The National Invitational Tournament (NIT) and the Women’s National Invitation Tournament both offer “deserved opportunities” to men’s and women’s basketball programs that, for one reason or several others, don’t make the NCAAs. Yet, both by college basketball fans and snobbish media types, the two national tourneys that annually crown champions are treated like lepers.
This is the 76th year for the men’s NIT. From 1938-1976, every tournament game was played at Madison Square Garden, which hosts both the tourney semifinals and finals. Its field has been as high as 40 teams but now stands at 32.
Five eventual Hall of Famers were NIT participants: Lenny Wilkens, Walt Frazier, Maurice Stokes, Reggie Miller and George Mikan.
Minnesota has its only basketball championships, twice winning the NIT (1993 and 1998) and twice finished as runners-up (1980 and last season), but hoop snobs refuse to recognize this as a notable accomplishment.
The women’s NIT began in 1998 with a 16-team format and now stands at 40 teams to give spots to teams that won its regular season but not their conference tournament. As a result, it offers automatic berths to each of the 31 established conferences, same as the NCAA.
It is virtually ignored, however: There were less than 1,000 people at last Friday’s WNIT first-round game at Williams Arena, hosted by the Gophers. The number of media present, including the MSR could be counted on three fingers.
“If you were just in my locker room, and you saw the exuberance on the floor, you’d know how important this tournament is,” noted Ball State Coach Brady Sallee after his team’s three-point win over Minnesota last weekend. “If fans of women’s basketball can’t wrap their arms around the beauty of what just happened, then they are missing something.”
Despite a 12-4 Mid-American Conference regular season, Ball State lost in the second round of their league tournament.
“This is a chance for us to come on a national stage where there are only about 120 of us still left playing,” continued Sallee. “The WNIT is a tournament that is important for our sport. An opportunity for a league like the MAC to get five teams in the WNIT — now we’ve got six teams playing in the post-season.”
Gopher Coach Pam Borton also appreciated the opportunity to keep playing after not advancing in the Big Ten tournament earlier this month. But eventually she wants to return to the bigger tournament for the first time since 2009 — Minnesota is 7-5 in NCAA play but 1-2 in WNIT action.
“We didn’t do enough to get into the NCAA tournament,” admitted Borton, whose club did, however, qualify for the WNIT. “It’s important for us on playing good basketball to take that next step.”
“For those [women’s] teams that aren’t the blessed few, this is the chance to really come and not only represent your school and yourselves, but also your league,” concluded Sallee. “We didn’t take that lightly.”
Did you know…?
How many Blacks have led teams to the NIT finals? How many times were both teams in the championship games coached by Blacks? (Answer in next week’s “Another View.”)
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to [email protected]