Late last week, I was tuned in as closely as I could be to the radio, internet broadcasts and ESPN live updates to try to keep up with my beloved Ball State Cardinals basketball team. As the season drew to a close, and our conference tournament loomed before us like a veil covering our fate, I crossed my fingers and hoped on a prayer to the Lord Almighty that my team would be graced with the blessing of a post-season tournament bid. After securing a bye in the first round, we pulled out a nail biter in overtime against Ohio University in the quarterfinals . Remember them? No, not the scarlet and gray clad Ohio STATE University. Don’t be silly. The Ohio Bobcats. You know, the team that upset Georgetown in the first round last year? Next up, conference favorite Kent State. The same Kent State that made their heroic run to the Sweet Sixteen just 2 years ago and beat us on our home court by 13 earlier this year. We gave them all we had, and in the end our improvement could not be denied…as we only lost by 11 this time. Once that final buzzer sounded, the only hope that was left was for a second-rate tournament for losers. (Yes, I say “we” and “our.” I’m allowed to due to the massive debt I collected while getting my undergrad degree from there. And my undying, die-hard love for everything cardinal and white.)
The National Invitational Tournament, or N.I.T., never came calling. 19 wins against average competition doesn’t turn many heads. While the N.I.T. can garner a little respect seeing as how it is the nation’s oldest, longest-running tournament, in recent years there have been two other tourneys that have sprung to life. With both of those participants must pay to participate, and given that the NCAA tournament expanded its field to 68 teams this year, that leaves pretty slim pickings for the rest of the playoff style competitions. The N.I.T. lays claim to the next best field of 32 teams. That accounts for 100 of the 346 division I basketball programs across the country. So when the proposal to play in a THIRD-rate tournament came to fruition, I just couldn’t get excited. Granted, it’s been 10 years since the last appearance in the Big Dance by the Most Fightin’est Bird in the MAC. I find little solace in the fact that at least we are getting interest in post-season play at all.
And making it all that much worse is the very recent memory of Butlers’ historic run to the championship game just a year ago. Seeing another mid-major (from the same state no less) have wild success on such a grand stage just makes me that much more jealous and bitter. Ball State’s unlikely run to the Sweet Sixteen in 1990 seems like an eternity ago. Our last run at relevance came in 2000 when we started an improbable streak at the Maui Classic by beating UCLA, Kansas, and barely missing the golden ring in the championship game against Duke. That season ended in the Sweet Sixteen of the N.I.T. after a disappointing return from Hawaii. Since then, my favorite team has become the punchline of many jokes. I was happy to see the little guy make so much noise last year. I was jealous it wasn’t my team.
Looking to next year I’m hopeful. I try to temper off-season based expectations, but knowing BSU’s roster I can’t help but get a little giddy. We only lose one senior and one transfer. I have no illusions of grandeur. I don’t see us in the Elite Eight next year, but it sure is fun to dream about. After all, before the Big Dance tips off, we can all dream!
Thank you, that is all.