Commentary

NIT: Colorado's antidote to NCAA's snub

The Buffs approached the NIT as anything but insignificant, and it's paying off for them

Originally Published: March 28, 2011
By Scoop Jackson | ESPN.com

In a living room in Chicago, Colin Relphorde sits on a couch watching his son, Marcus, and the University of Colorado play their quarterfinal game in the National Invitation Tournament (aka: the NIT).

The people with him say things, make comments within his earshot. All pertaining to their feelings that his son's team has been robbed. As in, the Buffaloes should have been invited to the four-letter formal dance instead of the three-letter sock hop.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Relphorde
AP Photo/Orlin WagnerIt isn't the Big Dance, but at least Colorado forward Marcus Relphorde will have the chance to dunk in Madison Square Garden.

They think their comments and condolences make him feel better. Let him know he isn't alone. And to a degree, they do.

But as the evening continues, Colin can't escape the fact that he's watching this game on TV instead of being there in person.

"If they'd gotten in [the NCAAs]," Relphorde says, "I'da been there. Wherever they'd played, anywhere he would have gone, I would have been there."

You can hear it in his voice. The loss of that at-large bid.

"At this point, I'm just watching [Marcus] play ball," Colin says. "I've finally gotten through the disappointment -- I should say more so than anger -- of not being accepted, of them not getting into the tournament, because it's a little bit more than being 'snubbed.'

"My son had a personal goal that I've known about for a long time," he says. "Before he even got into college, he told me he always wanted to get the opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament. [So] that sticks in my mind as I watch them play now. But that's kind of overridden by the fact that I just want them to win and the other part is to show the selection committee that they made the wrong decision."


We can find a collection of fathers going through this every year, it seems. Mothers, brothers, sisters, aunties, uncles, homies, girlfriends, alums, students, boosters, too, all watching their teams, their schools, their friends, their loved ones, playing in the college basketball postseason tournament that many say is reserved for the 69th bid.

It's called the anatomy of a snub.

March sadness.

There are always more qualified applicants than positions available in the NCAA tournament. Someone always gets left out.

Year after year after year, it's the same routine. Schools get dissed by a roomful of athletic directors and conference commissioners who never seem to get it right.

This year, Colorado made that list by not making the NCAA cut. So did Virginia Tech, Boston College, Alabama and Harvard. More than often, the NIT becomes a proving ground for those teams to show the NCAA selection committee how wrong it was.

[+] EnlargeWest Virginia
AP Photo/Frank Franklin IIWest Virginia used this 2007 NIT title celebration as a starting point for four consecutive NCAA tournament bids.

Colorado and Alabama, two of the four No. 1 NIT seeds, are still standing and play each other in the semifinals on Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET in Madison Square Garden. (Virginia Tech and Boston College, the other two top seeds, lost in the early rounds.) Washington State plays Wichita State at 7 in Tuesday's first semifinal. The championship game is Thursday at 7 p.m. All three remaining games are on ESPN2.

In some years, an NIT bid forces teams to make decisions. Mental clashes. Stay or go? Schools have refused to go once they've been snubbed by the NCAA. Georgetown, Maryland, Oklahoma State, North Carolina State (David Thompson once called it "a loser's tournament"), Louisville. All in the past have chosen to not accept the NIT invite.

But there are also teams such as the 2007 West Virginia squad. Not good enough in the eyes of the selection committee to make the NCAA tournament, the Mountaineers accepted a No. 1 seed in the NIT and won it & and they haven't been back since. Four straight NCAA tournament appearances. Last year, they made it to the Final Four; and from the looks of the program Bob Huggins has been building, it might be a long time before West Virginia puts itself in the position to have the suits in a room in the second week of March determine their fate again. That 2007 NIT championship? Motivation.

For most teams that feel they've been snubbed, playing in the "National Insignificant Tournament" becomes understood. But in the minds of those who have to live and play through it, who survive and advance in the NIT like the Colorado Buffaloes have so far, it's never justified.


Throughout the last two weeks, Colorado coach Tad Boyle has been able to get his team mentally past the omission. Even when other coaches couldn't -- or refused to -- see past it.

Mark Turgeon of Texas A&M expressed his feelings in a story on CUBuffs.com.

