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Published: Thursday, 3/23/2006

NIT success not much to be proud of

ANN ARBOR - The Big Ten sent nine teams into postseason play. Only Michigan, which beat Miami (Fla.) 71-65 last night in the National Invitation Tournament, is still standing.

Talk about stunning.

"We kind of laugh about it," Michigan athletic director Bill Martin said. "But we are serious, too. [Coach] Tommy [Amaker] and the guys are using it as motivation. We feel like we have to hold the Big Ten up and carry the torch."

The Big Ten, rated the nation's toughest conference in RPI in the regular season, needs all the support it can get.

It has been a Big Bust in the postseason, with six teams going a combined 3-6 in the Big Dance.

Big Ten tournament champion Iowa, Michigan State and Wisconsin all lost in the first round. Regular season champion Ohio State, Illinois and Indiana exited in the second.

For the first time in 10 years, the conference does not have a team in the Sweet 16.

That's quite a comedown from a year ago, when the Big Ten was a Big Bully.

The league had five teams in the NCAA tournament, posted a 12-5 record and advanced two teams to the Final Four - Michigan State and Illinois.

Only a 4-2 mark this year in the less-prestigious NIT makes the Big Ten's 7-8 overall record even close to respectable.

Don't be fooled.

Three of those wins have come from a very mediocre Michigan team, which improved to 8-0 in NIT play under Amaker last night.

Penn State lost in the first round last week, and Minnesota was bounced in the second.

In a span of eight days, the NCAA tournament and NIT claimed eight Big Ten teams.

Yikes.

"We feel good to still be going in the postseason," Amaker said. "We're very, very happy."

Ironically, Amaker has had a longer run of underachieving than the Big Ten.

Despite an 86-69 record in his five seasons, he has only one NIT championship to show for it. Now he is two wins from another.

There have been no Big Ten titles, no NCAA bids, and only two 20-win seasons.

The Wolverines were 16-3 on Feb. 1 and appeared headed for their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1998.

But a late-season swoon - Michigan lost seven of its last nine games, including the opener of the Big Ten tournament - cost it a spot in the Big Dance.

Instead, the Wolverines ended up back in the NIT, and the Big Ten's last postseason representative is headed for the Big Apple for the second time in three seasons.

That has to be hard for Michigan fans to swallow.

Amaker wasn't hired to hang NIT banners in the rafters at Crisler Arena.

However, Martin said he doesn't have a specific timetable for when Amaker has to get the Wolverines to the NCAA tournament.

"Tommy has done exactly what I hoped he'd do and what I wanted him to do," Martin said. "I wanted him to build a solid program - not an instant winner - and that's what he's doing."

If Martin truly believes what he said, that's not a good sign.

Amaker's contract runs through the 2010-11 season, and includes a $900,000 buyout clause.

Until "NIT Tommy" finally gets his team to the NCAA tournament, look for more mediocrity at Michigan.



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