It used to be that the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) was the pinnacle of post-season college basketball. In the 1940’s and 50’s, the NIT outshone the NCAA tourney, largely because there was very little media coverage of college basketball and the NIT was played at the sports Mecca of America at that time, Madison Square Garden in New York City.
The NCAA had a far different selection process back then, choosing one team from each of 8 regions, which prevented some very good teams from competing and consequently, loading up the NIT with excellent competition. It was easily on par with the NCAA tourney well into the 1960’s. The John Wooden era at UCLA probably contributed more to the NIT’s decline than anything. But the tournament was still a big deal until the NCAA expanded to 32 teams in 1975, and all ranked teams were usually invited.
The NCAA took over the tournament in 2005 and it now serves as a way to promote college basketball, as all games are broadcast on ESPN networks. For some teams in smaller conferences, the NIT is an excellent reward for a winning season.
One big difference between the NIT and NCAA is that the top seeds get to play their games at home, rather in a regional venue. The NIT Final Four play their games in the Garden.
This year’s tournament features some NCAA tourney also-rans like SMU and Minnesota, in addition to a lot of schools from smaller conferences. It has become, for better or worse, a “Mid-Major” tournament. A short preview from SB Nation:
The 32-team tournament has long been derided as a consolation round for teams that missed out on the Big Dance, but there is still some hardware up for grabs and the top seeds get a few more home games. It’s also an opportunity for notable tourney snubs to prove the selection committee wrong.
The first slate of games features two No. 1 seeds. The St. John’s Red Storm host the Robert Morris Colonials. Robert Morris is hoping for a repeat of last year’s NIT, when the Colonials stunned Kentucky in the first round.
Dunk City is looking to make March magic again, but the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles have to do it in Tallahassee when they take on the top-seeded Florida State Seminoles. The Seminoles missed out on the dance after falling to Virginia in the ACC quarterfinals.
The Georgetown Hoyas will try to make the most of a disappointing season when they face the West Virginia Mountaineers, while the Green Bay Phoenix look to make up for their NCAA snub. The Minnesota Golden Gophers are another team that barely missed the cut, and get a No. 1 seed for their troubles. They play High Point in the first round.
The Missouri Tigers were once thought a lock to go dancing, but a late-season swoon sent them to a No. 2 seed in the NIT. They face the Davidson Wildcats. The final game of the day features the St. Mary’s Gaels, who missed a shot to make the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year. They will play the Utah Utes.
I guess if you’re a sports fanatic, the NIT will serve as a nice change of pace from the NCAA tourney. I know that every once and a while — especially in the early rounds — if an NCAA game is non-competitive, I’m likely to switch over to peek at the NIT games. But unless your alma mater is playing, there really is very little interest in the NIT.
Given it’s storied history, that’s a shame.