One more game?

Three days after playing the biggest game in the history of the basketball program another big game may be looming on the horizon.

Tuesday’s night’s frustrating 71-61 loss to Weber St. in the Big Sky Conference Tournament semifinals ended the Vikings’ chances of earning the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament but it did not necessarily end their season. Athletic Director Tom Burman and head coach Heath Schroyer are optimistic that the team’s regular season championship and 19-9 record will earn PSU an invitation to the lower-profile National Invitation Tournament (NIT) and a possible match up with Oregon or Oregon State.

"We’re definitely on their radar," Burman said of the NIT. "Being a conference champion helps our cause and an in-state game could make it work financially."

The NIT field of 40 teams will not be announced until Sunday evening after the NCAA tournament selections are revealed on television.

While not as well known or prestigious as the NCAA tournament, the NIT has become an appealing option for teams not selected for the NCAA tournament. Started in 1938 as a six-team tournament played at Madison Square Garden, the NIT was the choice postseason tournament throughout the 1940s and ’50s. Since the NIT was scheduled before the NCAA tournament, top teams could play in both and both tournaments thrived. A 1970 NCAA ruling prohibiting teams that accepted bids to the NCAA tournament from other postseason play kept away the nation’s top teams and led to dwindling attendance.

A 1977 decision to play the first four rounds on the campuses of participating schools boosted attendance and saved the tournament from extinction. Twenty-eight years later, the tournament has expanded to 40 teams and 15 games are nationally televised on ESPN.

Unlike the NCAA tournament where invitations are based solely on merit and automatic bids, NIT tournament invites are based more on profitability. All teams with a winning record are eligible, allowing tournament selectors to choose teams they know will draw well instead of teams with better records or statistical indicators. While this would seem to hurt Portland State’s chances, reasons for optimism abound.

Most notably, the relative struggles and success of the Ducks and the Beavers have created two in-state options for opponents. The Ducks had a disappointing season but finished above .500 and have a solid reputation with the NIT, having made it to the semifinals last year when they hosted two early round games. Likewise, 14 years of losing records have made the Beavers fan base hungry for any kind of postseason berth.

Whereas PSU would be lucky to match the 4,300 attendance from Tuesday’s game, both U of O and OSU could be counted on to sell out their arenas. Add in the low travel costs for a trip from Portland to Corvallis or Eugene and the result is a profitable game without a lot of hassle.

Winning the regular season championship should bolster PSU’s chances as well. When the NIT expanded to 40 teams in 2002 they did so with the idea that regular season champions who lost their conference tournaments would be given bids according to Big Sky Conference Commissioner Doug Fullerton. "It’s not an agreement they have to follow, but they’ve been doing it the last few years," he said. As evidence, in 2002, a 12-2 Montana State team won the conference but lost in the tournament and they received an NIT bid and won their first game. At 11-3 PSU would seem to follow in Montana State’s footsteps but Fullerton was cautious.

"Unfortunately, with Portland State’s RPI [Ratings Percentage Index] falling outside the top 150 [159] they could go the other way," Fullerton said, noting that the team with the lowest RPI in last year’s tournament was ranked 110th.

RPI is a method for factoring strength of schedule into a team’s record and is used by tournament selectors, coaches and media to better judge that team’s relative merit. Instead of seeing PSU as a 19-9 team, the RPI sees a 17-9 team (victories over non-D1 opponents don’t count) that played the seventh easiest schedule in the country and won the regular season championship in the second-weakest conference in the country.

By virtue of their playing in the RPI-respected Pac-10 and Oregon’s difficult schedule, Oregon is currently 82nd and Oregon State 118th.

Burman is aware of the RPI problem but hasn’t let it hinder his pursuit of a chance to dull the pain from Tuesday’s unexpected defeat with another game. He has been in daily contact with NIT officials and is working with the Big Sky to do everything possible, knowing an NIT bid could earn in-state bragging rights from one (or both) of the better known universities PSU battles for recognition and coverage.

"I do believe that we will be in," said Schroyer of the NIT. "It’s not the NCAA tournament but it’s a huge step for this program."