“It’s bittersweet,” said Dan Gavitt, the NCAA’s senior vice president of basketball, who runs the NCAA tournament and the NIT. “There’s obviously a lot of tradition connected to the NIT and New York. But this was a mutual decision that had been coming for a while.”
Not surprisingly, the bottom line for the NCAA and the Garden was the bottom line. The Garden is as expensive of a rental as there is in sports: about $350,000 per night. Gavitt insisted it is possible the NIT could return to New York in the future, but it would be foolish to bet on that happening.
A message for Joel Fisher, the MSG executive vice president, went unreturned. Instead, a spokesperson sent along a silly statement from Fisher claiming the Garden loved the NIT.
At the start of the semifinals Tuesday night, ESPN referenced the Garden’s nickname as the “mecca” of college basketball, and play-by-play man John Schriffen commented on the great crowd in the building as the camera showed a very tight shot of some St. Bonaventure fans.
The announced attendance was 8,506. That doesn’t come close to covering expenses for the NCAA, and the MSG bean-counters clearly believe they can use the dates to schedule events that will draw better.
Gavitt said Tuesday there are about a dozen arenas interested in bidding on the NIT. Two of them are Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis and the Palestra in Philadelphia.
The NIT — which started with six teams before gradually expanding to 16 beginning in 1968 — was played entirely in the Garden until 1975. As a kid, I went to almost every game, every year, starting with the final-day doubleheader on a Saturday in 1965. Army beat NYU in the consolation game, which began at 11 a.m. St. John’s then beat Villanova in the championship game.
Army Coach Tates Locke left the job and eventually became the coach at Miami of Ohio. He was replaced by his only assistant — Bob Knight. The championship game was the last game ever coached by Joe Lapchick, the longtime St. John’s coach. He was also replaced by his one assistant: Lou Carnesecca. Knight, Lapchick and Carnesecca are in the Hall of Fame.
Fourteen years later, when his Indiana team won the NIT — three years after it had gone undefeated and won the national title — Knight called it “as great a thrill as I’ve had in basketball.” He insisted that Lapchick’s widow accept the championship trophy with him.
For many years, the NIT was seen as at least the equal of the NCAA tournament. CCNY (my father’s alma mater) won both tournaments in 1950, when both were played in the Garden. The NCAA then passed a rule prohibiting teams from playing in both events.
As late as 1970, teams passed up the NCAAs to play in the NIT. Knight’s 1968 Army team was invited to the NCAA tournament but went to the NIT instead because Knight believed his team couldn’t possibly beat UCLA. In 1970, Marquette, ranked eighth in the country, made the same choice. Marquette Coach Al McGuire thought his team belonged in the NCAA’s Mideast Region, but when the then-Warriors were sent to the Midwest, he opted for the NIT, allowing his star player, Dean Meminger, to return home. Marquette won the title, and Meminger was voted the tournament MVP.
A year earlier, a Knight-coached Army team stunned South Carolina in the quarterfinals when team captain Mike Krzyzewski held Gamecocks all-American John Roche to 11 points. Late in the game, when Frank McGuire was forced to come out of his zone defense, he asked Bobby Cremins if he knew whom he was guarding in man-to-man. “Yeah, Coach,” Cremins said. “I got the kid with the big nose whose name I can’t pronounce.”
After the Marquette turndown, the NCAA — surprise — passed a rule forbidding member schools from playing in other tournaments if they declined NCAA bids. That same year Duke and North Carolina met in a postseason tournament for the first time — in the NIT semifinals, 51 years before their first NCAA tournament meeting Saturday night. UNC won that game and went on to win the tournament.
It was the expansion of the NCAA tournament, beginning in 1975, that led to the decline of the NIT. When the NCAA was still a 25-team tournament and only one team per conference could be invited, the NIT still attracted a high-quality field — and excellent attendance. But as the NCAA continued to expand from 32 teams to 64 and then 68, the quality of the NIT field diminished, and so did its prestige.
It became known in the power conferences as the “Not Invited Tournament,” and fans at conference tournaments took to mockingly chanting “NIT!” at teams that clearly weren’t going to get an NCAA bid.
Dave Odom, who coached three NIT champions in seven years at Wake Forest (2000) and South Carolina (2005 and 2006), said after one title, “I’m not sure if that’s a plus on my résumé or a black mark.”
He was joking. Well, half-joking.
The NIT tried desperately to remain relevant as the NCAA grew in power. It moved all pre-semifinal games out of New York to home courts beginning in 1977; expanded to 32 teams (with more potential revenue) in 1980; and, briefly, grew to 40 teams. Unfortunately, instead of focusing on inviting more mid-major teams that would have been thrilled to play, it invited second-division teams from power conference schools because that was what TV partner ESPN wanted.
And so, in 1988, Connecticut, which had finished at the bottom of the Big East with a 4-12 conference record, was the NIT champion. Frequently, teams that were well under .500 in conference play were invited and went — often kicking and screaming — to play, at least briefly.
Trying to keep the NIT alive, the Metropolitan Intercollegiate Basketball Association filed an antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA in 2001 because of its rule forbidding member schools from opting not to play in the NCAAs. By then, there was no way a school would do that, but in 2005 the NCAA opted to settle and then bought the NIT.
Two years ago, the tournament was canceled by the pandemic, and last year it was played entirely in the Dallas area, with only 16 teams. The two-year absence apparently allowed the Garden to convince the NCAA to end the tradition. Over the past decade, the NCAA has regularly used the Garden as a tournament site — a much more profitable venture for both sides.
Sadly, that’s what this is all about. Tradition? History? Those have been fading into the sunset for years. After Thursday night, all that will remain of the NIT in New York is its legacy.