When The Nit Mattered

From 1938 until the NCAA took over, the event at the Garden ruled postseason

March 16, 2005|By Mike Klingaman and Bill Free | Mike Klingaman and Bill Free,SUN STAFF

Face it: Basketball fans ignore the National Invitation Tournament until their team is in it. It's an of-little-consolation prize to those who had their sights set on the NCAA tournament.

The NIT is a showcase for the underachievers, the overmatched, the teams that pooped out down the stretch.

Welcome, Maryland -- to March Sadness.

"The NIT is the Peach Bowl of college basketball," said sports historian Steve Gietschier. "The teams [involved] are not going to win a national championship, get national recognition or earn a great deal of money.

"What they do get is a chance to keep playing and to get ready for next year."

Step up, Terps, to the NIT -- the Nobody's Important Tournament.

It wasn't always so.

Once, colleges begged entry into the NIT, which, from its start in 1938, dropped anchor in New York. Fans flocked to Madison Square Garden to see the first six-team event and the finale in which Temple toppled Colorado and its two-sport star, future Supreme Court Justice Byron "Whizzer" White.

"It was a big deal to play in the Garden in the 1940s and 1950s for prestige, [news] coverage and recruiting opportunities," said Charles Martin, a history professor and basketball historian at University of Texas-El Paso.

Few gave a hoot about the NCAA tournament, which began in 1939 with eight teams and staged its first championship in a cramped, old gymnasium on the campus of Northwestern University. The tournament lost $2,531.

"They might have had 2,500 [paid attendance] in what looked like a high school gym," said Murry Nelson, a Penn State professor who has written several books on basketball history. "The NCAA championship was just not a big deal."

For 20 years the NIT thrived, fueled by exposure from the New York media and the draw of college stars like George Mikan (DePaul), "Easy" Ed Macauley (Saint Louis) and Alex Groza (Kentucky).

Early on, most college teams had to pin their hopes on the NIT. Until the 1970s, only league champions and selected independents were invited to the NCAA tournament, leaving a rich vein of conference runners-up and independents ripe for the taking.

"In the 1950s and 1960s, the NIT was often a showcase for great teams from small Catholic schools like Marquette, Bradley, Dayton, Providence and St. John's," said Gietschier, managing editor for research at The Sporting News. "Those teams did well."

Times were changing. In 1951, a point-shaving scandal mostly involving New York schools and gamblers sullied the game's reputation.

"That scandal took the luster off the NIT more than it did the NCAA," Gietschier said. "Colleges began looking at New York -- and the Garden -- as a corrupt environment. It was the sterotypical fear of country boys going to the big city and getting fleeced."

Sensing an opening, the NCAA moved quickly, expanding its playoff field in 1952 to 22 teams -- nearly double that of the NIT.

The elder tournament gave ground grudgingly.

"The tipping point came around 1960. Until then, the NIT was a better challenge with a bigger fan base," Nelson said. "After that, it didn't have the cachet of its competition."

Still, the NIT had some oomph left. Cinderella Southern Illinois ran the table in 1967, sweeping guard Walt Frazier to stardom in New York and making him a lock as the Knicks' first-round selection in the NBA draft.

The NIT's last hurrah came in 1970, when eighth-ranked Marquette snubbed the NCAA for the NIT. Upset with his team's NCAA seeding, Marquette coach Al McGuire packed it off instead to New York, where he had family and recruiting ties.

"It was a bold move because if Marquette had lost, McGuire would have looked pretty stupid," said Martin, the UTEP historian.

Marquette won. A year later, the NCAA tightened the noose, passing legislation known as the "McGuire rule." Now, if a school receives an NCAA bid, it can't turn it down to participate in another tournament.

By 1974, the NIT had lost nearly all of its glow. Maryland, coming off a devastating 103-100 loss in overtime to North Carolina State in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship -- a game often referred to as the greatest in college history -- declined a bid to play there. Two years earlier, the Terps had won the NIT.

"The kids just voted real quick," recalled Dave Pritchett, then a Maryland assistant. "We were whipped. We had had a great year, and Coach [Lefty Driesell] felt he had gotten everything possible out of that team.

"We had nothing to prove. [Many of the same players] had already won the NIT."

In response to Maryland's exclusion, the NCAA jumped to a 32-team field in 1975. Five more increases over the next decade brought the field to 64. Each spurt sent the NIT scrambling deeper into the pool to fill its draw.

The NIT fought back, reinventing itself in 1977. All early-round games were moved from Madison Square Garden to campus sites. Result: A record crowd of 23,522 saw Clemson defeat Kentucky in overtime in 1979 at Rupp Arena.

The NIT semifinals and championship are still played in New York.

Despite the downward spiral in NIT history, Maryland and others still find value in playing.

"It's a good recruiting tool for coaches to say, `We're in a post-season tournament every year,' " Nelson said.

Teams such as the Terrapins have another incentive, Gietschier said:

"This is a chance for them to prove the NCAA selectors were wrong."

Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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