A certain segment of basketball enthusiasts seem to take endless delight in making fun of the “other” tournaments.
Sure, the NIT, the CBI and the CIT are easy targets.
The sparse crowds.
The underachieving power conference teams. The chasm of interest between the NCAA Tournament and everything else.
Even if there is no romanticism in those tournaments, do not underestimate their value.
In Friday’s second-round game between No. 3 Duke and No. 14 Mercer, Duke took a seven-point lead midway through the first half. In high-seed-versus-low-seed games, that oftentimes is a cracking point. The high seed is accustomed to the low seed after a while, and it starts to show its talent advantage.
Many times the lead balloons to double-digits, then it’s officially out of hand early in the second half.
That wasn’t the case when Mercer was down seven.
Or when the Bears were down were down five with less than five minutes to go.
Or when Duke frustratingly kept stunting Mercer’s progress by sinking three after three.
The reason Mercer beat Duke was its veteran demeanor, and one of the reasons it didn’t succumb to a more talented team was experience it gained in the “other” tournaments. The Bears won the CIT in 2012 and beat Tennessee – ironically their third-round opponent Sunday – in the NIT last season.
“We won a couple home games, and we won three on the road, traveling across the country (in the CIT), and that led to the beginning of where we are today,” Mercer coach Bob Hoffman said.
Even though last season was a clear disappointment for the Bears, who lost on their home court to Florida Gulf Coast in the Atlantic Sun Championship game, they accepted a bid to the NIT, where they beat the Volunteers.
“They were a really good team, but we matched everything they had,” Hoffman said. “I think those experiences put us in the position to have a chance to win (Friday).”
Still, many programs do not value the opportunity that the other tournaments present. Former Duke star Bobby Hurley’s Buffalo team turned down the offer to play in the CBI. Indiana also rejected a CBI bid.
Mercer’s experiences, while largely unrecognized until now, played a part in the win against Duke.
“It really prepared us for games down the stretch,” Mercer guard Kevin Canevari said. “When you get in late games like this, having won championships like the CIT and having won a game in the NIT really pays dividends.”
The other tournaments certainly present a chance for embarrassment, like when Radford beat Oregon State in the Beavers’ nearly empty home arena on Wednesday, but the positives clearly outweigh the negatives for a team, especially a young one.
If a school is afraid of a losing a game, why does it play basketball – or any other sport – in the first place?
“I don’t think you should turn it down,” Mercer senior Ike Nwamu said. “You’re just going to be sitting around anyway. You might as being playing and getting experience.”
And who knows, that experience might just pay off one day.
Mercer changed school history because it.