Shortly after the conclusion of the NIT selection show Sunday night, after the committee had passed on Northwestern, the program announced that it would not be participating in any postseason tournament. The Wildcats surely would have received bids to both the CBI and the Vegas 16, a new third-tier tournament. But they had no interest.
When news of the program's decision broke, Northwestern Twitter caught fire — who knew it even existed? The majority of fans, it seemed, were against the program's decision. Some agreed with it, but not many.
We thought we'd flesh out the arguments on either side. So we had Henry Bushnell and Zach Pereles take them on:
Henry Bushnell: So I'll start. Frankly, I'm surprised so many people are up in arms about this. I think it was the right decision, or at the very least not a wrong decision. Zach, I'm curious to know why you think this was such a poor choice.
Zach Pereles: The biggest issue I have is that, for some inexplicable reason, Chris Collins, and perhaps Jim Phillips, seem to view these tournaments as worthless, or at least below the team and its standards.
Every year, Pat Fitzgerald starts his season with National Championship aspirations; that much is obvious. But if the team struggles, goes 6-6 and goes to some very mediocre bowl against a small-name, probably outmatched team, Fitzgerald isn't declining the bid. The team would have to practice and play over winter break (much like Collins' team would have to do so over spring break), and it certainly wouldn't be ideal. But if that's what the team has earned — and the CBI/Vegas 16 is certainly what the basketball team has earned — why miss out on more practices and more game experience for a team losing two MAJOR pieces next year, pieces whose replacements are very much still up in the air?
You must see things differently, though. Why so?
Henry Bushnell: Alright, so I have multiple rebuttals here.
First, the CBI is in fact worthless. I present to you the 2016 CBI field, which features not a single major conference team:
Second, I don't get the football comparison. Is your argument that the coaching staff should want to? That the players should want to? The two situations are very different.
Terrible bowl games exist and are boons to programs because A) money, B) the players enjoy them, and C) In football, those extra practices are so, so valuable. The offseason practice restrictions on college football teams are really inhibiting. The extra month of practice can be used to begin development for the following year.
In basketball, A) You have to pay to host a CBI game — $50,000 for the early rounds, $75,000 for a semifinal — and C) I don't see how the extra practices/games would be valuable for development for next year. Basketball season is grueling, especially the last two months. Not that football isn't, but bowl practices are most valuable for learning purposes, and for the players who aren't regulars during the season. Basketball coaches have more leeway working with players over the offseason, so two weeks of practices for worn down players isn't going to accomplish much that can't be accomplished during the offseason.
Now, on point B)... I'll grant you the argument that if the players wanted to — and from what I hear, some of them did want to — maybe Collins should have put more weight into that. But I still don't think it's worth it, and I think Collins is acting in the best interest of his players, even if they don't know it.
Zach Pereles: So I'll provide a quick rebuttal to a few of your own. First, look at some of the major conference teams that have been in the CBI since its inception and you'll see teams that are now tournament regulars:
Oregon, which had been in a little bit of a slump, went to the CBI in 2011, went to the NIT Elite Eight in 2012, and now has been to four straight NCAA Tournaments. The Ducks are a 1-seed this year. VCU won the 2010 CBI and went to the Final Four the next year.
Obviously Northwestern can't expect to replicate those exact results, but you get the point. And there are more teams that have shown smaller signs of progress post-CBI. Even as the field has thinned out in recent years — and I'll admit it has — there has always been at least one major conference team. In 2013, Purdue went (even after six straight tourney appearances), and the Boilermakers are one of the top teams in the nation. Last year it was Colorado (15-17, 7-11 Pac-12). The Buffaloes, even after exiting early in the CBI, made the tourney this year.
Now obviously these teams can't attribute a substantial portion of their success the following year to the CBI, but what the CBI does do is provide a tournament-like atmosphere that Collins's team could learn from. Plus, as Purdue's example shows, this tournament isn't some sort of thing Northwestern is too good for. Good programs seek opportunities to play postseason basketball.
As for the level of competition, there are several teams in the field hovering between the 100-150 range according to KenPom, certainly not pushovers. And no, while these teams aren't even close to the level that Northwestern would have liked to see in its postseason play, these are the types of teams Collins ought to be scheduling for the "we should win" portion of the non-conference slate next year. If Northwestern wants to advance as a program, I feel it should be able to beat teams in this range, not have to rely on scheduling sub-300 teams to earn nonconference wins.
