James Whitford, head of the Ball State men’s basketball team, coaches from the sidelines in the game against Eastern Michigan in Worthen Arena Feb. 27. The Cardinals beat their record of highest number of points since 1989, scoring 115 to 79. DN PHOTO GRACE RAMEY
Despite cost, CIT gave Ball State chance to experience postseason
Was it worth it? Ball State men's basketball coach James Whitford thinks so.
After a 19-13 regular season, Ball State accepted a bid to play in the CollegeInsider.com postseason tournament. Teams in the tournament pay $38,000 to host a game, and Ball State athletic director Mark Sandy said the CIT game the Cardinals hosted on March 20 cost the athletic department about $25,000 after ticket sales and other income.
Ball State played one home game and two road contests in the CIT, also paying for a portion of its travel costs. Sandy said the total costs played into the decision of playing in the tournament, but with it being the program's first postseason opportunity since 2002, it made sense and they accepted.
Ball State - CIT results
March 15 - at Tennessee State - W (78-73 2OT)
March 20 - vs. UT Martin - W (83-30 OT)
March 23 - at Columbia - L (69-67)
"The goal would be to play in the NCAA or always be selected to play in the NIT if you didn't," Sandy said. "These tournaments are perfect for a school like us, who won seven games the year before and 21 this year and are looking to build on success and think we're going to have a pretty good team next year."
Ball State wasn't supposed to be there.
The Cardinals were picked to finish last in the Mid-American Conference West Division preseason poll, and they had a combined 12-48 record the two seasons prior. But as a young, overachieving team kept winning as the season went on, talks of the postseason started to gain traction.
"I would say we were not necessarily locked in on a postseason. We were kind of trying to live in the moment and get as many as we could," Whitford said. "And then when our season ended unfortunately against Miami, I had already known we could be in postseason because I had talked to the different tournaments. ... But I thought it was great for our guys."
Whitford said the College Basketball Invitational was the other option for the postseason. But the CIT had more regional teams, which broke down the travel costs a little bit more.
"I didn't want to fly around the country any more than we had to," Whitford said. "I had some friends who played in the CIT in the past, and they told me it was a really well-run tournament."
The CIT had 26 teams this year, but there's no bracket. Matchups are determined on a round-by-round basis, and it's a chance to get postseason experience against similar talent. More schools have made their postseason debut and won their first ever postseason game in the CIT than every other tournament combined since it was established in 2009, according to the tournament's website.
Ball State scored two overtime wins before dropping a 69-67 game to Columbia, who won the CIT championship Tuesday, in the quarterfinals.
"Every team that was in it was a pretty good team," said redshirt junior Ryan Weber, who played in the CIT with Youngstown State in 2012-13. "Getting two wins in the tournament was definitely good for us. It kind of showed us where we measure up to the good mid-major talent across the country."
The plan was to start the tournament on the road to see how the team would do. When Ball State won in the first round, the committee asked the Cardinals to host a game.
Some Division I teams decline to participate in pay-to-play tournaments like the CIT or the Vegas 16, a new tournament that only has eight teams in its inaugural year. No Power Five conference teams played in anything other than the NCAA or NIT this year. But other teams like Colorado State, who finished the season one spot above Ball State in the kenpom.com rankings, declined because it "wasn't in the best interest of the overall program."
For Ball State, who had one of the best turnarounds in the country this season, the CIT gave more than it took away. It gave the players confidence and can help recruiting in the future.
The NCAA Tournament is the ultimate goal. But for this year's team, the CIT was worth it.
"You put everything together, it wasn't a terrible expense," Sandy said. "For a home overtime win, it was a pretty good deal."