When the University of Minnesota men’s basketball team beat Southern Mississippi Tuesday night, March 25, 2014, few fans in Williams Arena pressed the app to reserve tickets for the National Invitation Tournament in New York City, April 1-3, 2014. Dismissed by journalist Irv Moss as the three-letter acronym in collegiate basketball that is “far more cutting than any four-letter word,” the NIT is ridiculed as the “Not Invited Tournament," the "Never Important Tournament", and the "Nobody's Interested Tournament," among others.
Does the NIT deserve these epithets? As the second oldest national collegiate basketball tournament (one year after the National Association for Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) championship for smaller colleges in 1937), the NIT was considered “the most glamorous of the post-season tournaments and generally had the better teams” according to U.S. Senator and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame star Bill Bradley. Some of the collegiate and NBA Hall of Famers who won the NIT’s MVP award include:
- George Mikan
- Ed Macauley
- Tom Gola
- Lenny Wilkens
- Walt Frazier
- Dean Meminger
- Butch Carter
- Reggie Miller
- Ralph Sampson
Only when the NCAA tournament eliminated its one-team-per-conference rule in 1975 did the quality of the NIT field suffer.
Recent winners and runners-up in the NIT, however, have achieved subsequent NCAA tournament success. Three starters on Baylor University’s NCAA Sweet 16 team, Isaiah Austin, Corey Jefferson, and Brady Heslip, were starters on its 2013 NIT champion as was tournament MVP Pierre Jackson. 2012 NIT MVP Aaron Bright is one of eight members on Stanford University’s current NCAA Sweet 16 team. Two heavyweights of the 2014 NCAA tournament, Wichita State and Dayton, were NIT champions in 2011 and 2010, respectively.
Like Great Britain’s professional soccer leagues, American collegiate basketball appears to have developed a de facto hierarchy where three or four teams “on the bubble” for the NCAA tournament one year are supplanted by NIT finalists the next. Whether these “bubble programs” reach the next level or continue to tread water is a function of the commitment of the players, athletic department, and fan base at each institution. Exposure in the NIT tournament, however, can serve as a springboard for recruiting quality athletes to compete for higher honors, including the NCAA championship.
Tuesday night, only one player, Joey King, was native to Minnesota. Another came from Latvia, the rest of the squad from around the country. This globalism in college recruiting reflects the changes in American athletics and society in general. With the National Labor Relations Board granting Northwestern University football players the right to unionize, college basketball and intercollegiate athletics can expect more of what ESPN terms “potentially game-changing moment[s]” in the future. For the University of Minnesota and the NIT's other finalists, playing in this year's tournament seems more than an exercise in nostalgia now, doesn't it?