- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 19, 2013

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Before the real games begin (and those newfangled play-in games are only a preliminary), let’s talk about the NIT.

For starters, the full name of the tournament is the National Invitation Tournament and not the National Invitational Tournament as a couple of prominent websites have it listed. The tournament has some tradition and history. It has been around since 1938 and it used to mean something. Let’s accord it the proper respect by using its proper name.

That is, unless you want to call it the Nobody’s Interested Tournament because, frankly, that fits, too.

As the NCAA tournament has grown into a behemoth, the NIT has been lost in the shuffle. Ever compete in an NIT pool? Quick, name the past three NIT champions? Heck, name the last one. The last three are Stanford, Wichita State and Dayton. Look it up. We did. We had no choice.

The NIT does have some value. It’s never bad to play more games, especially if you have a young team. It’s a worthwhile experience if you can get to New York for the NIT version of the final four. But let’s face it, no team starts its season with designs on an NIT bid. No coach wants a line that says, “Made the NIT a lot,” on his resume.

Nothing says not quite good enough quite like the NIT.

All of which brings us to the universities of Maryland and Virginia. The Terps and the Cavaliers started their NIT bids on Tuesday night with home games. Win three games and they can head to New York and play in a half-full (or half-empty) Madison Square Garden.

For both programs, it’s not a terrible situation. Not this year at least. It does bring up the question as to when too much NIT is too much? At what point does the heat get turned up?

Virginia’s Tony Bennett and Maryland’s Mark Turgeon are accomplished coaches. They have solid track records. They certainly aren’t in any trouble. Not yet.

This is Bennett’s fourth year at Virginia. He was coaching at Washington State before moving to Charlottesville and he made the NCAA tournament twice in three seasons there. He’s made it once with the Cavaliers, last season. A program that used to be a lot more dominant (seven Sweet 16s and two Final Fours between 1981-95) hasn’t been quite that good since. The Cavaliers have only made three NCAA appearances since 1997 and only won one game in their past four NCAA visits.

So Bennett didn’t take over a juggernaut. He’s also not being paid about $1.7 million a year to maintain mediocrity. If he’s preparing for the NIT again in a year, it is time to ask some questions.

Virginia was picked to finish seventh preseason polls by the ACC’s coaches and media. It finished fourth, with Mike Scott gone and Malcolm Brogdon injured. Bennett gets points for having Virginia in NCAA position despite that, after a late-season victory over Duke. But Virginia didn’t get there after a poor finish to the season, so most of the points are lost and the NIT is the “reward.”

Turgeon has a bit more time as he’s only just finishing his second year at Maryland. He came to the Terps after four years at Texas A&M, where he made the NCAA field all four years. That means he took over a good program and kept it good. At Maryland, he found a solid program that needed a bit of propping up. The Terps won the national title in 2002. They’ve made five NCAA tournaments since then and won at least one game all five times (but only as many as two once).

After a 17-15 debut, Maryland improved to 22-12 going into Tuesday’s game. A five-game improvement next year and Turgeon isn’t doing the NIT thing, that’s for sure. That may not be realistic but an NCAA bid is not and should not be an unrealistic goal.

Like Bennett, Turgeon is well paid. He’s making just shy of $2 million this year. He’s not getting that kind of coin to become an NIT regular. He’s on an upward swing, which is good. He needs to keep moving in that direction.

It’s not a totally fair world Bennett and Turgeon live in but it is the world of big-money, high-profile NCAA basketball schools. Don’t talk to us about your NIT record. Make the real tournament, more often than not.

Jeff Jones, by contrast, isn’t in that world anymore. He’s the last coach to take U.Va. very far in the NCAAs, going to the Elite Eight in 1995. He’s been at American for 12 years now and has made the NCAA field just twice. He could probably stay there for life if he chooses. His program is clean, his teams are competitive and now and then they get in the (real) tournament. He also makes about 20 percent of what Bennett and Turgeon make.

Big money brings big expectations. The NIT happens every once in a while. It should never become a habit.

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