For sports fans and gamblers, nothing is more glorious than the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Sixty-five successful teams ride in—teams that have dominated the national rankings, won the big showdowns, and battled to the top of their conference standings. Stingy defenses meet scorching offenses. Pluck and hustle meet sheer, dominating talent. It takes a special team to win it all and a savvy handicapper to spot that team. But not everyone is cut out for NCAA glory. Maybe it was the $10 entry fee in my office pool. Or maybe it was the thought of paging through another turgid 65-team scouting report. But somehow, one morning last week, a joke became an idea, an idea became a plan, and by midafternoon, I had forsaken the Road to the Final Four for a different, lower road: the National Invitation Tournament. I was launching a wagering pool for the NIT, where you hitch your wagon to flaming satellite debris, hoping it will turn out to be a star. Played out in agate type and AM radio, the NIT is March Sadness—a consolation prize for teams that couldn’t get a date to the Big Dance. Sixty-odd years ago, in its better days, the NIT was the tournament that determined the national championship. Now it’s stocked with teams that, in their better days, used to play for the national championship: storied programs on the skids, mid-majors that got dumped in their conference tourneys, squads that got hot too late, cooled off too early, or just never got it going. My first challenge was figuring out who was even in this year’s edition. Google kept spitting out the results of the bygone Preseason NIT (which actually features the nation’s top teams) rather than the postseason version. The official NIT Web site offered a “printer-friendly” bracket that wouldn’t print. Finally, by clicking on tiny links at CBS SportsLine, I got the full bracket. Reading the lineup of teams, I felt a familiar shiver—the one I get when I spot my high school classmates in the hometown police blotter. There were the suspension-ravaged Villanova Wildcats (currently fielding only seven players), the crawling-back-from-the-brink-of-the-death-penalty Minnesota Golden Gophers, the not-good-enough-to-win-the-Ivy-League Brown Bears. There was Bob Knight and his Texas Tech squad, facing Steve Fisher and the San Diego State Aztecs in a matchup of disgraced Big Ten coaches. Look on the North Carolina vs. DePaul game, ye mighty, and despair! Apparently, I wasn’t the only person who wanted to rubberneck at the tangled ruins of NCAA dreams. A day later, my pool had a dozen players, backing 10 different possible champions, with a jackpot of $11 and one euro. Some approached the NIT as a matter of high seriousness—the key to filling in a bracket, one player told me straight-faced, is to figure out which teams will be playing on their home courts. Some took the opportunity to play a screwy hunch and write in, say, the Wichita State Shockers all the way to the top. One player, caught up in the spirit, wrote “Boston Red Sox” in the championship slot, then crossed it out and put North Carolina.
The truth is, no formula can possibly predict the winner of the NIT. In the NCAAs, you can eliminate dozens of teams that have no real shot at winning the championship; in the NIT, nearly everyone looks plausible. And you’re never quite sure how much the big schools even care about winning the NIT. Some, enraged at being on the B-list, storm through the NIT to prove they deserved to be in the Big Dance. Others skulk their way to a quick defeat, hoping nobody remembers they were even there.
Another challenge is just to decipher when the games are played. The NIT uses a strange, ragged bracket, with 16 teams sent to a play-in round for the right to join the other 24. The seeding is mysterious: Boston College, which won its division in the Big East, had to play a qualifying game; UNLV, which finished in the upper middle of the Mountain West pack, didn’t. Deepening the confusion, the NIT doesn’t bother to play the rounds in order; some teams advance to the third round before others have played their first-rounder. By the time Siena landed the final spot in the NIT’s Bittersweet 16 Sunday night, there were only 15 teams left; San Diego State had already been bounced.
I got my first taste of the NIT spirit, of excitement mingled with perversity, when the Tennessee Volunteers played the Georgetown Hoyas in the first round. The Hoyas coach, Craig Esherick, had snubbed the tournament last year, explaining that his team needed the time to study. This year the Hoyas put aside their textbooks and knocked off Tennessee in Knoxville, in front of 3,000 or so listless and dismayed Vols fans. Just like that, two of the players in my pool had lost their champion.
By Day 3, the pool had its first scandal. Comparing the bracket to the scoreboard, I realized that CBS SportsLine had written that Kent State would be playing “Charleston Southern” in one of the play-in rounds; the actual participant, it turned out, was the College of Charleston. The difference is huge. The College of Charleston Cougars are beloved NCAA sleepers, lurking on the edges of big-time basketball and occasionally pouncing on the likes of Duke or Maryland. The Charleston Southern Buccaneers are a sad-sack bunch too putrid even for the NIT, with losses this year to the likes of Liberty, Winthrop, and Birmingham-Southern.
One aggrieved entrant argued that people who’d picked Charleston Southern should not get points for the victory, since Charleston Southern had not, in point of fact, won the game. Seeing that only two people had made the pick—and one of them had just written “Charleston”—I rejected the plea. The College of Charleston washed out the next day, anyway, defeated by Providence. I would never have guessed the Cougars would lose that early. Hell, when I was making the picks, I didn’t even know they were there.