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NIT vs. NCAA is tough call for Iowa

[ 0 ] March 29, 2013 |

Iowa basketball coach Fran McCaffery seemed to resent how I phrased a particular question to him on Friday.

He wasn’t rude or confrontational or dismissive, but rather he seemed a little ticked off that I would ask what’s better for his team team between making a deep run in the National Invitation Tournament or an early exit from the NCAA Tournament.

Iowa (24-12) will face Maryland (25-12) in the NIT semifinals Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

“I look at it like this; everybody wants to jump to that,” McCaffery said. “I’m going to argue that there’s very little difference between the teams that you’re playing. There just isn’t. So if you make a long run in this tournament, we could have easily made a long run in that tournament.

“It’s really a question of who you match up against.”

McCaffery is right about that because matchups influence the outcome of most sporting events perhaps more than anything else besides home-court advantage and injuries, but especially with regard to basketball. Wisconsin had a less-than-ideal matchup against Mississippi in its first NCAA Tournament game last week and it proved to be a one-and-done for the Badgers.

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that Iowa and Maryland are two of the best 68 teams in the country, and yet they both were among the final six teams left out of the NCAA Tournament.

The debate over what’s better between making a deep run in the NIT or losing in the first round of the NCAA Tournament is all part of the madness that is March — and beyond, with Iowa set to play a game in April for the first time in school history.

Some basketball fans won’t budge on this subject, saying the NCAA Tournament is all that really matters.

I usually would take the side of doing a one-and-done in the Big Dance, especially considering Iowa’s recent NCAA Tournament drought — which isn’t so recent anymore at seven years and counting — because making the NCAA Tournament is the standard for which all teams strive. It’s college basketball’s premier event by a long shot.

But in the case of this Iowa team, I’m not as certain that being booted from the Big Dance after just one game would’ve been what’s best in the long run. I also agree with McCaffery that Iowa could’ve made a run in the NCAA Tournament with the right matchups.

On the other hand, though, Iowa very easily could’ve lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and fans wouldn’t have had a chance to see senior Eric May play two more games at Carver-Hawkeye Arena before sellout crowds.

Fans would’ve said adios to this team more than a week ago, albeit with the satisfaction of knowing that Iowa was finally back in the Big Dance. The season still would’ve ended with back-to-back losses and without Wednesday’s signature road win at Virginia in the NIT quarterfinals.

Junior forward Melsahn Basabe also would’ve lost out on the opportunity to return to his home state of New York without this NIT run.

I thought about asking as many Iowa players as possible to pick between making a deep run in the NIT or losing in the first-round of the NCAA Tournament, but figured that would be putting them on the spot.

Juniors Zach McCabe and Devyn Marble both addressed the subject and had similar answers.

“I think it’s better for the young guys,” McCabe said of making a deep run in the NIT. “They’re just getting more experience and they have more time playing with the offense and stuff like that.

“I think losing in the NCAA Tournament, it would’ve been good to get there, but I don’t know how we would’ve done. But just to have this opportunity to go to New York and we’re playing really well right now, our best basketball.”

Marble said it comes down to making the best of your situation. But it wasn’t easy for him to answer the question because as a junior he has only one more chance to make the NCAA Tournament.

“That’s a tough one,” Marble said. “Being able to experience New York and playing in Madison Square Garden and being able to compete for a national championship in its own right, I don’t know. I could go one way or the other. I can see the pros and cons in both.

“But I’m just excited to be where I’m at and we’re trying to make the most of this opportunity.”

It’s unfortunate for May as Iowa’s lone senior on scholarship that he won’t experience the thrill of playing in the NCAA Tournament. But he’ll get over it just like his former Hawkeye teammate Matt Gatens has gotten over it in the past year.

May understands that he has helped lift the program to another level, just like Gatens did last season as a star senior guard. And now with Iowa in the midst of deep run in the NIT, May is seeing his younger teammates benefit from the experience.

“I hope next year that they’re taking it to another level and saying the same about me, just keep on getting better,” May said. “That’s the role of seniors, to help guide these guys and I’ve been trying to do that all year long, just keeping it in perspective. We’re in this thing to win it now.”

Reporters saw on Friday one of the benefits of making a deep run in the NIT. Practice still hadn’t officially started, but 7-foot-1 freshman center Adam Woodbury already was drenched in sweat after working on his ball handling skills and post moves under the watchful eye of Iowa assistant coach Andrew Francis.

Woodbury struggled in the first two NIT games, but bounced back by scoring 10 points and grabbing eight rebounds during Wednesday’s 75-64 victory at Virginia. The thing Woodbury needs more than anything right now is repetition in practice and to play in more games in order to gain confidence. Making a deep run in the NIT has provided him with both of those things.

Timing also might influence how you would you would pick between a deep run in the NIT or a quick exit from the NCAA Tournament. It’s very unlikely that another deep run by Iowa in the NIT would be as warmly embraced next season because the program would’ve already been there and done it.

Making a deep run in the NIT qualifies as a step forward for this season because Iowa was eliminated in the second round of last year’s NIT.

There is no right or wrong answer to this question. But if you ask McCaffery for his opinion, make sure you don’t sell his team short.

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Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball

About Pat Harty: Columnist Pat Harty has been covering the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Press-Citizen since 1991. Originally from Des Moines, he currently writes columns and covers Hawkeye men's basketball for Hawk Central. View author profile.

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