Oregon Wins the CBI: Why It Matters…

Posted by rtmsf on April 2nd, 2011

Kenny Ocker is an RTC contributor.  He was in Eugene for Games Two and Three of this week’s College Basketball Invitational between Creighton and Oregon.

The Ducks Delivered In the CBI

 

When people talk about March Madness, the College Basketball Invitational is probably about the furthest thing from basketball fans’ collective conscience. Don’t let that fool you, however. The third-rate tournament is a valuable source of experience for teams, and it allows players to hang on just a little bit longer. Without the National Invitation Tournament’s strict standards of only extending bids to teams with above-.500 records, the CBI ends up with the third pick of postseason teams. Though the teams invited aren’t NCAA Tournament-quality, that doesn’t mean they’re not quality teams. For instance, the Creighton Bluejays are 23-16 and the Oregon Ducks are 21-18.  “We did win 20 games, which I know we had to play a lot to get to 20, but we did win 20 games, so winning breeds winning,” Oregon head coach Dana Altman said after Wednesday’s game. “Hopefully, it will help us down the road. We’ve got a long ways to go with our program, we’re not kidding anybody, but at least guys are playing hard.”

While both teams have been able to pad their records with wins in the tournament, the biggest impact the CBI has on college basketball is giving valuable practice time and postseason experience for growing teams. Creighton’s Greg McDermott and Oregon’s Altman are both first-year coaches at their programs (Altman, incidentally, came to Eugene from Creighton after 16 seasons in Omaha), and the two-plus weeks of meaningful practices both coaches have had with their teams will certainly make an impact next season. Incidentally, the tournament’s last three champions (including 2011) were in their first years at their schools. The six 2010 CBI teams in this year’s NCAA Tournament this season have gone 6-16 so far, compared with NIT teams going 7-32 and CollegeInsiders.com Tournament teams going 1-16. This is especially emphasized in the fairytale Final Four run of Virginia Commonwealth, which won the CBI in 2010.  “It’s not the NCAA Tournament. It’s not the NIT,” Altman said after Wednesday’s game. “We’ve got a long ways to go to elevate our program there, but it’s an opportunity to play.”

After winning the tournament Friday night, Altman did not change his tune.  “It does us no good if we just are satisfied with this; this is not where we want to be,” Altman said. “It was exciting, it was fun, but we’ve got higher aspirations, just like Creighton does.”  The games also matter to the players involved. The experience they acquire in a one-and-done postseason setting can be invaluable to them next season. The extra time in full practices gives players extra opportunities to work on their games with the coaching staff around to help them out.  “Tomorrow, it will be a month since we played in our conference tournament, so those four weeks for us, with the extra practices and the six extra games, have been invaluable,” McDermott said. “We’ve extended the careers of four really important seniors, and many of which played a huge role in tonight’s game.”

“I think this tournament really helped us really create a lot of confidence going into next year, giving us experience into the postseason,” Oregon sophomore forward E.J. Singler said after Friday’s tournament victory. “And that was one of the reasons why we did it, was to get that experience.”  Even in a losing effort, Creighton sophomore center Gregory Echenique was able to look at the tournament in a positive light for his team’s future.  “We have to remember this feeling and pretty much use this for next year,” Echenique said. “If we compete hard like this and remember this feeling, then we know that we won’t want to be again in that locker room, sad because we lost. We’re trying to make it to the NCAA, and that’s our goal.”

The factor of motivation for next season was something Creighton junior point guard Antoine Young pointed out after Friday’s game.  “It’s a big motivation, especially with this taste in your mouth coming back,” Young said. “I think it will trend over to next year.”  The teams were also able to generate an extra month of  practice and six extra games’ worth of postseason experience by playing in the tournament.  “I would say that a lot of people aren’t playing right now and we are,” Echenique said. “There’s a lot of teams that wish they could be playing for something, and we had the chance.”

These games take on a special significance for the seniors playing in them. Oregon’s Joevan Catron and Jay-R Strowbridge are both fifth-year seniors with no shot at playing in the NBA; all five of Creighton’s seniors are in the same position. Every extra time they get to step on the court is just another opportunity to live their dream for 40 more minutes. These guys know they are playing on borrowed time and are making the best of their situations. “I definitely didn’t want my season to end on a loss,” Catron said in a postgame press conference Wednesday.  After winning the tournament Friday night, Catron looked back on his career at Oregon, and what the CBI offered him on a personal level.  “I’m glad we won. I just kind of had a reflection moment when I sat down, you know, looking over my career,” Catron said. “To end it this way is just great.”  Catron’s performance Friday was the best of his career, as he tallied a career-high 29 points in his final game in an Oregon uniform.  “I was just happy to end the season on this, on a win, (and) have Joe go out the right way,” Singler said. “I thought he had a tremendous game.”  Creighton’s Young also pointed out how the CBI offered a special moment for the Bluejays’ seniors.  “It was good for our seniors to go out like that, play some extra games with us,” Young said. “Most seniors don’t know when their last game is going to be.”

Apart from mattering to coaches and players, the games also matter for fans of the teams involved. The first game of the best-of-three finals in Omaha had 12,381 fans in attendance, which is a CBI record. It’s a far cry from the 70,000-plus people at the Final Four, but saying nobody cares about these games would be a stretch. It’s kind of a disservice to the games that they languish on HDNet — which most people don’t have — but the basketball is still fun to watch regardless, especially if one thinks of it as pregaming for the Final Four. Oregon’s fans took the basketball for what it was, enjoyed themselves, and put their hearts into supporting their team; the Duck fans were as loud Wednesday and Friday nights as any night since the new Matthew Knight Arena opened in January.  Altman was guardedly optimistic about the prospects of what the CBI victory meant for his program in the long run.  “I hope it’ll give us a jump kick, a jumpstart,” Altman said. “That’s what (athletic director) Rob (Mullens) and I were hoping for, that it would help us move to next year, but it’ll only do that if our players respond.”

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