The NCAA Tournament captivates the nation to where little else in college basketball seems to matter. It’s all about making it to the NCAAs and grabbing a piece of the national spotlight.
But other postseason tournaments dot the landscape and gaining a spot in any one of them still carries a measure of prestige. After all, if 70 of the nation’s 124 Division I football teams find their way into bowl games, why should it be perceived as a lesser achievement when a smaller percentage of basketball teams — 148 of 347 — play past their conference tournaments?
Canisius knows the score. The Griffs haven’t played in a postseason tournament since the 1996 NCAAs. They went into the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Tournament with NCAA aspirations but a spot in the collegeinsider.com Tournament (CIT) is a most welcomed achievement. The Griffs won five games a year ago, losing 13 of its last 14, 10 by double-digit margins.
Adding to the allure, the Griffs open the CIT at home at 7 tonight against Elon ( TWC Sports, Radio 1400 AM), a 21-win team that finished third overall in the Southern Conference, beat South Carolina on the road and lost in overtime at Massachusetts.
“It’s been a while since this program has experienced something like this, so I’m looking forward to it,” said Griffs junior forward Chris Manhertz.
Uncertainty abounded after the Griffs (18-13) fell to eventual champion Iona, 89-85, in the quarterfinals of the MAAC Tournament. They were thinking they had done enough to gain a postseason spot but one never really knows what the various selection committees are thinking. When the word came down last week it brought a sense of renewal, especially to seniors like Harold Washington.
“I was excited because everywhere I pretty much played, even coming up younger when I was in high school, AAU, I always played basketball in March,” he said. “That’s when the best basketball is played.”
First-year coach Jim Baron had no doubt the Griffs were postseason worthy. “We lost to Iona by four points. We beat everybody in the league at least one time. We won 11 league games. We won 18 overall. Coming off last year, it’s a phenomenal year. And to be able to play in postseason at home is absolutely incredible.”
Securing a home game underscores the enhanced commitment at Cansius. The athletic department upped the ante to bring in Baron, increase assistant salaries and add an operations director.
“To play at home there’s a host fee,” said athletic director Bill Maher. “Our league encourages us to play home games and because of that there’s a league assistance to overset that for any of the members who participate in home games.
“This is just another step of our program moving forward and a continuing commitment to basketball at Canisius. And while there is investment, we also think that it’s reasonable investment. Our league helps us make it very reasonable. And with the event that we’re in our revenue will continue to offset that cost.”
The CIT is limited to “mid-major” teams — those residing outside the power conferences. It’s a celebration of mid-major basketball, which received a big boost of reputation through its record representation in this year’s NCAA Tournament.
Canisius will be challenged by Elon’s intricate offensive sets, just as the Phoenix will have to get a handle on the Griffs’ fondness for the transition game. Elon has two all-SoCon players in 6-10 junior Lucas Troutman (15.3 points per game) and 6-2 junior guard Jack Isenbarger (13.2).
“They’re pretty deep,” said Griffs all-MAAC guard Billy Baron. “They got some guys who can stretch it out. Their 4 and 5 men can stretch it out to the three-point line. They run a lot of picks up top. But they just try and confuse the defense and catch you sleeping and try and go backdoor and pop out for little jump shots.”
It’s a new season, the win-or-go-home time of year. Advance and Canisius will play the second round on the road.
“We’ll continue to persevere,” Billy Baron said. “We’re going to continue to play out the season. We’re going to try to win the CIT.”