THE LITTLE DANCE

The Baltimore Sun

NEW YORK-- --Here's the sad truth about playing in the National Invitation Tournament: No matter how well your team does, you'll never thrust your finger in the air and shout, "We're No. 1!"

You'll never shout, "We're No. 2!" either.

Nos. 3 through 20 are pretty much out of the question, too.

No, even if you win the NIT championship - as the West Virginia Mountaineers did by beating the Clemson Tigers before 12,000 empty seats a few days ago at Madison Square Garden - your number will be much higher, like something you'd pull at the MVA when you go for new tags.

You'll be No. 66. That's because the top 65 teams in men's college basketball went to the Big Dance, the glamour-puss NCAA Tournament, the one everyone in the land pays attention to.

You went to the Little Waltz, the NIT, the one nicknamed the Not Invited Tournament.

So you're No. 66.

And they don't make giant foam fingers that say "We're No. 66!"

That's why if you're one of the West Virginia or Clemson players, it has to sting a little when you sit down tonight and see all the fuss made over Ohio State-Florida for the NCAA championship.

Buckeyes-Gators in Atlanta, now that's a big game: network TV, big shots Jim Nantz and Billy Packer calling the action, endless highlights on ESPN the next day, major coverage in all the newspapers.

You, on the other hand, got zero coverage. Or pretty close to zero. Are you kidding? There are games in the witness protection program that get more coverage.

Martha Stewart shooting free throws in the prison exercise yard - she got more coverage.

March Madness? Not for you, baby.

Sure, ESPN televised the NIT semis and finals, but it felt like a charity case. Out-of-town papers gave you a few paragraphs, that's it. If you were lucky, they showed a 10-second clip of your game on the 11 o'clock news.

All this, of course, could really get to you if you played in the NIT.

But here's what really gets to you: People will say your team stinks.

Even if your team has better than 20 wins - the Mountaineers finished with 27, the Tigers with 25 - people will say you stink because you didn't make it to the Big Dance.

Sure, it's dumb. But your fans will say you stink. Newspaper columnists will say you stink. The howling masses on sports radio will say you stink.

You may even come to believe this yourself, like some kind of perverse Stockholm Syndrome.

The Maryland Terrapins certainly seemed to have a debilitating case of self-loathing after two straight NIT appearances in 2005 and 2006.

And no wonder

Playing Manhattan before a tiny crowd in their only NIT game last year - televised by ESPN 8 ("The Ocho"), which meant that it was seen in maybe 20 homes - the Terps appeared catatonic.

They were booed off the court by their own fans at halftime before going on to lose. 87-84.

This March, after being assured of an NCAA Tournament bid, the Terps let their true feelings about the NIT come pouring out. "I'm more than happy ... I don't have to come back here to play an NIT game," senior guard D.J. Strawberry told reporters.

James Gist, the junior forward, was even more impolitic: "I can sleep good tonight, knowing we're not going to the NIT, we're going to the NCAA."

Is that a quote for the NIT scrapbook or what?

If you're the tourney PR guy, how do you put a positive spin on that?

OK, fine, let's stop the piling on for a moment. Let's look at the other side of the coin, too.

Let's say you're one of the teams that didn't make the NCAA Tournament, one of the teams that sat around waiting for the Big Call that never came.

Now here comes the NIT, winking and beckoning like a saucy-eyed suitor, whispering breathlessly: "Hey, big guy, your season doesn't have to end yet. Come play at our party."

What would you do?

Hey, you're a basketball player, right? You want to keep playing ball. You'd do anything to make the season last one more game.

And if you were the West Virginia Mountaineers or Clemson Tigers, or the Mississippi State Bulldogs or Air Force Falcons, and you made it through the NIT's 32-team field all the way to the Final Four, what would you do then?

This is what you'd do:

You'd make the best of it and go off to New York, to the basketball mecca on Eighth Avenue and 33rd Street known as the Garden.

You'd try to win a championship.

And try to convince people - maybe even yourself - that you don't stink.

It's a Tuesday night and the Garden - "the most famous and glamorous arena in creation," columnist Red Smith called it - is all shined up, the floor polished to a gleam, the championship banners of the Knicks and Rangers hanging jauntily from the rafters.

But only about 7,000 people are in the stands as WVU prepares to tip off against Mississippi State in the opening game.

For those who grew up with the tournament, it's a sad sight.

Once upon a time, the NIT was a big deal. It began back in 1938 and was considered the pre-eminent post-season college basketball tournament in the land for years. It showcased budding stars like Walt Frazier of Southern Illinois, Ralph Sampson of Virginia and Reggie Miller of UCLA, and big games, too.

But by the late '70s, it was losing its luster, overshadowed by March Madness. In 1977, the present format evolved where teams play on campus sites in the early rounds, with the four remaining teams traveling to New York for the championship round.

