NEW YORK CITY -- Columbia's basketball trophy case is empty.
The fencing trophy case in the school's athletic department offices is fully stocked, even though their back-to-back national championship trophies are missing because the team needed to parade them around the basketball court. The track-and-field case has some shiny plates and a faded statue of some runners running. But just a few steps away from those nice, semi-full cases, the basketball case just holds some pictures of basketball players, excited about ... nothing. It is an empty shrine commemorating decades as an also-ran in the nerd league.
Tuesday night before the CIT championship game, Lions coach Kyle Smith shows his players a picture of this barren box. He tells them he's tired of having to walk past it and be reminded of Columbia's years of futility every day.
They have a literal giant in their way. Their opponent, UC Irvine, is led by 7'6 Mamadou N'Diaye, the tallest active player in college basketball. N'Diaye and his teammates -- all tall humans, but short by comparison -- have traveled over 10,000 miles in the past two weeks, from California to North Dakota, back to California, to Louisiana, back to California, to South Carolina, and now to Manhattan. While more well-known competitions feature games at neutral sites, the CIT makes most of its money off teams buying the opportunity to play home games. Irvine does not pay to participate, and therefore its players squeeze their enormous bodies into commercial planes and buses, chasing whichever opponent the tournament says is next for the chance to raise a trophy.
The CIT is the fourth-tier postseason college basketball competition below the NCAA Tournament, the NIT, and the CBI. (You could argue the CIT is equal to the CBI, but the CBI has a history of attracting major conference schools in addition to mid-majors, while the CIT exclusively offers bids to mid-major programs.)
But when the buzzer sounds in Columbia's packed gym in Manhattan's Morningside Heights, there's no evidence this is a second-rate, or, perhaps more accurately, fourth-rate event. Confetti guns blast. Students hop barriers and ignore repeated warnings from security guards to stay off the court. A trophy is lifted, and the nets are cut down.
One team celebrates while the other sulks. You might think this tournament shouldn't exist, but when two teams are given the opportunity to call themselves champions, there will be happy, and there will be hurt.
* * *
"CIT" somehow stands for "CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament." I have to be honest: Although I completely ensconce myself in college basketball, actively seek college basketball news, and follow dozens of college basketball writers on social media, I had never heard of or visited CollegeInsider.com until I peeked out of curiosity to write this article. I do not know why it has a postseason tournament, or why that tournament is abbreviated so awkwardly.
The CIT is part-bracket, part-racket. The tournament charges a fee for teams to host home games. In 2012, it was reported as $30,000 per home game; in 2014, it was reported as $36,000 per home game; and this year, CollegeAD.com reported it was $38,500 to host a game.
Columbia was willing to shoulder the buy-in price. With four seniors in the starting lineup, including NBA prospect Maodo Lo, this was a now-or-never year to make the school's first NCAA tournament since 1968.
"The goal for me coming into college was to make some sort of tournament," Lo says. "And the only tournament I knew about was the NCAA Tournament."
Columbia had perhaps the best regular season in program history, winning 21 games, including a 10-4 Ivy record. That doesn't happen at Columbia a lot. But Yale was better. The Bulldogs went 13-1 in Ivy play, earning their first trip to the big tourney since 1962 and upsetting Baylor when they got there.
Yale clinched the Ivy title at Columbia in the regular season finale, but after the game Smith told reporters the loss "[wouldn't] be [the seniors'] last game in this gym." Presumably, he knew the school would pay to host CIT games to ensure their careers wouldn't end with another team celebrating on their home court.
With Levien Gymnasium generously listed at 2,700 seats, and cheap ticket prices for most fans and free tickets for students, the school would not recoup $38,500 even if it sold out a game. And Columbia hosted four games. It would not be surprising if the deficit incurred by Columbia's CIT participation exceeded $100,000.
UC Irvine wanted to play in the tournament, but was not willing to shoulder that price, so they embarked on a road trip financed by the tournament. The cheaper route had its setbacks.
