The Dubious Honor of an NIT Championship

Tonight Michigan goes for its second NIT title in three years (against South Carolina). Not exactly music to a Big Ten school’s ears, but whatever. A lot of fandom and media vultures, probably the same ones keeping death watch over Lloyd Carr’s tenure, are calling for the head of coach Tommy Amaker after a 16-3 start begat a slow decent into hell. No doubt, injuries were a factor in the decline, but that doesn’t excuse season-ending losses to Indiana (after leading most of the game) and Minnesota. No injury list can account for that and Michigan absolutely deserved its March Madness snub.(For the record, I think turnovers were the ultimate death knell to Michigan’s season.)

That said, I’m much more impressed than others with the way the Michigan players have rallied in the NIT. It’s a poor consolation, sure, but I think it’s significant that Amaker seems to be at his coaching best when the storm of controversy over the program’s lack of success is at its worst.

One of my favorite movies is The Lion in Winter, with Peter O’Toole, Katherine Hepburn, a young Anthony Hopkins and Timothy “I was James Bond Once” Dalton. In the movie the character of Prince Geoffery tells his brother Richard, “You fool. As if it matters how a man falls down.” To which Richard replies, “When the fall is all that’s left, it matters a great deal.”

That quote pretty much sums up why Michigan’s success in the NIT this year is a big deal. This season will forever be a disappointment. There can be no doubt about that. But an NIT championship tonight is not cause for the Amaker naysayers to hand down more criticism from the safety of their keyboards and water coolers. As if winning the NIT somehow makes Amaker’s tenure even more of a failure than had the team exited stage right in the first round. Amaker took a potentially devastating loss to Minnesota in the Big Ten tournament and has rallied these players into playing some of their best basketball of the season in the NIT. Cause for celebration? No. But it does count for something and U of M AD Bill Martin is right to so publically support Amaker as coach of the Wolverine basketball program.

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