Now it's a tournament for also-rans. And rumors abound that the NCAA, which began running the tournament two years ago after being accused in an antitrust case of trying to kill the NIT, could pull the plug on it within a few years.

Last year, the semifinal and championship games drew an all-time low average attendance of 7,264 for each night. They might beat that this year.

Two of the fans watching the pre-game warm-ups are Jimmy Snyder, 20, a junior at West Virginia and Mike Bodziak, 23, a senior. Both are wearing gold WVU T-shirts so bright they could give you a migraine.

Neither is drunk, which is a good thing. Because even though both are smiling, they seem to have a chip on their shoulder that could turn into a giant redwood after a few beers.

Both say they're glad their team is still playing - "even if it's the NIT," Snyder adds. But both say West Virginia got screwed. By whom? By the NCAA tournament selection committee.

Twenty-two regular-season wins and no invite to the Big Dance - that's a disgrace.

"We should have got a bid" says Snyder.

"Yeah," says Bodziak. "If we win here, it'll make the [committee] realize we should have gotten in."

Seething resentment is often a hallmark of the fans of teams relegated to NIT; it appears to be raging here in Section 59.

Right now, even with the school bands playing fight songs, the fans seem listless. Even the media covering the game seem listless.

There was a time when covering the NIT was considered a plum assignment. But those days are long gone, too.

"When I tell people I'm covering the NIT, they say: 'Oh, boy, what did you do wrong?' or 'Too bad,'" says Ray Floriani, an affable man who covers college basketball for a bunch of Internet sites.

Floriani watched the NIT as a kid, covered his first game in the '70s, fell in love with the tournament and has covered it ever since.

He even wrote a book about it that came out last year, The National Invitation Tournament: Images of Sports, and believes strongly that the NIT still serves a useful purpose.

"What happens [to teams] right after [the NCAA's] Selection Sunday is, you don't get in, you have the initial shock and frustration," he says. "Then, 24 hours later, the realization is: 'Hey, we can still play in the NIT!'

"When it's all said and done, they do enjoy the experience of playing here."

Over the next two hours, Floriani appears to be a prophet.

The West Virginia-Mississippi State game is a barn-burner. The Garden is rocking - if 7,000 fans can make the old joint rock.

When the Mountaineers' Darris Nichols hits a desperation 3-pointer from the left baseline at the buzzer for a 63-62 win, the West Virginia fans explode in a roaring, high-fiving frenzy.

In the post-game interview session, WVU coach John Beilein is upbeat.

"Now if anybody ever would be disappointed to play in the NIT, they are absolutely crazy," he says. "That was a great basketball game and a great atmosphere."

Yes, that was a big win for the Mountaineers and their fans. And the second game, Clemson-Air Force, gets exciting at the end, too, with Clemson holding on for a nail-biting 68-67 win.

But the West Virginia and Mississippi State fans are gone by the time the Tigers and Falcons tip off around 9:40. And with just a few thousand fans rattling around in the Garden, the place feels empty and cavernous.

Predictably, the WVU-Mississippi State game gets only a few seconds of coverage on the 11 o'clock news that night. The second game finishes too late for the newscasts.

The next day, the New York Daily News buries the story of the games atop a Kia Motors ad proclaiming: "Hurry! End of Month Blowout!"

The New York Times runs its story inside the sports section on Page 3.

On the other hand, the Daily News has a big story up front in its main news section with the screaming headline "PUB-SIDE FOR FINAL FOUR."

But we're not talking NIT Final Four.

It's about which bars alumni of the NCAA Final Four schools can visit to watch the big games.

On Thursday night, back at the Garden for the championship game, West Virginia is too much for Clemson and wins, 78-73 for its first NIT title since 1942.

That night's attendance: 7,761. Average attendance for both nights: 7,537, slightly better than last year's NIT. But no one on the NIT committee will be breaking out the champagne and confetti.

Still, what follows is a great college basketball scene, and the reason teams don't hang up the phone when the humble NIT comes calling at the end of the season.

The grinning Mountaineers players pull on their white championship T-shirts and receive their gleaming commemorative watches.

Then a happy mob of players and supporters gathers under one basket.

One by one, the players take scissors and climb up a stepladder for the ceremonial cutting down of the net. Only a few hundred fans are left at the Garden, but they cheer and clap for each player.

Looking on, also, are the players' families, Moms dabbing tears of joy from their eyes and grinning Dads snapping away madly with their digital cameras.

"It's been a lot of fun to play in this tournament," senior forward Frank Young says in the post-game news conference. "Of course, you know, we wanted to be in the NCAA Tournament, but to win this tournament, all of the joy is still there. We're still happy about finishing our season with a win."

Twenty-seven wins in all for the Mountaineers. An NIT title.

OK, it's not March Madness.

But it's not March Sadness, either.

And they know they don't stink.

kevin.cowherd@baltsun.com

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