College Basketball Nation: Velton Jones
March, 18, 2013
By Eamonn Brennan | ESPN.com
For the vast majority of the college hoops world, the NCAA tournament is the only thing worth getting excited about. The NIT, on the other hand, is at best boring, and at worst depressing. Almost any way you look at it for many of its teams it constitutes one week-long reminder of some degree of failure. No one wants to be in the NIT.
Kentucky fans know this pain. A year after riding one of the most dominant teams of the past decade to a national title, the Wildcats find themselves in the NIT. It isn't too hard to find UK fans who would prefer the season just end now, thank you very much. They've seen enough.
That said, Kentucky's first-round NIT game is about as intriguing an NIT game can be. Rupp Arena is an NCAA tournament site, so UK can't host its first-round opponent. The No. 1-seeded Wildcats will have to travel to No. 8-seed Robert Morris' 3,000-seat gym in Moon Township, Pa. … hometown of UK coach John Calipari.
Not only does Moon Township just sound like an awesome place to be from -- it would be cooler if it were actually a township on the Moon, but it's close enough -- it plays a major role in understanding what makes Calipari tick. Calipari may wear bespoke suits and Gucci loafers now, but he grew up sleeping in the hallway of a two-bedroom home. His father was a steelworker and gas station attendant, and his mother was a cafeteria worker at the local junior high school. My favorite detail from S.L. Price's 2011 feature on Calipari in Sports Illustrated has nothing to do with basketball: "[Calipari's father] Vince took any overtime he could get, yet made sure on every warm day to cut the grass: front, side or back. 'The yard was magnificent,' John says. 'A grinder is what he was.'" If Calipari is looking for an anecdote with which he can motivate his squad to finish out the end of a disappointing season, he could do worse than that.
And even if none of this gets you even remotely excited about the NIT, guess what? Robert Morris doesn't care. Because Robert Morris is actually incredibly excited about this whole NIT thing:
“I feel like Rocky in Rocky 1 who just got his shot against the champions in our home city,” Robert Morris coach Andy Toole said. “We're extremely excited.”
“It's incredible,” Toole said. “It shouldn't be hard to get the team prepared. It's going to be a crazy, crazy event.”
Robert Morris junior guard Karvel Anderson tweeted: “This can't be real. Wow, this game bout to be crazy.” Velton Jones tweeted: “Really? Why can't I breathe right now?”
I'm not sure the Moon Township Department of Parks and Recreation has a Leslie Knope in their ranks, but if they do, perhaps they can very quickly whip up some sort of city-wide celebration for the native Calipari. A ceremonial street? A tasteful statuette, perhaps?
In the meantime, UK fans and the general populace now have at least one reason to be moderately interested in the NIT.