We're seeing the predictable "If we get an NIT bit, we should refuse it," stuff that I fully expected to see plenty of after the disappointing loss to Vanderbilt yesterday. What I intend to do here is explain why we should not decline an NIT bid if our worst fears come true and the NCAA tournament passes us by.
In the first place, no team has a right to expect an at-large invitation to the NCAA -- Not Kentucky, not North Carolina, not anybody. Great programs sometimes have down years, and the consequences of a down year is sometimes not doing enough to get an invitation to the NCAA Tournament if you fail to earn the automatic berth. I think most everybody understands that.
What many people do not understand is why you wouldn't just pass up the NIT invitation and end the season. Make no mistake, this season has been a disappointment on many levels, not the least of which was the injury to Nerlens Noel at Florida.
That's exactly the advice that Jeff Goodman counsels today:
Honestly, no one wants to watch this Kentucky team anymore. It's painful for BBN and Calipari. Let's end the agony, and send these guys to the irrelevant tourney, the NIT. If I were Calipari, I'd decline the invite and end this season with some semblence [sic] of dignity rather than, say, losing to Stony Brook in the NIT.
Pat Forde has additional advice for those of us in the Big Blue Nation:
With losses like that, this season seems destined to end in the NIT – if the Wildcats can swallow their pride and accept the invite. The hardest part to swallow: this was the kind of thing that was never supposed to happen again at lordly Kentucky. Not after the program threw a mint at Calipari to deliver the program from mediocrity.
What can you take away from these two guys? First of all, neither of them likes Kentucky in any way, shape or form. Forde is an avowed enemy of Calipari, and Goodman is a former North Carolina fan site writer who once claimed that Calipari tried to get him fired. So reason #1 for Kentucky not to decline an NIT invitation is because these two guys desperately want us to do just that, so they can blast Calipari.
The other reason, and this is far more important, is that it would be unsporting to decline an NIT bid. The NIT, while nicknamed the "National Irrelevant Tournament" by its detractors, has a long history in college basketball that predates the NCAA Tournament. While UK might legitimately question the wisdom of playing in the CBI, a "Johnny come lately" tournament designed to give genuinely lesser teams a chance at a post-season, the NIT will have NCAA Tournament-quality teams in it that, for one reason or another got passed over.
Make no mistake, the basketball world would come unglued if Kentucky under John Calipari declined the NIT bid. It would be exactly what Forde and Goodman want, and sportswriters from around the world would mock Kentucky, Calipari and the Big Blue Nation as sore losers, and unwilling to accept the reality that the "one-and-done" system might occasionally backfire. It would be a public relations nightmare.
Finally, the best reason not to decline an NIT bid can be found from the 1987 Louisville Cardinals, when Denny Crum declined to participate in the tournament as a form of protest. That year, Memphis beat Louisville to win the Metro Conference Tournament and the auto bid, but they were on NCAA probation and ineligible for the Big Dance. So nobody received the bid. Nowadays, Memphis would not have been allowed to participate in the conference tournament.
This is the only good reason to decline the tournament. I think Crum correctly saw an inequity and decided to make a public statement to correct it. Crum's view ultimately prevailed, and arguably due in part to his NIT snub in 1987.
There have been two other NIT bid rejections in history: Maryland in 2006, where former coach Gary Williams was roundly pilloried for deciding not to participate, then changing his mind. Craig Eshrick of Georgetown declined an NIT bid in 2002, a decision which received much negative commentary. The next year, Georgetown failed to make the NCAA again and accepted the bid to the NIT. Eshrick was fired the next year and replaced by John Thompson III.
Kentucky does have some excuses this year, losing their best player to a season-ending injury. No, Kentucky wasn't playing that well with Noel, but I think it's pretty likely that a team with Noel would have performed better toward the end of the season. But Kentucky has no other injuries or reasons to decline the bid. There are no messages to send except a completely self-serving one.
Finally, teams that will be invited to the NIT deserve the chance to beat Kentucky. We have earned whatever position we wind up in, and if it's the NIT, we should see it through to the end. Despite the fan anger, what I mostly see is fans wanting to run from personal embarrassment at the hands of rivals. They want the season to be over for purely personal reasons unrelated to the welfare of the basketball team, so their poor egos won't have to take another bruise from some nasty Cardinal fan.
Such people demand toughness from the team, but would rather slink off into anonymity than stand up with their team during a tough year. Internet tough guys, all of them. To those fans, I say slink off now and don't watch -- we don't need you.