NEW YORK - A handful of Michigan basketball players were not thrilled with the idea of playing in the National Invitation Tournament.
The mere mention of it made them feel queasy.
“I don t think that s the tournament where we feel we belong,” freshman guard Dion Harris said.
To a man, Michigan s players and coaches felt they deserved a spot in the 65-team NCAA tournament, which carries much more importance and prestige than the 40-team NIT.
Granted, the Wolverines showed flashes of brilliance this season under third-year coach Tommy Amaker. But they also underachieved a lot more often than they were brilliant. They finished 8-8 and in fifth place in a very mediocre Big Ten, and did not have many quality wins among their 18 regular-season victories.
Tommy Amaker believes playing in the NIT will make Michigan better next season.
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That is why Michigan was invited to the Little Dance, and not the big one.
To Amaker s credit, he did not allow his players much time to pout about their postseason predicament of having to play for college basketball s consolation prize. He does not seem to care that the NIT is referred to as the Not Important Tournament or the No Interest Tournament.
Amaker is just happy the Wolverines are participating in postseason play for the first time since 2000, after the school won an appeal of a tournament ban last fall. All 15 players on Michigan s roster, which includes 11 freshmen and sophomores, are in the postseason for the first time.
“You can t even imagine the confidence this team is going to gain from this,” Amaker said. “This serves your program very well, especially a program trying to redefine itself.”
Indeed, the NIT has turned out to be a blessing for Michigan s youthful bunch. Of course, the NIT committee practically punched the Wolverines ticket to the Final Four by awarding them three home games.
Yet, on the way to tonight s semifinal game with Oregon, Michigan has proven that it can play with the established programs in college basketball.
Amaker s Wolverines dispatched Missouri, ranked as high as No. 10 in the preseason, in the first round of the NIT at Crisler Arena. In the second round, they roughed up Oklahoma, which started the season 10-0 and ranked No. 6 in the country.
There seems to be a purpose to Michigan s march. It has energized the program, although it is unlikely many had the Wolverines in their NIT office pool, assuming such an absurd thing even exists.
“Obviously, I think every team s goal is to make the NCAA tournament, but I think we ve learned a lot by not making it,” said sophomore point guard Daniel Horton, who has found his game again and benefited from the Wolverines postseason push.
“We ve been fortunate enough to play well in the NIT, win three games, and make it to the Final Four. I think that bodes well for the future.”
Amaker, whose performance under fire reveals he is not the greatest bench coach in the world, has finally started to turn the corner in the rebuilding process, as evidenced by Michigan s first 20-win season since 1997-1998.
And he is getting closer to cleaning up the mess that started with illegal cash payments to the Fab Five and ended with a coaching nightmare named Brian Ellerbe, as well as NCAA sanctions.
Amaker has some talented young players who are getting some valuable seasoning in the NIT, such as Horton, Harris, Courtney Sims, Lester Abram, Chris Hunter, Graham Brown, and Brent Petway. The only player of importance Amaker will lose this year is Bernard Robinson Jr.
Winning the NIT would be a small, but important step for Amaker. That would make everyone happy. Well, almost everyone.
A small faction of Michigan fans have come up with their own name for the NIT, calling it “Tommy s Tournament.” It makes perfect sense. In seven seasons as a head coach, Amaker has taken four teams to the NIT and just one team to the NCAA tournament, leading Seton Hall to the Sweet 16 in 1999-2000.
Amaker was 0-3 in the NIT before this year. This season, he is 3-0 and has the Wolverines preparing for a Garden party.
No matter what happens tonight or this week, the smooth-talking, flashy-dressing Amaker will be expected to deliver a breakthrough season next year, as well as an NCAA berth.