The best story in college basketball during this 2002 edition of March Madness is that of the Georgetown Hoyas. They won’t be participating.

Paul Wong
David Horn

When Georgetown was not given an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament and instead received an invitation to the NIT, coach Craig Esherick respectfully declined. He explained that in order to play in what is considered to be the “loser’s” tournament, Georgetown would have to travel west, because the MCI Center in Washington, D.C. will be hosting East Regional games for the “real” tournament. The traveling would require Esherick’s players to miss classes, and the coach would rather his players attend class and receive an education than participate in the “Not Interesting Tournament.”

“We wanted to play, but didn’t want to play at all costs,” Esherick told The Associated Press. “We’re in school now. Last year we spent two weeks out west and didn’t want to do it again.”

Thank you, coach. This is the most refreshing thing I have ever heard from an NCAA basketball coach.

It’s bad enough that the NCAA Tournament lasts three weeks, keeping 12 players from 64 teams out of their classes for half a week (and much longer for some). That the NIT exists at all, keeping an additional 480 players out of class is ludicrous.

The prestige of the NCAA Championship is not on the line in the NIT. The level of competition is decent, but nothing spectacular. Watching Butler and Minnesota battle in the NIT could be interesting, but I would just as soon take satisfaction in knowing that those Minnesota players were back in Minneapolis, writing their poli-sci papers.

The NIT, really, is just an excuse for the NCAA to generate more television revenue.

Esherick admitted that to play for a national championship in the NCAA Tournament, his team would be happy to travel. But all that traveling for the NIT?

“After a while I said, ‘Look, maybe we’re better off not doing it,” Esherick said.

I can’t praise Esherick enough for this kind of thinking. I wish more coaches didn’t accept the NIT scraps the NCAA was throwing to them. I wish they all took as much pride in their players’ class attendance as they do in winning what is perhaps the most unnecessary tournament in sports (besides, perhaps, the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying tournament).

The NCAA hypocritically professes to be a friend of the student, and claims that scholarship takes precedent over athletics. Then why have the NIT at all? The teams involved didn’t make the Big Dance; do they deserve this pathetic consolation prize at the cost of missing more class?

It’s a long season, and players miss enough class already. The argument can be made that this is preparing them for the rigorous travel schedule of the NBA, but such a small number of these players will ever play professional basketball that I don’t think that argument holds water.

After covering the Michigan basketball team this season, and I thank heaven that the season is over; not because I didn’t enjoy covering the team, but because I spent months making excuses to professors about how I couldn’t hand in my paper on time because I would be traveling to Bloomington for a game. I can only imagine how many excuses need to be made on behalf of student-athletes.

The NCAA is sending student-athletes from Hawaii to Dallas for their first round game, kids from Ohio State to Albuquerque and kids from UCLA to Pittsburgh.

Every year, the NCAA Tournament is arguably the most exciting sporting event in the country. It is a great part of the national sporting landscape, and I would be vilified if I suggested here that it be tampered with too drastically. But to keep the Bruins, Buckeyes and Rainbow Warriors closer to home in the future, some changes ought to be made.

I propose a system of “regionalization.” The quality of teams is fairly evenly dispersed across the country (except of course for Big Ten country), and I think it would be pretty intriguing to see regional matchups leading up to the Final Four. Put all the teams that make the Tournament from the WAC and PAC-10 in the West; put all the teams from the Big East, Atlantic-10 and ACC in the East, etc.

This year, three of the eight-seed/nine-seed matchups could be regionalized. In the South, Notre Dame is playing Charlotte. In the West, UCLA is playing Mississippi. In the Midwest, Stanford is playing Western Kentucky. Wouldn’t it be easier to have Notre Dame play Western Kentucky in the Midwest, Charlotte play Mississippi in the South and UCLA play Stanford in the West? Sure, part of the fun of the NCAA Tournament is seeing teams that don’t usually get to play each other do so in the early rounds, but as Esherick says, “At what cost?” It would make a lot more sense to let teams battle for regional supremacy in the early rounds, and have true regional champions battle in the Final Four.

As graduation rates for basketball players decrease, the NCAA needs to recognize how consuming it is for student-athletes to play an entire season of basketball. It takes away from their studies, their social lives and their capacity to work a job and earn money. The NIT is a joke, and Esherick realizes that there is something more important than playing in it. The NCAA Tournament is fantastic, but still needs some work to make it student-friendly. I hope coaches will follow Esherick’s lead in coming years, and force the NCAA to become a true friend of the student-athlete.

David Horn can be reached via e-mail at hornd@umich.edu.

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