In most high school, college and professional sports, when a team fails in an attempt to make postseason play, its season is usually over.
But with Division I college basketball in particular, many teams that don't make the Big Dance each year have other opportunities to keep on playing, providing them with a sense of closure and possibly redemption.
After the Washington Huskies lost to Oregon State 86-84 last Thursday in the second round of the Pac-12 Conference Tournament, the Dawgs' previously bright hope of making the NCAA tournament after winning the Pac-12 conference outright were suddenly hanging by a nylon thread. Players were stunned. Fans were upset. And the tournament selection committee was unforgiving, excluding the Huskies from the tournament, solidifying their season as a disappointment. All the talent in the world and a Pac-12 regular season championship didn't matter anymore without that tournament bid.
"You're upset. You're mad. You're sad," senior forward Darnell Gant said.
Now the Huskies are in a situation that many teams that just weren't good enough to dance find themselves in: Playing in the National Invitation Tournament.
Hearing the letters N, I, and T consecutively comes with a bit of sourness for college basketball players, coaches, and fans. While many teams are happy to be in the tournament, no team like the Huskies-with their pro prospects and major conference standing-ever WANTS to play in the NIT. Sure, your team might get to play a few more games, and winning the tournament would be a nice consolation prize. But having an NIT Champion banner hanging from your arena rafters is a constant reminder that your team was good, but just not good enough to make NCAA showcase event.
For these Huskies though, they should go into the NIT with the belief that they are playing for an NCAA Championship, and it sure seems like they are.
"We're going to treat this like it's the national championship," freshman guard Tony Wroten said.
And they should.
This is the team's shot at redemption. Not just for the upset fans, (many of whom angrily-and in my opinion irrationally-tweeted Wroten, calling him pathetic and weak, after he missed four straight free throws at the end of regulation the to seal the win for Oregon State last week) but for themselves. This team had high expectations for itself coming into this season, but failed to reach their goal. Now they are in a situation where they can prove to themselves that they deserved to be in the NCAA tournament by winning the NIT championship.
The Huskies are a No. 1 seed. They play No. 8 seed Texas-Arlington in the first round of the NIT at Hec Ed Pavilion, and will probably host a few more games given they win. As a No. 1 seed, and one of a few NCAA tournament snubs in the NIT, this is the Dawgs' tournament to lose. There are other good teams, but if Washington plays to its potential, the Huskies are the best team in the tournament.
Husky players are saying that they aren't playing for redemption and that they aren't out to prove they should have been included in the NCAA tournament. But I disagree. If they hoist that NIT Championship banner at the end of the season, it won't be looked at by fans and players as a season that could have been. It will be looked at as a season that maybe should have resulted in an NCAA tournament berth, but instead ended with a team redeeming itself, pulling together despite an unfavorable circumstance, and giving themselves something to be proud of at season's end.
For the Huskies, this is their national championship.