NIT: Consolation tourney in basketball mecca

Once upon a time, the NIT ruled

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It’s safe to say this year’s NIT Final Four of Baylor, BYU, Iowa and Maryland won’t make everyone in Manhattan stop and bow in the direction of Madison Square Garden.

The world’s most famous arena, as it calls itself, will host performances in April alone by Fleetwood Mac, Alicia Keys, Eric Clapton, and the NBA’s Knicks. The hockey Rangers will play the mighty Pittsburgh Penguins on the nights between next week’s two NIT sessions.

So an Iowa-Maryland game next Tuesday night won’t exactly cause buzz at the round arena called “Madison Square.” But so what? Not everything is Broadway.

Getting this far in the NIT is a big deal for Iowa, at least this season. The experience of getting this deep into a postseason tournament can only help next year when the Hawkeyes push toward the tournament that matters, the NCAA.

Plus, the experience of playing in bright lights, big city, can’t hurt.

There was a time, though, when the NIT was college basketball’s show. It seems impossible now, but it actually was more prestigious than the NCAA tourney. It predates the NCAA by a year, in fact.

The NCAA used to be a very limited tourney, with just eight teams. Some excellent conference runners-up and independents were excluded, or simply preferred to play in the NIT. The entire NIT was held in New York back then, and the national media focus was more on that tourney than an NCAA Final Four in Seattle or Kansas City.

As late as 1970, Al McGuire chose an NIT berth over his Marquette team going as an at-large team to Fort Worth, Texas. It was controversial, to say the least. McGuire felt his team should have been kept in the Midwest, so he instead shipped it East to where his old home turf in New York.

Marquette won four games in the Garden to capture that tourney title. That NIT also featured LSU and Pistol Pete Maravich. It had local favorite St. John’s, and Louisville, and Georgetown, and Cincinnati, and Duke. It was something.

The following year, the NCAA passed legislation that its members had to attend its tourney if invited. Then the NCAA started expanding its field. When Iowa was in those 1970 NCAAs that Marquette skipped, it was still only a 24-team field. As the NCAAs kept expanding, the NIT obviously got progressively watered down and interest waned.

The 75-year-old tourney has never been the same, but it somehow survived. It’s been a somewhat-better tournament since the NCAA bought it in 2005 to settle an antitrust lawsuit. Plus, ESPN loves the programming the NIT provides it.

But, you’re still looking at an NIT Final Four with just one of the four teams (BYU’s 10-6 in the West Coast Conference) that was above .500 in league play.

This is Iowa’s first advancement to the NIT semis, but the Big Ten has been represented in 15 title-games since 1974, including the 1979 Indiana-Purdue final. Michigan won it three times. Ohio State was the champ in 2008, Penn State in 2009.

This isn’t the big basketball prize or anything close. Virtually no one other than fans of the participants pay attention to it.

But it’s a chance to hoist a championship trophy on ESPN, in the Garden. It’s may not be a New York strip, but it ain’t chopped liver.


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