Floriani: The Final NIT?Posted by rtmsf on April 14th, 2010
Ray Floriani has been to so many NITs he can’t remember them all, but he sent us this feature story on what may have been the final evening for the Grand Old Lady of postseason college basketball a couple of weeks ago.
NEW YORK CITY- The last one? Hopefully not. Heading to New York on that bright and sunny (finally) afternoon was the realization that this could be the end. The end of the line for the nation’s oldest postseason tournament in college basketball. The final edition as the NCAA gets closer to expansion. Denial was no use as the reality of it all was sinking in and on the minds of fans. Not just the fans of Dayton and North Carolina but the fans of the college game in general.
On the train to New York, we met up with a few Dayton alums from my area. We discuss the game and soon there was an invite to a Dayton pregame reception on the eighteenth floor of the Penn Hotel across from the Garden. The game starts at seven. We’d hit New York at five and considering I plan to check in at MSG about 5:30, it sounded good. At the reception were alumni, friends and students including the band members and cheerleaders. Met a lot of passionately devoted fans, but refused any drinks (there was a game to cover), settling instead for soda.
Off to the Garden where players took the floor about an hour prior to tipoff to stretch, do some light shooting and generally go through their pregame routine. It’s all business on both sides. North Carolina would rather play on the first Monday in April. There is a title at stake here however and the first Thursday instead will suffice. Interesting these two schools are meeting for probably the last NIT championship. Dayton has had a storied history in this tournament with eight previous ‘Final Four’ appearances. Five times the Flyers finished runners-up while twice ascending to the championship. North Carolina has not appeared in the event nearly as much. Their first trip to MSG for the NIT resulted in a 1970 first round loss to Manhattan, coached by Jack Powers later to become a long time director of the tournament. A year later they captured their only title in the NIT.
Dayton of the Atlantic 10 and North Carolina from the ACC. Only the most devoted diehard fan on Tobacco Road could name all 14 schools in the A-10. Tar Heel fans get fired up for conference wars especially with that certain team from nearby Durham. Dayton? To get the fans going with some emotion against the Flyers, one Carolina blog noted that Dayton handed Dean Smith his first loss in an NCAA Final Four. They were right on the money as the Flyers knocked off UNC in the 1967 semis before running into Lew Alcindor and company in the finals. A year later that Dayton club captured the NIT.
7pm game time. We’re keeping a close eye on how Dayton handles North Carolina’s rebounding while the Tar Heels match the Flyers’ intensity on both the defensive and offensive end. The first half Dayton built at 45-32 lead largely due to defense. Over a quarter of UNC’s possessions were wasted as the Tar Heels were forced into a 26% turnover rate. Dayton clicked offensively shooting 58% from the floor as they attacked the basket with a 65% (13-20) two-point field goal percentage.
At halftime, we get the chance to meet Tim Sullivan of the Blackburn Review. The BR is a Dayton basketball blog. It is a little irreverent, not afraid of censorship but behind it all is some good thought-provoking analysis on the Flyers and the A-10. Plus they are strong tempo-free advocates. Tim and I discuss the game and Dayton in general. He made a good point in saying fans never warmed up to Oliver Purnell. “They felt he had an eye on a higher profile job,“ Sullivan said, but “fans have to realize Dayton is a stepping stone (in coaching).” Good point. Wish the halftime break was longer.
The second half UNC opened with a 7-0 run and were back in it. Will Graves, a game-high 25-point scorer on the night, did the perimeter damage for Carolina. They cut the Flyer lead to one early but never got ahead or drew even those final twenty minutes, a significant situation that allowed Dayton to maintain the lead and dictate throughout. With four minutes left it was a 67-60 lead for the Flyers. Carolina fans behind my baseline press table started to accept that it was not their night. UD fanatics cheered enthusiastically with almost an ‘I can’t believe it but we are doing it’ tone.
At the buzzer Dayton’s fine lead guard London Warren sent the ball high above the Garden floor in jubilation. The 79-68 Dayton victory was in the books. Chris Johnson, Dayton’s sophomore forward, earned tournament Most Outstanding Player honors. Johnson was limited to 17 minutes due to a hip injury, but he scored 14 points, had 9 rebounds and made plays in the stretch. Teammate Marcus Johnson joined his buddy on the All-Tournament team. A long, memorable and passionate celebration followed. Passionate as the UD players acknowledged the band and cheerleader support then went into the stands to thank the fans for their undying devotion all season long. Dayton fans did want to leave their impromptu party at MSG, partially because this might be the final NIT, but more so because it was a case of reveling in a campaign that seemed doomed less than three weeks ago but had now culminated in the school’s third NIT title.
In the postgame press conference, both UNC’s Roy Williams and Brian Gregory spoke in sad tones about the NCAA’s likely expansion to 96 teams ending this special tournament. Gregory noted, “Dayton got its national brand name through the NIT. Back with coaches (Tom) Blackburn and (Don) Donoher. It’s important when you play here at Madison Square Garden and we proved it.” The inevitable expansion of the NCAA to a field of 96 leaves it a foregone conclusion that the NIT will be phased out. As noted the tones the respective coaches spoke in were of a subdued variety.
Earlier in the week all four coaches wer asked what the NIT meant for them. Williams cited tradition, history and a great opportunity to continue to play. He pointed out that in 1971 as a UNC junior his Tar Heels were defeated in the final seconds of the ACC final by South Carolina. The invite came for the NIT and Carolina accepted it with enthusiasm, going on to capture the title. Williams also noted back then there were only 24 NCAA teams and 16 NIT teams so postseason play was a particularly special honor. Brian Gregory spoke about the same things he did after the championship. How Dayton defined its ‘brand name’ through NIT success decades ago. And how the esteemed mentors who preceded Gregory lead the way.
Jim Baron of Rhode Island played on an NIT champion with St. Bonaventure in 1977. A native New Yorker, Baron spoke of the history and tradition of the NIT, and how the NIT was a showcase for an unknown guard from Southern Illinois in 1967 by the name of Walt Frazier. All Frazier did at the NIT was lead the Salukis to the title, earn the MVP, get drafted by the Knicks and lead them to prominence in the form of two NBA titles. Andy Kennedy of Mississippi spoke of the lineage and long history of the NIT. For the present he felt the significance was still important as players were given an opportunity to play for a championship. Kennedy’s latter point was really driven home. Even if you do not remember or recall the long history of the NIT, the opportunity and chance to keep playing and the hopes of winning a national title were significant incentive for teams lining up on the Garden floor.
Over the years a good number of programs came to New York and utilized their NIT experience. Maybe as a program-defining moment or a springboard to a deep run in the NCAA the following year. The 73rd National Invitation Tournament was in the books, with Dayton cutting down the nets. Exiting the Garden on that pleasant April evening, we were met with the harsh reality the final buzzer may have sounded on this great event. Let’s all hope, for the benefit of the college game, that is not the case.