The CIT is supposed to have 32 teams, but with those prices, only 26 opted to participate. The 26-team field meant an awkward format. There were 13 first-round games. Of the winners of those games, the three teams with the highest scores (according to KenPom.com's Pythagorean ratings) got a bye while the other 10 played a second-round matchup.
UC Irvine's first-round opponent was North Dakota. A long trip from sunny Southern California!
"None of our guys had ever been to North Dakota," says coach Russell Turner. "So that was neat, getting a sense for what things are like there."
They won in overtime, and their KenPom rating earned them a bye so they went back to California. Next up was Louisiana-Lafayette. Another long trip, and another win. With four days until their next game, they decided to fly back to California again.
The CIT is unseeded, with the tournament's selection committee -- a bunch of ex-head coaches, plus NFL players Antonio Gates and Vincent Jackson -- hypothetically reworking the bracket every round to make sure the tournament makes geographic sense. But by the time the tournament's semifinals roll around, the four teams remaining are Columbia, NJIT, and Coastal Carolina, all within a few miles of the Atlantic Ocean ... and UC Irvine, within a few miles of the Pacific Ocean.
"What I thought was that there would be some more West Coast teams in the CIT and that we'd be likely to play at least somewhere along the way closer to home," Turner said. "The trips we've made have been long ones."
After beating Coastal Carolina in the semis Sunday night, the Anteaters had 48 hours until tip-off in Manhattan. So Monday, they had to take a four-hour bus to Charlotte, then fly to New York.
"I want to say it was like road trips in the NBA," said Turner, who used to be an assistant coach for the Warriors. "But it was more like road trips in the D-League."
There are, of course, joys to being on the road. Monday morning in Myrtle Beach, the Anteaters went to Cracker Barrel for a rare taste of Southern-ish food. And the whole restaurant helped sing Happy Birthday to a player.
"It was almost like a church choir," Turner says.
But there are also serious downsides, especially for a team like Irvine. N'Diaye is joined by 7'2 freshman Ioannis Dimakopoulos, the son of a Greek basketball star, and two 6'10 players. Earlier this season, they played the tallest lineup in NCAA history.
"We've been packing ourselves into middle seats," Turner says. "We got a bunch of big ol' guys on our team. It stuns me when other passengers don't offer up better seats to a couple of my big guys, because they're so unusually large. Usually that's what happens, but on some of these flights it hasn't happened."
N'Diaye gets by okay. He's got a smile as big as a child's torso. He's had a life of ridiculous travel with unusual consequences. In 2010, he was spotted by a Senegalese-born UC Irvine coach in Dakar. In 2011, he was getting a tumor removed from his pituitary gland in Southern California. He gets put in exit rows and first class seats most of the time, but those are designed to be comfortable for normal-sized humans, and N'Diaye's body pushes the boundaries of what the human physical form is capable of. Even for someone used to absurd trips, the past few weeks have been tough on him.
"It makes us, like, tired," N'Diaye drawls in his enormously deep voice. "We've been all over the United States. A lot of us had never been to the East Coast. And the time change has been a little bit different for us."
Meanwhile, Columbia sat back at home. They were even able to game plan for facing N'Diaye, with Coach Smith piggybacking a player as a joke to simulate his defensive presence.
* * *
While the Lions' famously empty football stadium is over 100 blocks from the campus, the basketball gym is located inside the university's campus. By gameday, I hear a fan lamenting that he explained the CIT championship a bit too well to convince friends to come -- "I wish I'd just said it was 'a basketball championship with Columbia in it'" -- but eventually, the crowd gets raucous. The bandbox fills to capacity.
From the moment the game tips, N'Diaye is a force -- he easily, albeit clumsily, clasps rebounds without jumping, and finishes 7-for-8 from the field, some of them effortless dunks. When Columbia guards find themselves one-on-one with just his frame between them and the rim, they reverse direction and scurry away, like terrified Tokyoites who just heard Godzilla stomping around. One fan screams "YOU'RE NOT THAT TALL!" at him, which is a lie. Another yells "YOU'RE ONLY THE 36TH TALLEST IN THE WORLD," which upon further research, turns out to be true. (Never doubt a Columbia fan's homework.)
