Come on Dana, it’s the NIT

My father-in-law was a hell of a guy, and like all of us, had his quirks. He grew up in the Depression era, and maybe that explained why he was especially frugal in some purchases, particularly food.

  Most memorably, he would ignore the fresh crab in the supermarket and buy the fake stuff. (If we accept that real crab is a wonder unto itself, what would be the point of buying ersatz crab, no matter the bargain?)

  He, and that habit, came to mind when I read of Dana Altman’s post-game rant Tuesday night following Oregon’s National Invitation Tournament loss to Wisconsin at Matthew Knight Arena.

  Some 3,384 fans showed up at the Matt for the Badgers and Ducks, and that didn’t put Altman in a very good mood afterward.

  “What the heck, we should have had more people here tonight,” he said. “These guys play hard, OK? Thirty-three hundred people, it’s not good enough. If it’s me, then get rid of me. If you need somebody else to be a promoter, do something. But 3,300 people is embarrassing. It really is.

  “I’m not in a very good mood, you can tell that. If it’s me, then make the change. Make the change. Somebody will hire me somewhere. I’ll go coach junior college ball. I love junior college ball. Those guys are dogs. But 3,300 people? For Wisconsin? I was disappointed.”

  Here’s a bulletin for Dana: It’s the NIT. Nobody cares. If this were a facsimile of Oregon’s Final Four team of 2017 against Wisconsin’s similar titans of a couple of years earlier, that’s one thing. But this was the 21-14 Ducks against a 19-14 Wisconsin team that tied for 11th in the chronically overrated Big Ten.

  In other words, this was fake crab.

  We’re inundated with the NCAA tournament in March – from ESPN’s “championship week” lead-in, to Selection Sunday, to analysis shows, to wall-to-wall coverage by CBS and its affiliates. Newspapers and websites shower us with Sweet 16 power ratings, dream matchups and against-the-spread picks.

  Does any of that happen for the NIT, or God forbid, the College Basketball Invitational, outside of live game coverage? No.

  Nobody cares.

  Can anybody name a champion of the NIT for the past 10 years? I can’t, and I spend way too much time in January and February, watching a random game from a nondescript conference. I watched most of an Auburn-Tennessee game several weeks ago in which Auburn shot 1 for 26 at one stretch.

  Yes, Altman, in his rant, acknowledged that the NIT isn’t the NCAA. But that got very short shrift in his remarks. He was clearly peeved at the notion that his program would host a Big Ten team and draw 3,384 people.

  I watched his press conference and what bubbled up loudest was the crowd size. He was given an opening to say that there needs to be more institutional support of basketball at Oregon, but he demurred, saying, “We’ve got too good a situation here,” mentioning support staff, nutritionists, etc. “We give these guys every advantage, and they’ve got to take advantage of it.”

  His words crept back to the attendance. “You see the commitment Wisconsin makes,” he said. “They’ve got their cheerleaders, the band. We make a commitment, don’t get me wrong here. (But) you can just see how important it is (to Wisconsin) . . . we should have had more people here tonight. Thirty-three hundred people, it’s not good enough.”

  Altman is a hell of a coach who came to Oregon after an interminable, six-week search in 2010 that canvassed every imaginable big name out there. He became a terrific fallback choice, somebody who coached Oregon to a Final Four, has gotten to the second weekend four other times and whose teams can be counted on to play well at the end of the year.

  Just not this year. The Ducks had an injury-marred season, and late in it, Altman made it clear that it didn’t seem that some players wanted it badly enough. The crucible came in the Pac-12 tournament, when the Ducks might have inched their way into the NCAA field, and instead they lost to a banged-up UCLA team by 19.

  Here’s another view apart from Altman’s 2022-23 team: I don’t think the Eugene public has ever fully embraced Matt Knight Arena – or at least found it as appealing as its antecedent, McArthur Court. I can remember writing a decade or so, when the arena was relatively new, about a half-full house for a Civil War basketball game the first week of January.

  I was there for a book signing the week before Christmas in 2021 with several Oregon players of the 1970s on the night the Ducks hosted Baylor, the defending national champion. Blithely, I figured the place would sell out. Well, it drew 7,682, or 62 percent of capacity. Now there were still Covid-19 concerns then – some games were occasionally getting scrubbed here and there – but there was no hint of that prior to Oregon-Baylor.

  This year, Oregon hosted No. 3 Houston early in the season and drew 7,002. It bumped that up to the high sevens when it hosted Arizona, and finally, 10,000-plus when UCLA came to town.

  Parking is difficult around the arena, and inside, I don’t find the place especially warm (ambiently speaking) or inviting.

  Allow Altman some slack for frustrations at the end of a long season. But he sounded tired, sounded like a guy willing to listen to job openings in the Midwest where he came from, where you might roll the ball out and fill the gym regardless.

  He pointed out that Wisconsin drew 10,000-plus for its previous NIT game, against visiting Liberty. But we’re now 4 ½ months removed from the start of the season, fans have seen your team 36 times, and (a) the coach is questioning whether everyone is bought in, yet (b) expecting the fans to come out?

  “We’ve been in the post-season 13 years in a row,” Altman said, defending the program’s results. “We had recruits here tonight. We’ve had recruits watching on TV. Are we sending the right message?”

  Wednesday, he told journalist John Canzano that he regretted the tone of some of his comments. But what’s done is done. My guess is, this one’s going to leave a mark.