I’ll be the first to admit that when Green Bay announced on the night of Selection Sunday that the team would be playing in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament my first response was “meh.”
The team was coming off a disappointing loss to Wright State in the Horizon League Tournament semifinals a week earlier and had finished 17-16 overall and 10-8 in the conference, tied with UIC for fourth place.
It was an up and down regular season that included a stretch of 5 losses in a 6 game span in the first half of the conference slate but followed up by a 6-3 finish during the second half. The team was playing well down the stretch including a thrilling win over UIC in the conference tournament quarterfinals before having the season abruptly end in the semifinals as it has so many times over the years.
So if the season continued in a third tier tournament, fine. If the season was over after that loss to Wright State, that was fine with me too.
But I am so very glad that it did not end there.
Never mind the intangible benefits of playing in this tournament like the additional practice time or additional tournament must-win game experience, Green Bay’s run to the CIT championship game has been remarkably entertaining from a fan perspective.
The team has looked loose and appears to be having a whole lot of fun playing these games and it is infectious. That in turn has led to a fantastic game atmosphere, especially in Tuesday night’s nail-biting 87-86 overtime victory in front of 2,269 loud and engaged fans at the Kress Center.
“I thought we had a great atmosphere,” head coach Linc Darner said after the game, via the Green Bay Press-Gazette. “People up cheering. Up cheering for the starting lineups. People here an hour-and-a-half before game time getting in line to get into the game and get their seats. I think the players enjoyed it, too.”
Now the Phoenix are playing their best basketball of the season and it is an absolute joy to watch. Green Bay has taken down several solid mid-major opponents on their quest to win the tournament title, including the top NET ranked team in the field (East Tennessee State) on the road in the first round.
The tournament run has given fans the opportunity to watch senior star Sandy Cohen continue to make play after play for the Phoenix including hitting the game winner in the semifinals Tuesday night with 1.5 seconds left in overtime. But perhaps more importantly it has allowed players who will be coming back next season the opportunity to play more and thrive including sophomores Trevian Bell, PJ Pipes, and Manny Patterson. Junior Cody Schwartz also looks to be playing with more confidence lately reaching double figures in scoring in two of the four CIT games after doing so three times total against Division I opponents during the regular season.
“It’s allowed us to work on some things that we wanted to do this year and we didn’t get to, but for the future,” assistant coach Richard Davis said on the WDUZ post game show after the victory over CSUB on Friday. “The biggest thing is practice and putting those guys who didn’t get a lot of time in crunch time this year in those positions because life goes on without Sandy next year.”
Now the attention turns to winning one more game at Marshall on Thursday night in the championship game. UIC made it to the finals of the CIT a season ago and was not able to build off of it this season so there is no guarantee that the Phoenix will gain anything from this tournament run.
But in my personal opinion it seems that the fan base is excited in a way that it hasn’t been since the 2016 NCAA Tournament run and building momentum for next season is crucial for a program that has seen attendance decline over each of the past four seasons. It also helps the program to be one of only a few teams still playing to help gain some additional exposure for potential future recruits.
Despite potentially having to shell out around $30,000 to host each CIT home game, win or lose in the championship game on Thursday night it has been worth every penny just for the sheer enjoyment and entertainment this run has brought and I am sure I am not alone in that sentiment among the fan base.
But as Trevian Bell said after Green Bay’s blowout victory over FIU in the second round, “we might as well win the whole thing.”