College basketball has a vibe and passion that can’t be felt in professional leagues. That is why it brings in droves of viewers year after year. In fact, the statistics indicate that, on average, around 10.7 million viewers tune in to every NCAA Tournament game from 2013 to 2022.
From a business and fun standpoint, college basketball has such a massive fanbase that it makes perfect sense to draw out as many games as possible from these teams.
You probably feel the same as a college basketball fan; that is why the NIT exists. What is the NIT, and what is its significance in college basketball?
Only 68 teams join in the national fun during March Madness. What happens to the squads who fall short? They’ll join the NIT or the National Invitation Tournament. It was created in 1938, a year before the first March Madness was conceived. Even though March Madness is the pinnacle of college basketball today, the NIT was considered the more prestigious tourney.
The Metropolitan Basketball Writers Association founded the NIT. It started as a six-team field, expanded to eight in 1941, to 32 teams in the current format. (The 2021 Tournament was cut to 16 teams due to the Covid pandemic.) The NIT offered more advantages over the NCAA Tournament, at least during the early years.
The former had more media coverage since it was held in New York and allowed more teams in the fold. The latter was limited to only eight teams per region, potentially leaving out the better teams and compelling rivalries.
The NCAA knew they had to change something, and they did. The league ditched the boring “one team per conference” rule and began expanding the field. By the 60s, March Madness involved 25 schools, 48 in 1980 to 64 in 1985. In 2011, the NCAA tournament settled with the current 68-team format and hasn’t looked back. As soon as the NCAA increased the participating school teams, it was the beginning of the end for the NIT, as far as its position as the premier college basketball tournament.
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NCAA Reins in the NIT
By 2005, the NCAA took over the reins in operating the NIT as a part of an antitrust lawsuit settlement. Since the NCAA already had the March Madness spectacle, the NIT became a postseason consolation tournament for the teams who didn’t make it to The Big Dance.
But does that make it any less important? From an outside perspective, it may be pointless. But to basketball lovers, schools, players, and their families, extending the college season for a few more games means everything.
When is the NIT Tournament Played?
The National Invitation Tournament is often played in mid to late March. For tournaments that begin a little later, they may end up spilling into early April. For example, the 2022 NIT tournament was held on March 15-31, while the NIT tournament in 2021 was from March 17 to March 28.
The first three rounds of the tournament– Rounds of 32, 16, and 8– are played on school campuses. After the initial rounds, the semifinal (the equivalent of the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament) and the final are played at the Mecca of Basketball, Madison Square Garden.
However, the NCAA has already announced that the NIT semifinal and final games in 2023 and 2024 will commence outside New York. Orleans Arena in Las Vegas will host these games in 2023, while it will be Indianapolis’ turn in 2024.
The National Invitation Tournament has three phases in its selection procedure. These include:
- The selection of 32 teams,
- The seeding of said teams, and
- The placing of the teams into a bracket.
The process is easier said than done; that is why it has undergone improvements over the years. In the past, the NIT confers with ESPN, which holds the airing rights of the NIT tournament. The network’s job is to identify the big TV market schools, those teams with respectable attendance at their homecourt games.
The number of fans willing to attend each game was factored into seeding and homecourt advantage. To retain some level of quality, a regulation was introduced requiring teams to have an overall record of .500 or better to qualify for the NIT.
That all changed in 2017. The invited teams did not need to have their records near .500. Taking a page from the NCAA Tournament’s playbook, all regular-season conference champions that did not make it to the Big Dance earn guaranteed spots for the NIT. The other slots are for at-large bids.
On top of that, ESPN no longer has input in the process. Instead, the NCAA formed a committee of former NCAA head coaches to lead the selection method. These changes are implemented to ensure that the product is a “true basketball event” and not just another means to drive revenue.
Seeding and Playing locations
Once the committee of head coaches determines the 32 participating teams, the next step is to work the seedings out. Each member of the committee lists their unordered top 8 teams. Using a scoring system, the top four teams from these ballots “advance” to the master seed list while the other four move on to the next ballot. This process is repeated until all teams have been placed on the seed list.
When the 32 teams are complete, the next step is to put them into brackets. The committee slots teams into one of four brackets depending on the region. However, if there are two top-seeded teams from the same conference, they are automatically assigned to different brackets. This may result in slight changes in seedings.
The playing locations of the NIT are slightly different than the March Madness. Higher-seeded teams host nearly every game on campus, which often results in more excellent spectator experiences than some NCAA Tournament events. The semifinal and final games are held at the Madison Square Golden, although the NCAA has already announced that that will no longer be the case in 2023 and 2024.
Orleans Arena in Las Vegas will host these games in 2023, while Butler University’s Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis’ will welcome the event in 2024.
How the NIT Tournament Shaped the NCAA Tourney
Past Winners and Notable Teams
Since 2004, these are the past champions of the NIT:
2020: (Suspended because of Covid)
2018: Penn State
2016: George Washington
2011: Wichita State
2009: Penn State
2008: Ohio State
2007: West Virginia
2006: South Carolina
2005: South Carolina
Although they haven’t won since 1989, St. John’s had the most NIT championships, with five. They are followed by Bradley (last NIT championship in 1982), Dayton (three), and Stanford (three).
