I suspect most casual college basketball fans' only notion of the CBI — the College Basketball Invitational — comes from what Indiana athletic director Fred Glass said about it while addressing the Hoosiers declining an invitation in 2014:
Indiana Director of Athletics Fred Glass confirmed that decision to The Star on Sunday night.
"Finances wouldn't be an issue if we thought it made sense," Glass told The Star. "But we're Indiana. We don't play in the CBI."
That bolded section became the stuff of great headlines, with pundits and fans of rival teams getting to seize on Indiana's hubris and/or pair it with any of these pictures. But, well: Indiana's not the only "major" team that has turned down the CBI, just the only one with an athletic director dumb enough to say the obvious thing in public.
Tons of teams declining CBI bids in last 30 mins: Cal, Florida, Florida State, Memphis, Minnesota, Penn State, South Carolina, & Tennessee.— Andrew Felts (@andrewfelts) March 16, 2015
Those teams are not averse to postseason competition: Every one of them has played in the NIT at least once since 2009, with Penn State winning it in 2009 and Minnesota doing so in 2014. (South Carolina won it in 2005 and 2006.) Florida, unquestionably the most prestigious of those programs — the only team other than Florida with a national title in that octet is Cal — would have perhaps been able to keep streaks of winning seasons and 20-win seasons alive by playing in the CBI, but declined an invitation. Michigan declined one, too.
That alone wouldn't threaten the CBI, which has always relied mostly on third-tier teams from power conferences and double-snubbed mid-majors — teams neither good enough to win their conference or their conference's tournament from one-bid leagues — to fill out its field.
But when Oregon State — which was 17-14 this season, lost seven of its last eight games, but has no seniors, and could use the development (and winning feeling) a postseason tournament would afford — is turning down the CBI, the tournament is as good as dead. Oregon State won the CBI in 2009, in its first appearance, then went back three more times over the next six years of its existence; the four appearances by the Beavers ties with Wyoming for the most nationally.
If that team can't be enticed to play in the CBI, why should any team?
Look, I wouldn't be opposed to getting extra reps for this team, and giving Jacob Kurtz and Jon Horford more games in Gators jerseys. I know Florida can more than afford the steep hosting costs — $50,000 for a home game, $75,000 for a game in the semifinals or finals — that The Gazelle Group imposes on CBI participants, even though there would be virtually no one coming to see games featuring this team. I wouldn't get up in arms about players missing classes for a tournament that no one cares about, either.
The big-name teams that have turned down the CBI have left it with a rather pathetic field: Colorado is the only team from a power conference, and the Buffaloes are also the only team in the current KenPom top 100, at No. 95. (Next up is Pepperdine, which checks in at No. 106.) Seattle, which had a losing record against Division I competition in 2014-15, is in this field; it's actually hosting Pepperdine.
I consider myself something of a college basketball junkie, and even I couldn't come up with a good reason for finding the CBI on CBS Sports Network as a neutral fan other than Stony Brook's Jameel Warney. And if I really cared about Warney, I'd have just watched more America East ball this year.
Teams paying for the privilege of being in the CBI are doing so for the practice time and glorified scrimmages available, and as The Coloradoan's Matt Stephens noted last year, mid-majors have a better option in the CIT, which is cheaper and more self-aware. (Compare the websites.)
So the CBI likely most benefits The Gazelle Group, which also runs three in-season tournaments in New York City, and functions as a way for college athletics to funnel money to people outside athletic departments — in this way, it's much like any of many superfluous bowl games between 7-5 and 6-6 teams.
But those games, usually net losses for athletic departments, at least make money for someone — usually ESPN, which operates and televises most of them — through advertising, because even the least-watched bowl game draws at least a million sets of eyeballs, and they're part of an economy that demands teams produce games to sell to advertisers.
In college basketball, far fewer programs make money, and those that do make less. The revenue stream for the sport is the NCAA Tournament, period, and teams typically get shares of a conference's distribution of that pie. Every other postseason tournament is, relatively, a crumb: Who's watching CBS Sports Network telecasts of a CBI final between Mercer and Radford? What could possibly be the revenue distribution from that?
And finally, if the powers that be are ever going to get college athletes fairly compensated with wages for their labor, like workers in the rest of society, they're going to need to trim the fat — like the CBI. I'm sure The Gazelle Group is run by fine, kind-hearted people, but it simply doesn't need to make its money this way.
And if Florida turning down the CBI now helps us proceed toward that future in any small way, I'm all for it.