Henry Bushnell: C'mon. You know the Colorado and VCU comparisons are more correlational than causational. You really think playing Western Carolina at Welsh-Ryan provides a "tournament-like atmosphere"?
It's not that Northwestern is too good for the CBI. It's just about weighing pros and cons. Where's the good in the CBI? If Northwestern were to steamroll through the field and win it, would it really matter? I certainly wouldn't care, and only the most devout college basketball fans would even notice. Weigh that with the downside — two weeks of tired, less than stellar practices that ingrain bad habits, and an embarrassing, morale-crushing loss to Idaho or Houston Baptist — and it's just not worth it.
Another argument might be that merely being in the postseason is a selling point to recruits. I think a better argument —not that I'd make it — is that simply seeing Northwestern's name alongside UNC Greensboro and Nebraska-Omaha in a tournament could turn a recruit off. Sometimes when you don't achieve what you want to achieve, it's better to just temporarily fall off the face of the earth — out of the spotlight entirely — than to hang around on the fringes. Hanging around can serve as more a reminder of the failure than a convincing sign of success.
Zach Pereles: I'm not saying it's necessary causation — in fact, I mentioned it was just the opposite above — but there has to be a reason a lot of teams that are now successful, and in Purdue's case even had tourney-qualifying success beforehand, played in this tournament. And even if I can't identify a reason, they all had one. Additionally, if no one's watching or caring about the CBI, how could a loss be so embarrassing and morale-crushing? Especially considering how emotionally-crushing the team's last loss was.
I think the "tired team" argument is a bit overstated, too. Do tired legs really outweigh playing more basketball? I'd think not. Last year, yes, it made sense to not play in any tournament on par with the CBI. Bryant McIntosh, Vic Law and Scottie Lindsey — three key cogs of this team going forward — were clearly physically and mentally exhausted from the Big Ten grind. But McIntosh hasn't showed nearly the decline he showed last year.
While we're talking about Northwestern's point guard, we might as well discuss the guard situation as a whole going forward. Tre Demps will be gone next year, and he might not have even played in this tournament given the impending birth of his child. What better opportunity to let Jordan Ash, who averaged fewer than six minutes per game, get some run? He will be a contributor of some sort next year based simply on roster numbers, and his legs certainly aren't tired. This would have been a great chance for him to ease into competition and at least give Collins an idea of what he has at guard moving forward. The same goes for Dererk Pardon, who could also benefit from more practice against live opponents. I have trouble seeing how such a young team, especially one that is still far from the upper-middle portion of the conference, could truly suffer from more games.
Henry Bushnell: Those are some good points. I wanted to bring up the Demps thing though. Would it not be weird to play in the postseason without one of your two four-year seniors? One argument I've been seeing is that it's unfair to the seniors to end the season prematurely. But one of those seniors is out with an injury, and another likely wouldn't even be able to or want to play at all. I don't want to speak for him, but Demps would probably rather spend time with his wife and their newly born daughter. Playing without Demps would just seem like an awkward end to the year after so much was put into that game in Indianapolis.
You're also talking about these games as if they're preseason games, not postseason games. If Jordan Ash is playing 25 minutes per game, even in the CBI, I think there's a good chance Northwestern suffers an embarrassing loss. So I still don't understand the motive, nor the upside. I don't see what you get out of playing a few more basketball games against lesser competition after an already tough 32-game season.
Zach Pereles: I'd agree that for the sentimental side of things, it wouldn't feel the same without Demps. But as far as the on-court product? It's going to be very weird not having Demps on the court next year. The guy has played an insane number of minutes in his time here, and his usage rates have been off the charts. Someone — or more likely a group of someones — will have to ease the burden of his graduation. Why not get an early start?
Overall, I think postseason play for Northwestern would have been a really good opportunity to play teams similar to those that could show up in the 2016-2017 non-conference schedule and a valuable experience for what is still a very young team. I think the program missed out on a chance to improve.
Henry Bushnell: I just think the sooner you can hit the reset button and get some rest before putting maximum effort into the offseason program, the better. Deliberate practice — the type engaged in over the offseason — is more effective for talent development than game practice.
I know players always want to just play, and there is something to be said for game experience. But the Wildcats have had plenty of game experience this year. It began all the way back in August in Spain. It had to come to a close in Indianapolis. There was no point in further extending the grind, especially through exams and spring break. I totally understand it.
Feel free to join in the debate below...