The Demise of the NIT
The “top 68 teams” are in the NCAA Tournament, and the last teams left out always whine about their exclusion, and will play in the NIT. Each year with the announcement of the NCAA tournament teams, I tell our daughter Carolyn, a college basketball fanatic, the same story about the NIT and how exciting it used to be. I also tell her what a shell of its former self it has become. Truth is, I silently wish the NIT (the post-season version) would quietly fade away, because its continued existence is a painful reminder of a great event that’s now a college basketball afterthought. It has become the “Not Invited Tournament” of weak teams battling for the title of 69th best team in the country. Fans now derisively chant “N-I-T” to opposing bubble teams, an insult of the highest magnitude.
But imagine a 16-team basketball tournament played in New York at Madison Square Garden with the second or third place teams of all the power conferences. Sounds like a “super elite” tournament. What a great tournament that would be. Before the expansion of the NCAA tournament back in the ’70s, all of these “non-conference champions” (which are all playing in this year’s NCAA tournament) would have been invited to the NIT because as non-conference champions under the old NCAA tournament rules, none of these teams would have qualified for the NCAA tournament.
As background, the NIT started in 1938 and it pre-dates the NCAA Tournament. The tournament flourished in the 50s, 60s and 70s but has declined into insignificance with the expansion of the NCAA Tournament. During the 50s through the 70s, the tournament invited 12 to 16 top teams, each one national champion caliber.
In the tournament’s early years, the NIT often drew some of the nation’s best collegiate basketball teams for several reasons. Playing in New York City provided tremendous media exposure for the team and players. Teams chose to play in the NIT rather than the NCAA tournament. In addition, the NCAA was originally a tournament of mostly conference winners. Thus, the NCAA tourney slots were limited as multiple teams from the same conferences were not allowed.
Interestingly early on several teams actually played in both tournaments in the same year. In 1944 and 1948, the NCAA tournament champions lost their first games in the NIT tournament. In 1950, CCNY won both the NIT and the NCAA tournaments in the same season. With the dominance of UCLA in the 60s and early 70s, the NCAA tournament had become the premier college tournament. The NCAA then began expanding the field to include more teams, and over time, the NIT more and more became the “consolation” tournament. The NCAA took over the management of the NIT in 2005, and no longer could a school choose to play in the NIT rather than the NCAA tournament, (which Marquette the 8th ranked team in the country chose to do as late as 1970).
Today for many programs playing in the NIT is not even a stepping stone for the following season. It’s merely a way for a school to earn a few additional dollars, play a few more games, and for the final 4 teams (only), provide a trip to New York.
I used to enjoy going to the NIT. I recall attending 1967 tournament as a teenager at the “new” Garden. Bobby Lloyd of Rutgers (subsequently my alma mater) set a tournament scoring record as Rutgers fell short of the finals, and I yet I wanted him to win the tourney MVP. Alas a player named Walt Frazier of Southern Illinois won the MVP much to the chagrin of many at the Garden (epilogue: the local fans liked him much better 3 years later when he scored 36 points with 19 assists for the Knicks in Game 7 of the NBA Championship).
So as the NIT resumes this week with a host of mediocre teams, I’ll remember booing Walt Frazier at the Garden in 1967 and how much fun it was going to see the NIT. Do any Strumings readers have a great NIT memory? Alas those under the age of 50 need not respond.