UPDATE: Loss #17.
In about half an hour, the North Carolina Tar Heels will take the floor at Madison Square Garden in New York City to play the championship game in the National Invitation Tournament (NIT). If you had told me five months ago that Carolina would be playing in the NIT rather than the NCAA tournament, I would have laughed in your face. I would have conceded that this season was not going to be like last season’s championship run, but I never would have expected that they wouldn’t make the 65 team field.
Since the NCAA tournament took over as the definitive championship tournament, the NIT lost its luster to most college basketball fans. Daily Tar Heel columnist Brandon Staton even wrote about it this week. I, on the other hand, loving college basketball as I do, always kept an eye on it. Maybe it was some small part of me that believed those kids on those basketball teams deserved attention just like the NCAA tourney teams did. After all, they did practice day in and day out for four months just like those other teams. They worked just as hard to try and earn an opportunity to play for the championship, but for whatever reason (the ball bounced the wrong way, they didn’t have all the right pieces, they didn’t have the right coach, they didn’t have the talent) they didn’t make the tournament. Though I was never a student-athlete, I’ve always had a soft spot for them because knowing how hard I worked in college, I can’t even begin to imagine throwing in a full load of practices and workouts and games/matches as an athlete on top of it all.
And so with all due respect to my readers out there and in the words of UNC’s coach Roy Williams, I say, I “could give a shit” what you think about the NIT. You may call it the Not Invited Tournament, but those boys on that court are playing for something. They didn’t start their season hoping to play in the NIT, but that’s where they landed. They didn’t choose this opportunity, but you don’t always get to pick the opportunities that come knocking on your door. However, you do get to choose what you do with that opportunity once you open that door.
I know there are plenty of fans of other teams out there getting a laugh at Carolina’s expense because a 20-16 record is laughable at best for one of the winningest programs in the history of college basketball. But what’s done is done, and no amount of anger or sadness we have about this season compares to the anger or sadness that the players and coaches have about this season. We can’t go back and change any of those losses into wins. We have to move forward and take the hand that’s been dealt.
I don’t know if tonight’s game will turn out to be win 21 or loss 17, but I do know that every single one of those players is talented and they have fought so hard to get to the point where they are. They never once gave up and threw in the towel. They just kept playing because just like I believed they weren’t as “terrible” as their record suggested, they KNEW they weren’t that “terrible.” At some point during the season, it stopped being about wins and losses and post season expectations and it started being about how do we get this team to become something Carolina can build on. In these last few games of the NIT, we’ve started to see shades of the Carolina we fans know and love. We started to see those boys play together, set up shots, and generally just “get it.” Do they still make some stupid mistakes? Absolutely, but I don’t know ANY team…even the ones in the Final Four…that doesn’t make stupid mistakes.
Opportunity came knocking when Carolina thought it was all over, and thankfully for us fans, that program, and those players, they didn’t look a gift horse in the mouth…remarkably…look where it got ’em…one win away from two championships in as many years. So, tonight I will be watching because when the NCAA tournament field expands to 96 teams and becomes watered down and all about marketing and money stripping away what little bit of true focus on basketball it had left, I’m still going to long for the days when the tournament was really just about the game of basketball and the kids who play it.