TAMPA ― Far from the din of March Madness, in a sparsely-filled arena, USF’s men easily could’ve just played out the string Wednesday night.
They played out of their minds instead, and a mostly inconspicuous game became an instant classic.
Trailing by 25 in the first half, the Bulls staged the biggest comeback in school history for an 82-79 overtime triumph against Stony Brook in the opening round of something called the College Basketball Invitational.
“We’ve got a prideful group,” Bulls coach Brian Gregory said.
Which is precisely what the organizers of the CBI ― now in its 12th year ― are seeking.
“We want teams who want to keep playing basketball,” said Ray Cella, media-relations director for the Gazelle Group, a sports-marketing outfit that runs the CBI. “We want teams that have had successful seasons or are peaking at the end of the season, and have a desire to continue to play.”
Welcome to college hoops’ version of a pre-January bowl game.
If the entire postseason were a bracket, the 16-team CBI would reside way below the 1-line (NCAA tourney) and even a rung or two below the NIT. Moreover, its teams must pay to play.
USF athletic director Michael Kelly, whose school hosts Utah Valley in tonight’s quarterfinals, said the school had to meet a $40,000 “guarantee” to the CBI. The Tampa Bay Times formally has requested a copy of USF’s contract with the tournament, and still is awaiting receipt of the document.
Cella said his group doesn’t discuss tournament finances, but referred to the CBI as “an investment in your basketball program.” He also suggested teams that have hosted more than one tournament game have a chance to recoup all or part of their investment.
As an example, he points to Nevada, which hosted five CBI games in 2016, drawing at least three crowds of more than 6,000.
“(An investment) is how I’m looking at it,” Kelly said.
Though the event generally attracts mid-major programs, this year’s tournament features three teams ― USF, DePaul and West Virginia ― from major conferences. Oregon won the CBI in 2011, and Pitt won it a year later.
And generally, CBI games have been more competitive than other tournaments.
In four of the last six years, the average margin of victory in CBI games has been lower than the NCAA or NIT. It’s a statistic pushed by CBI organizers, perhaps suggesting a correlation between the quality of play and the collective desire of the teams involved.
“These aren’t teams that just missed out on the NCAA and have to go to the NIT and aren’t ready for it,” Cella said.
“And you’ve seen that happen before with teams that lay an egg in the NIT. These guys don’t have to play, but they want to play, and that’s why our games are pretty good.”
Contact Joey Knight at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.