Tournament MVPs Who Became NBA Players
When the NCAA Tournament established itself as the premier college basketball event, the NIT undeservedly got stuck with the reputation as a “loser’s tournament.” Even so, several professional-caliber players made the NIT their stomping grounds. Here are the NIT tournament MVPs who went on to play in the NBA:
- Ron Lee, Oregon (1975)
- Cedric Maxwell, UNC Charlotte (1976)
- Ray Tolbert, Indiana (1979)
- Ralph Sampson, Virginia (1980)
- Mitchell Anderson, Bradley (1982)
- Ron Anderson, Fresno State (1983)
- Tim McCormick, Michigan (1984)
- Reggie Miller, UCLA (1985)
- Brad Sellers, Ohio State (1986)
- Randolph Keys, Southern Miss (1987)
- Jayson Williams, St. John’s (1989)
- Adam Keefe, Stanford (1991)
- Bryant Stith, Virginia (1992)
- Voshon Leonard, Minnesota (1993)
- Erick Strickland, Nebraska (1996)
- Dajuan Wagner, Memphis (2002)
- Renaldo Balkman, South Carolina (2006)
- Kosta Koufos, Ohio State (2008)
- Chasson Randle, Stanford (2014)
- Kenrich Williams, TCU (2017)
- Lamar Stevens, Penn State (2018)
See Basketball Court Dimensions.
Women’s NIT Basketball Tournament
The Women’s National Invitation Tournament (WNIT) operates similarly to the men’s college NIT. They have a preseason (began in 1994) and postseason tournament (started in 1998), much like the NIT and NIT Season Tip-off. The postseason tournament has expanded to 64 teams, while the preseason tournament has primarily remained a 16-team field with a few exceptions.
The most significant difference between the WNIT and the NIT is that the former has nothing to do with the NCAA. It was founded as an independent tournament by Triple Crown Sports and has remained that way.
The NCAA was reportedly planning to host a similar women’s invitational tournament. It will mirror the current NIT format of 32 participating teams. The project, however, appears to still be in the development stages.
Here are some frequently asked questions about the NIT Tournament.
Q: What’s the point of having an NIT tournament?
A: The reputation of the NIT as the loser’s tournament and the “battle for the 69th best team” is unfair. College basketball does not only revolve around big names such as Duke or Kentucky. For programs that don’t make it past their conferences, the NIT is a chance to be in the spotlight and for their athletes to be noticed by professional scouts.
Q: How does the NIT work?
A: The NIT comprises 32 teams that didn’t make it to the NCAA Tournament or the March Madness. The 32 squads are slotted into four regions and seeded from No. 1 to 8. The format pits the lower seeds against the higher seeds in a single-elimination round. The fifth and final round features two teams that fight for the NIT championship. The championship game is typically played at Madison Square Garden unless announced otherwise.
Q: What do NIT champs get?
A: NIT champions get a trophy, but the main thing is ending the season on a high note. Statistically, the NIT champ has a slightly better chance of making the NCAA Tournament the following year.
Q: Why do some teams vacate the NIT championship?
A: It’s because of violations on their part. Some teams may have played ineligible players or have committed academic fraud. In the NIT’s eight-decade history, only three teams have vacated the title for these reasons.
NIT Tourney Insider
Q: Do teams reject NIT bids?
A: Some do, but that rarely happens. Traditional powers who fell short of entering the Big Dance are likely to decline, such as Louisville and Duke, back in 2021. However, most teams opt to continue playing.
Q: How did the NCAA Tournament overshadow the NIT’s prestige?
A: The NIT was once considered the most prestigious college basketball tournament. That changed when the NCAA managed to overtake its rival by doing a series of shrewd moves. The beginning of the end was when the NCAA decided to expand the participating teams from 8 to 16.
As it represented an expanding number of institution athletic departments, the college association grew in power. This allowed the NCAA to impose harsher rules on its players and independents. By the time the 60s rolled, the NCAA had outmaneuvered its opponent for the first crack on invites. The NIT couldn’t do anything. Teams who failed to comply with the agreements and chose the NIT risked being sanctioned or penalized by the NCAA.
David Thompson, Michael Jordan’s first basketball inspiration, famously called the NIT a “loser’s tournament in 1975. Thompson refused to play in the NIT after North Carolina State failed to win a bid for the NCAA tournament. The label stuck through the years and caused even more stigma for the NIT. After a long struggle in the legal and basketball courts, the NCAA took over the NIT for good in 2005.
While there is some ring of truth to the reputation of the NIT, it is still a significant college basketball organization for many reasons.
For one, the NCAA wouldn’t have become the juggernaut it is today if not for the NIT. On top of that, it also gives mediocre basketball programs a chance to be in the limelight. The tournament allows the players of these schools to be in the national eye and get checked out by NBA scouts. The traditional college powers may view the NIT as a consolation tournament, but there is nothing to be sorry about in playing the game you love.
By Jan Rey
Jan is a sucker for all things basketball and still yells, “Kobe!” every time he tosses a crumpled paper into a trash bin.
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