The loss on Saturday made it probable. The NCAA tournament selection show on Sunday made it official. The Arizona Wildcats were left out of the Big Dance and UA fans were left feeling…
What is this feeling? people in Tucson are wondering. And what is this strange new tournament?
Two years ago it was simpler. In Sean Miller’s first season Arizona didn’t make the NCAA tournament and didn’t play in any other event. The Pac-12 tournament ended and the UA went home. Wildcat Universe was sad to see Lute Olson’s streak end but we all survived.
This year the team is in basketball limbo, also known as the National Invitation Tournament. It is the destination for teams not good enough to play for the national championship but not bad enough to do nothing, and it’s a brand new experience for Arizona fans.
Olson was still in high school the last time the UA participated in the NIT. The Wildcats played in this tournament three times in six years under Fred Enke, most recently in 1951. Wilbur and Wilma weren’t born yet and the team still played in Bear Down Gym.
After 61 years few people in Red and Blue even knew how the NIT works. I certainly didn’t. It turns out there are no regions, just four groups of eight teams seeded in bracket format. In the first three rounds the games are played on the home court of the higher seed. In just nine days the field is reduced from 32 teams to the Concluding Quartet.*
(*Not the real name, but it should be)
How are we supposed to feel about the Wildcats receiving this national invitation? Some people are angry and want nothing to do with it. Others have come to grips with involvement in the JV tournament and are looking forward to seeing this team play again.
I can’t argue with either emotion or anything in between. There’s not going to be any consensus with something so new. Personally, I feel flat. I watched the NIT selection show. I’ll watch the game on Wednesday. I want the Cats to do well, especially after playing nowhere near their best in the Pac-12 championship game. But there’s not going to be a lot of giddyup behind it.
If you’re on the positive side of the spectrum and you do feel the energy I encourage you to take advantage of the low ticket prices. With $15 and some waiting you can get right on top of the action behind the baskets. Bring a sign, think up some Bucknell-themed witticisms and maybe you can get on ESPN2. A chance for non-regular fans to get into the arena is definitely a silver (or Hyper Elite Platinum) lining.
The best news is if you’re not sure what to make of this NIT business it should only be a temporary stop. I certainly don’t agree with anyone raising doubts about Miller for missing the NCAA tournament twice in three years. Derrick Williams was too good to stick around and next year’s incoming class has the potential to produce another Derrick Williams or two. This was the year in between.
Watch both the NIT and the big boy tournament but brace yourself for a lot of head-shaking. You will see a lot of things that make you miss watching the Cats participate in the Madness.
I expect there to be awkwardness surrounding the Arizona program this week and that’s a good thing. Interact with this tournament however you see fit but don’t get comfortable with it.
If things go well we won’t be feeling this way again for a long time.
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