NIT coaches lobby to keep tournament

Wednesday, March 28th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ Neither Alabama coach Mark Gottfried nor Tulsa coach Buzz Peterson wants to make a return trip to the NIT.

But they both hope the opportunity is there if they need it.

The status of the nation's oldest college basketball tournament is in jeopardy as the NCAA is considering legislation next month that could lead to the elimination of the preseason tournament that finances the NIT.

``I love the NIT,'' said Peterson, whose team plays Alabama (25-10) in Thursday night's championship game. ``I can't tell you how fulfilling this has been as a coach, a staff and players. It made our season. Take this away and it would be cheating the kids. It really would be.''

The conference commissioners voted in September to eliminate the exemption that allows events like the Preseason NIT, Maui Invitational and Great Alaska Shootout to count only as one game on a school's 28-game schedule regardless of how many a team actually plays.

That would effectively eliminate the tournaments as most teams would be unwilling to commit to three or four games.

Without the revenue from the preseason event, NIT officials said they would have a hard time putting together the postseason event, which has struggled to generate much interest.

Tuesday night's semifinals, featuring no teams from the Northeast, drew only 6,597 fans. But the coaches don't feel that moving the event to a smaller, more accessible city would be good for the NIT.

``If the NIT moved around, it would certainly lose its luster,'' Gottfried said. ``It has a lot of history and tradition. It's a chance to come to New York. It's a great experience for the teams and a positive for college basketball. By being here we've gotten the exposure of playing on national TV and the experience of being in New York City.''

The NIT has provided a boost for both the Crimson Tide and Golden Hurricane (25-11), who fell short of their aspirations of making the NCAA tournament.

Tulsa, regional finalists last season, lost the WAC championship game at home to Hawaii to miss out on the NCAAs.

Alabama, which was ranked in the Top 25 for 14 consecutive weeks, lost five of six games to end the season and had to settle for the NIT.

``The NIT experience has been a real positive for our team,'' Gottfried said. ``Our young guys have taken a situation that could have been tough and turned it into a very positive experience.''

That's especially so for young teams like Alabama and Tulsa. Seven of the top nine players on the Golden Hurricane are freshmen or sophomores.

The Crimson Tide start five sophomores and their top reserve, Gerald Wallace, is a freshman.

``It would be a great step forward for us,'' said Erwin Dudley, who had 20 points and 16 rebounds in Alabama's 74-63 semifinal win over Detroit. ``We didn't make it to the NCAA, but hey, if we are still playing, we can win this right here and that will be a great start for us.''

Tulsa broke out to a 20-point lead in its semifinal win against Memphis, before holding on 72-64. That's been the formula during the NIT for the Golden Hurricane, who nearly blew 18-point leads earlier in the tournament to Minnesota and Mississippi State.

``Last night's game was a typical game for Tulsa,'' Peterson said. ``We build a big lead and let teams back into the game. If anybody has a solution, let me know. I'll pay for advice.''

Alabama has two players nursing injuries. Travis Stinnett sprained his left ankle Tuesday night and expects to play in the final. Terrance Meade bruised his hip bone and is questionable.

Detroit (25-11) plays Memphis (20-15) in Thursday's consolation game.