Bob Lutz

April 8, 2011

NCAA Tournament still king, but NIT nice No. 2

As America's professor of profundity, Charlie Sheen, is fond of saying: It's all about WINNING!

As America's professor of profundity, Charlie Sheen, is fond of saying: It's all about WINNING!

You either do or you don't and there are four men's Division I college basketball teams that won their final postseason game — Connecticut, Wichita State, Oregon and Santa Clara.

That Wichita State won the NIT is a minor sticking point for some Shocker fans, who have spent the days since their team carried a championship trophy out of Madison Square Garden trying to figure out just what it means.

"Will we be ranked?'' some asked. "The winner of the NIT should play the winner of the NCAA,'' others have surmised. "We could beat Kansas,'' still others have boasted since, after all, KU lost by 10 points to Virginia Commonwealth in the NCAAs and Wichita State came within a point of the Rams during a BracketBusters game at Koch Arena in late February.

Clarity is difficult to attain when it comes to winning the NIT. Some have done so as a building block toward greater things. Others have done so and fallen back to the pack the next season.

There is no doubt that winning the NIT energized Wichita and Shocker fans. They were enamored by a team that beat teams from the Big 12, ACC, Pac-10 and SEC, with a victory over a good College of Charleston team mixed in.

Not only did the Shockers win, they won while playing their best basketball of the season. There's probably not a WSU fan anywhere who didn't think to himself: "Where was this against Indiana State?" Or Southern Illinois at Koch Arena. Or in a few other games in which the Shockers played below their potential.

In the NIT, they strung together five great games. They dictated the pace of the games and had better athletes — better players — than teams from BCS schools who are supposed to have better athletes and players. It says so right there in the power ratings. And if you don't believe me, ask Jay Bilas or Dick Vitale.

The Shockers saved the best for last, but didn't show their wares in the showcase tournament. So while their fan base is ecstatic over the dominant NIT performances, they have to also be wondering where those performances were in February.

Overall, though, the NIT was great. It allowed Wichita State's players the opportunity to play at Madison Square Garden. That's a big deal and should not be underestimated. The Garden is billed as "The World's Most Famous Arena," and nobody is going to argue that point.

That several hundred Shocker fans were inside the Garden for WSU's wins over Washington State and Alabama is testament to what the basketball program means to the community.

One of the great debates leading up to the NIT semifinals was whether or not it is better for a college basketball team to advance that far in the No. 2 tournament or simply make it into the NCAA Tournament.

It's a silly discussion, but one that is going to come up as a fan base grapples with what to believe.

My answer to that question — and I must have been asked it 100 times — was that the NCAA Tournament is, always has been and forever will be the goal of college coaches and players. End of discussion. It would have been a better season for the Shockers if they had made it to the NCAAs.

I think some of the fan frustration, and a big reason for that question being tossed about so frequently, was that it was always plain to see that Wichita State's basketball team was good enough to play on the grandest stage. This is a team, after all, that had eventual national champion Connecticut on the ropes before losing in the Maui Invitational in late November. It's a team that could have — should have, even — beaten the season's best Cinderella story, VCU.

The Shockers flashed experience, size and skill.

But three losses — at home against an inferior Southern Illinois, to VCU and in the semifinals of the Valley Tournament to Indiana State — were too much to overcome in a season in which the rest of the Valley struggled to gain traction. Only Missouri State had an RPI inside No. 50 at the end of the regular season.

But the Bears went out in the second round of the NIT, losing to Miami (Fla.). The Shockers just kept cutting through the field, embarrassing Nebraska in the first round before going on the road to win impressively against Virginia Tech.

A Koch Arena sellout crowd watched Wichita State get up big and then hold off a shooting display by College of Charleston. Then it was on to New York, where the Shockers looked directly into the bright lights and said: "We belong."

Wichita State ran its win total to an all-time high of 29 with its NIT run, after which Shocker fans at once celebrated and held their breath awaiting an announcement on Gregg Marshall's future as coach. But on Monday, just four days after cutting down the nets at MSG, Marshall said he was returning for a fifth year.

It capped a wild month for the Shockers, one that included the heartbreak of a Valley Tournament semifinal loss, the dashing of NCAA Tournament dreams and making the very best of a second chance.

Related content