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About the NIT

The National Invitation Tournament; Once the Premier Event in College Hoops

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Seth Allen #4 of the Maryland Terrapins drives to the hoop against the Denver Pioneers during the second round of the NIT Basketball Tournament
G Fiume/Contributor/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images
Once upon a time, the NIT was the premier event on the college basketball calendar. Now, at it's best it's considered an undercard to March Madness. Here's a look at the National Invitation Tournament, past, present and future.

So what is the NIT, anyway?

NIT stands for National Invitation Tournament. It is a 32-team single-elimination tournament for Division I men's college basketball teams. It is held every March.

There is also a pre-season NIT -- which is now called the "Dick's Sporting Goods NIT Season Tip-Off" -- but when people refer to "The NIT," they're talking about the post-season version.

Why are there two tournaments? Isn't the NCAA enough?

The NIT was actually first... by a year. In 1938, some sportswriters organized the first NIT -- before that, the national champion in college hoops was determined by poll.

Six teams were invited to the first tournament, which like every one since was held at Madison Square Garden in New York. The first NIT champion was Temple, who defeated Colorado in the final game 60-36.

The first NCAA tournament was held the following year.

After the first two tournaments, stewardship of the NIT was taken over by five New York-area colleges: St. John's, Fordham, Wagner, Manhattan and NYU. OK, so they were first. But why keep having an NIT?: The first NCAA tournaments were very small and restricted to conference champions. Back in the 30s and 40s, that was even more limiting than it would be today, because a lot of teams -- including powerhouse programs of the time like DePaul and Marquette -- played as independents. As a result, the NIT usually had a better field than the NCAA.

Makes sense...

Also, at the time college basketball wasn't really a big deal in the sports landscape. Playing a tournament in New York, at Madison Square Garden, represented a chance for teams to get media attention and looks from NBA scouts that they might not have gotten playing in the widespread locations of an NCAA tournament.

It wasn't until the 50s and 60s, when the NCAA added more automatic bids for conference champions and more at-large berths that the two events became even in prestige.

So what happened to the NIT? Why is it a second-class event now?

A recent lawsuit asked that same question.

To some degree, as the NCAA Tournament became bigger and more inclusive, the original reasons for having an NIT became less important. With TV coverage, playing a game at Madison Square Garden was no longer the only way for schools to get seen. With more bids for more conferences, there wasn't a need for an alternative to the NCAA.

But if the NIT was drowning, the NCAA did its best to stick a hose in its mouth.

Sounds graphic. Go on.

In 1970, Marquette was ranked eighth in the nation in the final poll, but they were placed in an unfavorable bracket in the NCAA Tournament. In protest, coach Al McGuire turned down the bid -- and played in (and won)the NIT instead.

Years later, the NCAA enacted the "commitment to participate" rule, which stated that any team invited to play in March Madness must participate -- or not play in any post-season events at all. That rule eventually became the center of an antitrust lawsuit brought by the schools running the NIT. How did that work out?: They settled the suit in 2005... the five schools split a payout of $56.6 million, and the NCAA took over management of the NIT for 10 years.

For the time being, they've kept things status quo, running a 32-team tournament alongside the larger NCAA Tourney. It remains to be seen how long that will last; many of the ideas being kicked around for expanding the NCAA Tournament field involve subsuming the NIT.

That aside, is it worth paying attention to the NIT?

Hey, it's more college hoops. Nothing wrong with that.

That aside, some teams -- especially younger squads -- will use an NIT run to build for something bigger in subsequent years.

The 2009 NIT Field has plenty of teams worth your attention, from Davidson -- the darlings of the 2008 NCAA Tournament -- to recent NCAA champions Florida, to brand-name basketball schools like Kentucky, UNLV, Notre Dame and Georgetown.

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