Garden, at its end, that being the NIT.
Now those second tournaments, the College Basketball Invitational, the College Insider, and the NIT (which has the structure from the NCAA of at least taking regular season champions who fall in their conference tournament and have their bubble broken) are not without its issues. Because of the quick turnaround for arena space and TV time, a first round matchup may not draw well, but that issue appears to be less so this year, as a very balanced top 100 in college hoops, combined with some strong local support in places have turned these events into a better consolation trip than perhaps in years past.
However what keeps many coaches and administrators up at night is what happens when you are a good mid-major or even a rebuilding school in a major conference and the Big Dance, or even the little dance, the NIT, doesn’t come calling. The answer for some is to go and try another tournament or another… two to choose from ….The College Basketball Invitational and the CollegeInsider.com.
Unlike the CBI, which a unique but curious best 2 of 3 final and seems to focus on bigger name schools willing to burn a pretty hefty fee to play on (and drew criticism from several schools who chose not to fork up the extra dollars this year, Indiana being one), the CIT, which will be on CBS Sports Network, is a play for mid-majors only at a much smaller fee with a traditional one and done format, and has actually gained more mainstream traction than originally thought possible by many critics who through post season hoops was already NCAA or nothing. The 32 schools invited to the CIT bracket seem to be excited to be playing on, with a chance to build toward the NCAA or other success in future years. Schools like Columbia for example, have found a way to draw fans and might get a chance to take on rivals like Fordham, an extra perk for a pair of schools not used to post-season play and looking to build a program. The CIT has had more schools make their postseason debut (25) and more programs win their first-ever postseason game (24) than all other tournaments combined during the seven seasons since the CIT was established in 2009.
There is probably more room, at least in the short term for the CBI and the CIT than in recent years. The power shift to the larger conferences has made a long advance into March for mid-major schools more difficult, while the issue of players leaving schools early at large schools has created more parity overall than ever before. Good schools with sold seasons, often young programs, still will get squeezed out of NCAA play, and need a place to build brand and legacy. These three tournaments to varying degrees help do that.
In the end, the CBI and the CIT make progress but have a ways to go to see if that are totally viable for casual fans and brands. Can they build equity, increase their content potential and add sponsors who can’t crash The Big Dance? Maybe. Can they bring in some revenue for the home school in these troubled times through ticket sales and sponsor value? Great. Can they find a way to decrease costs to get away from the pay for play stigma? Perhaps. If the games save the jobs of some deserving and pressured coaches and gives the athletes one more shot at glory, great. Nether, nor will the NIT ever replace the dollars or bright lights of the NCAA Tournament, but if they can continue to sustain and enhance their reputations maybe they can carve their own necessary and meaningful niche in the complex web of big time college hoops.