But the rest of the Anteaters shoot just 38 percent from the field, and they commit 17 turnovers. And N'Diaye's size means he's painfully slow, allowing Columbia to pass around him for open looks at the rim.
Columbia is down by seven points with about nine minutes left. But the Lions go on a 12-0 run, holding Irvine scoreless for 5:31, forcing four turnovers and emerging with a 58-53 lead with about three minutes to go.
You probably won't believe this, but Columbia's gym gets loud as hell during this run. There don't appear to be empty seats, and even the polite Ivy League alumni in attendance are on their feet and yelling.
When the Lions win, forward Isaac Cohen hurls the ball all the way to the ceiling of this tiny bandbox. The security guards and the PA guy keep telling fans to stay in their seats, but a dedicated few sprinkle onto the court to celebrate with the team.
Who knew Columbia had confetti cannons on hand? They do, apparently, bursting blue and white scraps so everybody knows a championship has just been won.
The ladders come out.
"To be honest, I didn't know we were cutting down nets," says senior Alex Rosenberg. "I didn't know how to cut down the net. I just learned."
The Anteaters watch. After the game, coach Turner isn't much for talking. He takes a long pause and stares off into the distance before answering questions. The CIT might not mean much to you, but when a team travels 10,000 miles for something -- anything -- losing that thing is going to mean a hell of a lot to them.
Their flight home from New York to LA will be their longest of the trip.
* * *
Five men sit at Columbia's post-game press conference with snippets of nets in their hands and hats. It's the end of the road at Columbia for all five.
For the four seniors, it's obvious why their time at Columbia has ended: They're seniors. Maybe they'll try to play basketball professionally -- Lo will get a gig doing this somewhere, either in the NBA or overseas -- or maybe they'll run the world like Columbia graduates are supposed to.
For Smith, it's a poorly kept secret. Although he urged his team on by telling them he didn't want to walk past an empty trophy case anymore, he'd already taken his own steps to ensure he wouldn't have to. In the hours before Tuesday night's championship game, rumors bubbled around the mid-major basketball world that he'd accepted a job as San Francisco's head coach. He flatly denied a question about these rumors after the game on Tuesday night, but by Wednesday morning, his hiring is official.
Some people seem furious that more and more trophies are being awarded in sports. They criticize the rise of "participation trophy culture," or whatever. To these people, who apparently want Columbia to be sad for not winning the things they initially wanted to win, I can assure you they are aware they did not just win the national championship.
But they did a hell of a lot more than nothing. At a school whose basketball history is summed up in an empty box, they achieved unprecedented success. Smith is the rare coach to leave Columbia with a winning record. The senior class left with a 25-win season, the best in school history. Both ended their careers with the school's first ever tournament championship.
The CIT exploits schools, in a way. It asks them if they're willing to shell out huge sums of money or travel outrageous distances for the opportunity for a precious Something in between the thing they actually sought to accomplish and nothing.
There are players who want to fight for that something. There are 7-footers willing to cram their bodies into tiny airplane middle seats for that something. More often than not, schools are going to be willing to pay for their players to have the opportunity to fight for that something. And as long as all those things are true, the CIT and tournaments like it will thrive.
As his seniors leave, happily toting the CIT trophy, Smith has one last thing to say.
"Drop that thing in the trophy case," Smith says to Cohen.
Soon, the trophy will sit in that case, a permanent reminder that once, Columbia Won A Thing. But not yet.
"Nah," Cohen replies. "I think people want to take pictures with it."
Columbia didn't get that One Shining Moment that Luther Vandross or various Luther Vandross replacements sing about. But as the players snap photos on the court with the trophy amidst piles of confetti, it's certainly A Shining Moment. And that's something worth fighting -- or paying -- for.