Why you should care about Illinois in the NIT

Illinois’ Nnanna Egwu pumps his fist after a made free throw against Maryland at State Farm Center on Jan. 7. The NIT will be the final games of the senior’s career.

don’t like the NIT.

I agree with Illinois basketball head coach John Groce that the NCAA tournament should always be the goal for his Illini. You won’t see any NIT banners hanging in State Farm Center, because it’s a consolation prize. Each year’s NIT winner is the winner of 69th place in college basketball.

But when No. 3 seed Illinois faces No. 6 seed Alabama in the first round of the NIT on Tuesday night, I’m still going to watch, and you should too.

When it was announced that Illinois would be playing in the NIT for the second consecutive season, many social media responses from Illini fans went something like this:

“I won’t be watching!” or “Who cares, it’s the NIT!”

In the long run, it really doesn’t matter if Illinois wins the NIT or bows out in the first round. Any postseason victories in this tournament are just feel-good accomplishments for the players and fans.

But while there is no real short-term reason to care about the NIT, I would argue that even the act of caring about your team’s NIT efforts matters long-term. Because in sports, one of the worst things a program can face is fan apathy. When fans stop caring, mediocrity can become perpetual.

A good example of this phenomenon is the Illinois football program. In the Illini’s final home game last season against Penn State, Illinois pulled out a thrilling 16-14 victory, saving its season and head coach Tim Beckman’s job. It was one of the most crucial wins for the program in recent years, and only about 12,000 fans were on hand to witness it.

It was an embarrassing showing for the Illinois athletic department, and was an accurate reflection of the disillusionment of an Illini football fan base that has become apathetic after years and years of losing. It also represented an eventual worst-case scenario for the Illinois basketball program.

I’m not saying that Illinois fans themselves have had any adverse impact on the current state of Illini revenue sports, or that they shouldn’t be discouraged by recent failures. It’s okay to expect more out of your favorite team; Groce himself had higher expectations entering the season.

You should be disappointed, and it’s that level of fan passion that keeps the pressure on teams to succeed and not accept the status quo. Keep apathy at arm’s length, and don’t let yourself stop caring.

Even if you have to hate-watch the NIT, it’s for a good cause. Senior Nnanna Egwu was the defensive MVP of this Illini team, and fellow senior Rayvonte Rice was the offensive MVP. Unfortunately, many Illinois fans have fallen victim to the all-too-common tradition of heaping the most criticism on the best players on the team, and Rice and Egwu have both received a stupid amount of fan vitriol.

Even though Egwu and Rice’s careers aren’t ending the way they envisioned, those two put in an extraordinary amount of work and they both love the University of Illinois. If nothing else, watch the NIT for them (and fellow seniors Ahmad Starks and Ryan Schmidt) as they attempt to close out their careers on a positive note.

I still have confidence that Groce is capable of building a winning program at Illinois, and I know the majority of fans haven’t given up yet. Even if they don’t admit it, they’ll care how Illinois performs in the NIT, and it’s a good sign they still do.  

The day Illini basketball draws 4,000 people on Senior Night is the day I would really start worrying.

Alex is a junior in AHS.

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