Tuesday, March 17, 2009

In the NIT

By Lauren Biggers
Men's Basketball at South Carolina

It is Monday morning at the office. Yes, THAT Monday morning. (OK, maybe more like mid-morning, but that’s beside the point.)

The office is eerily quiet. Like spring-break quiet magnified by 100, and it’s more than possible that I’m the only one downstairs.

But before long, associate head coach Matt Matheny wanders in. Grabs the paper. Sits down. We chat a little. He reads the paper. Glances at the TV.

“How do you feel about the NIT?”

“Honestly, I’ve never been to the NIT. So I don’t know. How do you feel about it?”

About the situation, I feel like everyone else around the program. Sad, disappointed, sad, and angry, but mostly, sad.

After last year’s run, the expectations on this team were great. We know now, and some of us probably always, too great.

I believed until the Selection Show was over. Mourned. Moved On.

If the ‘Cats can do the same, what I feel about them is pretty good.

A few hours later, we get the draw: at South Carolina.

A few days later, we are at South Carolina. In the NIT.

Which is different from the NCAA Tournament in a lot of ways. There are no charter flights. No scheduled practice sessions. There is no pre-game press conference. No need. No one carrying a microphone reporter to reporter, waiting to be acknowledged by a moderator insisting that you identify yourself before asking a question. No one making you pour your can of soda into a cup with the right sponsor on it. (Which, come to think of, is nice actually.)

But there are similarities, too. Fans, buses and ticketing questions. Mascots and cheerleaders. Credentials and name cards.

And it’s still win or go home.

And Tuesday night, it was pretty clear pretty early these Wildcats were going to win. The game was misleadingly close in the first half, and when the Gamecocks attacked, the ‘Cats answered every time.

They surrendered the lead just once, but from around the 10-minute mark in the second half, it felt like a win. And you know what, it felt good.

In the shadow of last season, it’s tough to say if it felt as good. I think we’d all rather be dancing.

And yet, there is MAX doing a little dance after forcing a T.O. late in the game. There is the WL doing a little dance on the bench (to be fair, who doesn’t love Sir-Mix-A-Lot’s Jump On It).

There stands The One the Tournament will Miss, icing another game at the free throw line to the too predictable chants. Standing there, he looks so little like the one who inspired the baby-faced, curfew thoughts of old and much more like the one who routinely drops 30 to the crowd's delight. And when it's over, he still looks like the one who enjoys it.

These Wildcats look like they want to survive and advance.

And afterwards, I can’t help but think about Gonzaga. The energy, the emotion that cannot be matched here. Those magical moments in the locker room. In the post-game. In the hotel.

But there is Matt Matheny, on the phone in the tunnel, with a simple fist pump and head nod.

And yes, coach, I think I could like the NIT.

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