"I was just stunned that [the Buffs] weren't in," Turgeon said.

Bill Self of Kansas did the same.

"I just can't imagine a team that finishes 8-8, really 10-9 [counting the Big 12 tournament] in the third-best league in the country and with four wins over top five seeds & that to me is unthinkable, that to me is unbelievable & I think they really deserve to be in the field without question," Self said.

After the "oversight," as some in the media have generously called it, Boyle played the "We're all human" card, saying bluntly, "In the game of college basketball, players make mistakes, coaches make mistakes, officials make mistakes & now we're seeing that the committee makes mistakes, too."

Tad Boyle
AP Photo/Jack DempseyIt took a day or two after Selection Sunday, but the Buffs' Levi Knutson and coach Tad Boyle learned to appreciate the NIT opportunity.

That philosophy led to an open discussion with his team during practice the day after Selection Sunday. A commitment was made. So was a conclusion, the latter affirming that they have too much character as a team and too much competitive spirit to let these NIT games slide.

The commitment? To be one of the two teams in Division I men's basketball to be able to say they won the last game of their season.

Basil G. Brooks, contributing editor of the team's website, noticed something else, too.

"The initial shock of not getting in the tournament lingered for a day or more," he said. "But Tad Boyle and his staff did a great job of easing the players out of what Boyle termed 'a little funk' that remained in the first-round NIT win over Texas Southern. I think it [the funk] was pretty much gone by the time Cal got in here for the second round. But if the players' minds have cleared, there's no doubt some residual pain when they tune into NCAA games. That's unavoidable, but the mission is pretty clear right now: Get to the Garden and finish. This is a pretty good basketball team, with a couple of very good players [Cory Higgins, Alec Burks], a very good sixth man [Levi Knutson] and enough solid role players to set a school season record for wins [23]. It's been an enjoyable ride -- even with the NCAA snub -- at a school trying hard to make basketball count."

After Tuesday night's quarterfinal victory over Kent State, Boyle put a cap on it.

"I think our team is good enough to have gone to the NCAA tournament and won a few games," he said. "I don't know how many, because that all depends on the matchups, and you see what happens in the tournament. I don't know if it's a blessing in disguise; everyone says it's easier to win games in the NIT. It's been easier for us because we've been at home. We've beaten some good teams. I'm glad we've won. All you can do is play the hand you were dealt, and we were dealt the hand and we're playing it. No matter what tournament you're in, it's huge."


Javon Coney, a 6-foot-3 senior for the Buffs, never got the opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament.

At this stage, two games away from an NIT championship, Coney still can't escape the fact that his one shining moment won't be sung by Luther Vandross or Jennifer Hudson. He might get the Rebecca Black version.

When asked about it, he doesn't sound disappointed. He's too proud of the squad right now, too excited about the being in the NIT Final Four.

But he keeps it very, very true.

"Our society, at least basketball-wise, has always put an emphasis on making the NCAA tournament and being a part of March Madness," Coney says over the phone. "Everything revolves around that this time of year for college basketball. So it was extremely disappointing to us that we didn't have the opportunity to go out and finish the way we wanted.

"But for us to be one of the few teams left, in both the NCAA and NIT tournaments, is extremely great for us and a huge plus just to still be playing. Because not a lot of teams are still playing."

Despite Boyle's belief, this NIT has been Colorado's blessing in disguise.

"One of my concerns when we didn't make the NCAA tournament was that we weren't going to be able to put a stamp on, make our mark on the season we had," Coney continues. "This has been the year where we turned the corner as a program. At the beginning, I thought not making the [NCAA] tournament would diminish that; but thinking about it and having now played in the NIT, it's truly been a blessing. We really have an opportunity to go out, go to New York, actually go to Madison Square Garden and win this tournament, which will be an unbelievable way to end my career and the career of the other four seniors as well."


"Did you see the game?" Colin Relphorde texted me late Tuesday night after the quarterfinal win over Kent State. "Marcus did his thing. Got player of the game!"

I responded that I did, sent congratulations. When I asked if he was going to New York, he replied: "Already made my reservations."

Scoop Jackson is a columnist for ESPN.com.

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