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For the USF Bulls, the NIT could be a stepping-stone to better things

As it turns out, there is a reason for the NIT. It was made for Bulls such as these.

Let the other teams be disappointed. Let the other players roll their eyes and look down their noses and sneer at what they perceive to be a tournament beneath them. Let other programs talk about sitting out a lesser dance that exists for lesser teams.

For USF, for now, the NIT sounds like, well, something.

When a program has spent an eternity being nothing at all, something is plenty.

Until Wednesday, these Bulls entertained bigger dreams, too. Not only that, they allowed their fans to dream, too. When is the last time that happened? A 20-point loss to Georgetown changed all of that, however. As good, and as surprising, as this season has been for USF, it's hard to argue the Bulls deserve to be in the NCAA Tournament.

The NIT? That sounds like a fit.

And maybe that's the secret. To appreciate the NIT, you have to look at it through the eyes of the desperate, the forgotten, the hungry. You have to look at it from the viewpoint of underrated players in an overachieving program. You have to look at it as a stepping-stone to better things.

At UConn, for instance, there is some consideration that the Huskies should just skip the NIT. After all, UConn is one of those programs that has handled the really big trophies, and as such, there is only so much pleasure to be gained from the afterthought invitational. It's like planning for a year to go to Paris, France, and winding up in Paris, Texas.

When a team has mattered as little for as long as USF, any Paris will do.

Perhaps someday, USF will be able to look at the NIT as the mark of a disappointing season, too. Perhaps its players will label the NIT as "the losers tournament,'' the way former N.C. State star David Thompson did.

For now, however, USF is a team in search of a reward, in search of a direction and in search of a stepping-stone. For the Bulls, the NIT can be all of those things. For USF, it isn't about what the NIT isn't. It's about how much better it is than recent history has been.

Remember, it has been eight years, three coaches and two conferences since USF has reached the NIT. It has been 18 years since the Bulls earned an NCAA bid. Heck, until last year, USF couldn't even get an invitation to its own conference tournament.

The NIT? Maybe the party isn't as much fun, and the music isn't as good, and the food could be better. On the other hand, it's better than staying home.

Say this for this USF team. It made us watch. As most of us sat in front of our televisions during Wednesday's USF-Georgetown game, maybe this thought occurred to you: Gee, if the NCAA really did expand its field to 96 teams, USF would have clinched already.

As nice as the notion might have been, however, it misses the point. The Bulls' run at the tournament this year was special because of how difficult it is to make the field. Water it down to where darn-near everyone makes it, and it wouldn't have been nearly as special.

Basketball coaches (and commentators) lose sight of this all the time. They seem to think they can add teams without losing prestige. They can't. Unless someone is getting left out, it's no fun to be in.

Look, basketball coaches have it made. Reach the NCAAs, and everyone thinks they have done something special. Reach the round of 16, and athletic directors start passing out contract extensions.

Compare that with college football, where a major coach can get fired for settling for a minor bowl. Or, for that matter, for finishing 16th in the polls. There isn't nearly the same regard for playing in the Peach Bowl than for being the 16th seed in the West.

The more college teams that get invited to the tournament, however, the less of an accomplishment it becomes. Suddenly, the focus won't be on rewarding the coaches who make it. It will be on firing the coaches who don't. The charm will be gone. The grades will get tougher.

No, 65 teams sounds about right. And for USF, which should be somewhere around 73rd on the list of potential invitees, the good news is it can see it from here. If the Bulls had been just a little better, just a little sharper, they could have made it.

Say what you want about the past, but this was USF's finest basketball program. There is nothing wrong with winning the Sun Belt tournament in 1990, and nothing wrong with being one of four Metro teams invited in 1992. But this Bulls team beat more good teams, and it competed better in a stronger conference.

A team such as that deserves a little bit of a reward.

Even if you think the NIT is only a little bit, it's a start.

For the USF Bulls, the NIT could be a stepping-stone to better things 03/10/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 10, 2010 10:54pm]

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