The National Invitation Tournament is a college basketball tournament. It has a storied history dating back to 1938, one year before the NCAA Tournament began. Only the NAIA Tournament is older. For many years, the NIT was considered the most prestigious tournament in the country. In those days of Jim Crow, it was an integrated tournament played in legendary Madison Square Garden in New York. Only the best of the best were invited to the NIT.
In the early 1950’s, the NIT lost much of its luster because of a point-shaving scandal. City College of New York, Long Island University and others were implicated. One such school was my beloved University of Kentucky. We’re the only ones who rose from the ashes, although we had the distinction of receiving the NCAA Death Penalty by having the 1952-53 season cancelled. We UK fans like to point out that we were undefeated the next season and had the audacity to turn down an NCAA invitation. (That’s not as brassy as it sounds. Most of our best players were ineligible for post-season play. Adolph Rupp was no fool).(As unrelated aside, it should be noted that UK played in integrated tournaments well before most teams in the South would do so. The next time you hear the story of Mississippi State playing in the NCAA Tournament in 1963, remember that Kentucky had been doing that for 20 years.)
Although the NCAA Tournament became more prominent, the NIT remained significant. The NIT was still prestigious enough that Marquette turned down an NCAA bid in the late ’60’s to play in (and win) the NIT. Over time, the NCAA Tourney has expanded to 68 teams, making the NIT little more than a glorified intramural tournament. Its glory days, sadly, are long gone.
Today, being invited to the NIT means you suck. You stink. You’re not worthy of making the NCAA Tournament. You don’t even get the play-in games. You’re not one of the 68 best teams in the country. Your program is in shambles. You don’t belong on the Big Stage. The Big Dance goes on without you. It’s the Little Dance for you and your fellow club foots.
Such is the fate now of my University of Kentucky Wildcats. Lest you forget, we won the NCAA Tournament just last year. (If you’re counting, that’s EIGHT titles, my friend). We’ve been in this position before. We won the NCAA Tournament in 1978, only to be relegated to the NIT the next year. We lost in the first round to Clemson, and at home, no less. I would point out, though, that we were playing without Dwight Anderson, arguably our best player that year. That loss deserves an asterisk, as do almost all losses in the history of our program.
Nowadays, folks call it the “Not Invited Tournament” or the “Not Important Tournament.” It has fallen into such disfavor that some schools have even turned down invitations. We won’t do that at Kentucky. Our fans want to see games–any time, anywhere, against any opponent.
We’re no strangers to NIT glory, mind you. We’ve won the NIT, twice–1946 and 1976. Both titles portended bigger and better things.
The 1946 NIT Championship was followed by NCAA Titles in 1948, 1949 and 1951. Our 1976 NIT Title was followed by an NCAA Title in 1978. See a pattern?
The 1976 NIT was similar to this year. The previous season, we lost the NCAA title game to UCLA. Graduation took many of our best players. We started the 1975-76 season 10 and 10 and lost of one of our best players, Rick Robey, to injury. Joe B. Hall, successor to Adolph Rupp, was our coach, and the annual cries for his head began. Those were dark days in the Big Blue Nation.
Coach Hall was always at his best when things were bleakest. The Cats won their last 10 games, including the NIT, beating the University of North Carolina-Charlotte in the title game. Center Mike Phillips became a beast during that run. All Cat fans know the names of Mike Phillips, Jack Givens, Jay Shidler, Truman Claytor, Marion Haskins, Dwayne Casey and James Lee. Two years later, we had NCAA title number 5! It is always darkest before the dawn.
Even today, the NIT isn’t the worst thing that can happen. There is also something called the College Basketball Invitational. It’s for 16 teams that don’t make either the NCAA or NIT. It isn’t to be confused with its competitor, the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament, which has 32 more unworthy teams. So, if you don’t make the NCAA Tournament, you have 80 more post-season slots available. Including the NCAA, there are 148 chances to play in the post-season. There about 400 NCAA Division I basketball teams. You could be one of the 250 or so super-sucky teams which can’t play anywhere!
We UK fans want to be enthusiastic about the NIT, but it’s tough. We view the NCAA Tournament as our birth right. Any UK fan knows the significance of the years 1948, 1949, 1951, 1958, 1978, 1996, 1998 and 2012. To exclude us from the Big Dance after a 20 win season is sacrilege. We know it’s because of jealously or even downright hatred. That’s okay, because we hate the NCAA and its member institutions even more than they hate us.
UK needs to put an indelible stamp on the NIT. I have a few simple suggestions to turn the NIT into the tournament, at least for one year:
- Unilaterally declare that former UK center Mike Phillips is the “Greatest Living Player” in the history of the NIT and insist that he be introduced as such before each game. Maybe he can wear some kind of crown.
- Have both our NIT Championship trophies sitting beside the bench.
- Coach John Calipari will repeatedly refer to the NCAA Tournament as the “suck ass” tournament.
- Have Honey Boo Boo and her Mom be cheerleaders.
- Adopted cool team nickname of “69ers” in honor of being the 69th best team in the country.
- In a tip of the hat to tradition, shave points.
- UK President Eli Capilouto will profanely condemn the NCAA for not allowing UK to play in both tournaments.
- Brashly challenge the CIT and CBI tourney champs to a “Loser Leaves Town” playoff.
- Hire an Amish assistant coach.
- Run the Jody Arias trial on the Jumbo Tron
- Bring entire UK team to NCAA Championship Game and loudly berate participants for not playing in Madison Square Garden.
- In each post-game interview, coach UK players to work in references to Roy Williams as a “mincing cry baby” and Mike Krzyzewski as a “rat-faced bastard.”
- If we lose, crack opposing coach over the head with 2012 NCAA Championship Trophy
These are but a few ideas. As fans, there are many things we can do to help, too. For example, we have a tradition of burning couches in the streets after big NCAA wins. In keeping with that, perhaps we can burn ottomans or occasional tables after each NIT win. We can wear confusingly arrogant T-Shirts that say things like “YOU CAN’T SPELL NORTH CAROLINA WITHOUT ‘NCAA.'” Most of all, let’s say we’d rather win the NIT than lose the NCAA Tournament, even though we probably would have won that, too.
So, take heart, Big Blue Nation. All is not lost. There are many positives:
- Our first round game at Robert Morris University will be the biggest event ever in Moon Township, Pennsylvania where, by the way, Coach Cal went to high school.
- We trail St. John’s in NIT titles–6 to 2. Another title cuts that in half.
- An NIT title gives us 11 combined NCAA/NIT titles, only one behind UCLA.
- We will pad our all time wins record.
- Rupp Arena hosts the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament. Imagine the embarrassment to that haughty exhibition when rounds 2 and 3 of the NIT outdraw it.
- We’ll proudly hang our NIT banner, adding to the already-cluttered rafters of Rupp Arena.
Remember, too, that UK fans are also known for our almost unbearable arrogance. An NIT championship would the perfect chance to take this seeming character flaw to new heights. Let us all rationalize that we got on a roll in the postseason and would, in fact, have won the NCAA Tournament were it not for the petty jealousies that kept us on the sidelines. If we lose, we will simply dismiss the NIT as beneath us and unworthy of our time, anyway. How could we possibly be motivated for it? The NIT Trophy is little more than a door stop, and the banner wouldn’t be fit to be a floor mat in our opulent locker room.
After all, it’s just the NIT, for God’s sake–unless we win it.