The prevailing opinion is that the NIT just doesn't matter, existing in some sort of strange basketball purgatory. Everybody knows this.
ESPN certainly knew this. The Worldwide Leader ended up joining the NIT semifinals already in progress, opting to show the bitter end of a meaningless spring training baseball game instead of cutting to Madison Square Garden.
The fans of most of the schools involved knew this. Credit to Minnesota, who brought a respectable contingent to New York for their game against Washington later in the night. But Washington and Stanford? Standing out on 31st and 8th before the game, I was hard-pressed to find anybody wearing the colors of the Huskies or Cardinal.
And unfortunately, the people of New York knew it as well. Madison Square Garden was only about one-third full for the first game of the night, with the natives treating the NIT like the second-tier exhibition that it has devolved into over the years.
In fact, it seemed that the only people who thought Tuesday night's NIT games were worthwhile were the UMass Minutemen and their fans. A large and loud cheering section, a pep band, cheerleaders and a mascot were all present in UMass maroon; UMass' opponent, Stanford, had none of these things.
But why should they have? For Stanford, this was a consolation tournament; a symbol of their season ending without a trip to the NCAA tournament, and thus ending in failure. For UMass, however, the outlook couldn't have been more different. Prior to the season, the Minutemen were picked to barely even make the Atlantic 10 tournament. Forget about consolation; winning the NIT would be a significant accomplishment for a program yearning for a return to the glory days of the mid-1990s.
And for 40 minutes, the UMass players and fans showed how badly they wanted this win, showing all the intensity you'd expect in a "real" tournament game. Alas, in the end, it was not enough; Stanford pulled out the victory and advanced to the NIT title game, where they pounded Minnesota en route to an NIT title.
Certainly, UMass' loss was disappointing, for all of the same reasons that it is disappointing when every team's season ends in a loss. But something else was lost when the Minutemen walked off the floor in defeat: the chance for the NIT to actually matter far more than anybody ever gives it credit for. A UMass victory would have been something worth celebrating, a true story of success beyond expectations. Certainly, far more than just a consolation prize.
Instead, Stanford's victory means the Cardinal fanbase will, in all likelihood, collectively think "That's nice" to themselves before turning their attention to next year. Nearly the dictionary definition of unimportant.
Maybe, in this case, it ends in a loss for the NIT, too.
STANFORD 74, MASSACHUSETTS 64 03/27/2012
MASSACHUSETTS 25-12 (9-7) -- C. Williams 7-18 5-6 19; S. Carter 2-3 2-5 6; T. Vinson 3-7 1-3 8; R. Putney 3-11 0-0 8; F. Riley 3-10 2-3 10; J. Morgan 1-5 0-1 2; M. Esho 3-5 0-0 6; J. Farrell 1-9 3-4 5; A. McCarthy 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 23-68 13-22 64. STANFORD 25-11 (10-8) -- A. Brown 7-12 1-2 18; J. Owens 7-14 1-2 15; A. Bright 3-8 6-6 13; C. Randle 3-7 5-7 12; D. Powell 1-5 4-7 6; J. Mann 0-4 2-2 2; J. Huestis 3-9 2-4 8; A. Zimmermann 0-4 0-0 0; J. Gage 0-1 0-0 0; J. Trotter 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 24-65 21-30 74.
Three-point goals: MASS 5-22 (J. Farrell 0-2; R. Putney 2-5; F. Riley 2-7; T. Vinson 1-2; C. Williams 0-2; M. Esho 0-1; J. Morgan 0-3), STAN 5-16 (A. Bright 1-2; A. Brown 3-6; J. Gage 0-1; J. Huestis 0-3; C. Randle 1-4); Rebounds: MASS 35 (S. Carter 8), STAN 45 (J. Owens 12); Assists: MASS 10 (C. Williams 3), STAN 14 (A. Bright 3); Total Fouls -- MASS 26, STAN 22; Fouled Out: MASS-J. Morgan; STAN-None.