In 2013, while Jerome Tang was an assistant coach at Baylor under Scott Drew, the Bears won the National Invitation Tournament (NIT), knocking off BYU and then Iowa in Madison Square Garden.

Big picture, it was a down season for Baylor, sandwiched between runs to the Elite Eight and Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament. But Tang, now the head coach at Kansas State, still remembers the crowds at MSG, the way that team bonded and sustained a standard of postseason success, and the groundwork it laid for Baylor’s run of nine NCAA Tournament berths in the next 10 seasons, cresting with a national title in 2021. He and Drew even walked outside the arena after the championship game and bought a celebratory hot dog from a street cart.

More than a decade removed from that experience, Tang understands the somber reality of winning a consolation tournament, regardless of any lasting memories.

“Coaches don’t get contract extensions for NIT invitations,” he said.

As college sports evolve, the men’s NIT is suddenly reckoning with its status in a way it never has before. Tang and Kansas State, coming off an Elite Eight run in last year’s NCAA Tournament, participated in this year’s NIT, losing to Iowa in the first round. But 17 other schools, most from the power conferences, opted out of the 32-team, single-elimination bracket. It was the most in the event’s 86-year history.

The NIT has long been second-rate compared to the real March Madness of the NCAA Tournament, while at the same time retaining a certain degree of prestige as a respectable landing spot for the best of the rest. Yet the growing impact of name, image and likeness (NIL) and the transfer portal — now featuring immediately eligible multi-time transfers — has altered the landscape of college hoops, and the NIT is feeling the collateral damage. Much like football, the offseason is dominated by player movement and big-money roster building, and the shuffling starts immediately: College basketball’s spring transfer window opened Monday, March 18, the day after Selection Sunday.

In a more drastic version of college football players opting out of non-playoff bowl games to either enter the transfer portal or prepare for the NFL Draft, entire men’s basketball programs are doing the same with the NIT, ostensibly to give coaches and players a jump-start on whatever offseason adjustments they intend to make. (North Carolina opting out last season was a harbinger.) This coincides with more conference realignment widening the gap between high-major programs and everyone else, along with a new NIT selection process designed to award more bids to those power conference teams. Many of them turned their noses up instead.

“We’re experiencing a different dynamic this year because of the larger college athletics issues going on,” said Dan Gavitt, senior vice president of basketball for the NCAA, which took over management of the event in 2005. “It is a disruptive time.”

The NIT weathered the storm, its bracket of willing participants whittled down to a final four that will tip off Tuesday in Indianapolis’ historic Hinkle Fieldhouse: Utah versus Indiana State, and Georgia versus Seton Hall. But the real stakes are what becomes of the tournament, and whether a mainstay of an adapting sport can recalibrate — or get completely left behind.

“In the bigger picture of this whole thing, we’re supposed to be developing players,” said Tom Crean, a former head coach and current college basketball analyst for ESPN. “The powers that be are spending so much time figuring out how they’re going to manage this new world, but we better not lose sight of the fact that the games still matter, even if it’s not an NCAA Tournament game.

“We have to get back to base.”


Crean swears he didn’t have the rant prepared. He didn’t even know the question was coming.

“I wasn’t looking at our script,” he said. “It just kind of hit me. It was just how I felt.”

While co-hosting ESPN’s “NIT Selection Special” on March 17, after the NCAA Tournament bracket was revealed, Crean was asked about the number of teams reportedly declining NIT invitations.

“That to me is absolutely ridiculous,” Crean said on air. “Give your players and coaches a chance to keep coaching and playing.”

The NIT has deep roots. It was founded in 1938, predating the NCAA Tournament by one year, and initially was the more coveted of the two events. Playing at MSG gave it credibility, and the NCAA’s early format of inviting only one school from each of the eight national regions left plenty of quality teams to choose from. After coach Al McGuire and Marquette declined an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament in 1970 in favor of playing closer to home in the NIT (which Marquette eventually won), the NCAA instituted another rule that any team extended a Tournament invite was prohibited from participating in other postseason competitions.

This cemented the NIT’s back-burner status. The stigma of a loser’s bracket — the “Not Important Tournament” — has increased over time as the NCAA Tournament ascended. Still, the NIT always served a complementary purpose. Teams on the cusp got an opportunity to continue a successful season into March and develop young players for the future. Starting in 2017, schools from low- and mid-major one-bid conferences that won a regular-season league title but lost in the conference tournament were guaranteed an NIT invite. And at the very least, fans got some decent midweek basketball to tide them over during the Tournament.

“Once you’re in it, you dig in. The competition side of it kicks in,” said Cincinnati athletic director John Cunningham, having witnessed the Bearcats reach the quarterfinals each of the past two years. “Teams that win in the NIT really have a good experience.”

Changes in the sport have hindered those benefits. So much roster development and improvement now occurs via the transfer portal and NIL. The NIT tweaked its selection process this season as well, removing the automatic bids for regular-season conference champions — which secured spots from less prominent but often more motivated programs — and instead guaranteed two bids from each of the six basketball power conferences. The other 20 spots were awarded to the “best teams available” according to the NIT committee.

The problem is that many of those automatic-qualifier power conference programs decided they’d rather not. Of the 17 schools that opted out, 15 were from the top six conferences (the Power 5 plus the Big East), including Oklahoma, St. John’s and Pittsburgh, all of which just missed the NCAA Tournament. The other two were Memphis, which operates like a high-major basketball program, and St. Bonaventure.

Explanations varied — if they were given at all.

“We’re in a position (where) we need to be moving forward and thinking about next year and how we can get better,” said Memphis athletic director Laird Veatch, just a few days after head coach Penny Hardaway told reporters, “I’m not looking to play in no more NITs, man, I’m sorry.”

St. John’s coach Rick Pitino said it was “best for our team and basketball program to prepare for next season.” Pitt coach Jeff Capel referenced falling “short of our goal of reaching the NCAA Tournament.”

Then there was the mess at St. Bonaventure, which was easily the biggest outlier of the opt-outs, and one with a history in the NIT. After conducting player exit interviews following a loss in the A-10 tournament, St. Bonaventure’s administration declined an invitation — before one was formally extended — but didn’t inform the players or fans. Those folks instead found out via an ESPN graphic that was shown during one of the first-round games, sparking a fallout that resulted in the athletic director resigning and the university president recording an apology video.

“Talking with the schools that opted out this year, there seems to be three different reasons why,” said Gavitt. “Coaching uncertainty or change, the transfer portal opening on the Monday (after Selection Sunday), and then some injuries.”

Whatever the reasons, genuine or not, the new format looks to have been a miscalculation. The NIT is, at best, a break-even endeavor for teams from a financial perspective. With the TV revenue power conference schools are collecting these days, a growing NIL burden, and the pressures on coaches and administrations that run parallel to those investments, there are fewer incentives for high-major teams to spend time and resources on the NIT.

The opening date for the transfer portal window didn’t help either, similar to the hectic December schedule in college football, but some coaches viewed that as a straw man excuse. Indiana State coach Josh Schertz, in an interview with The Athletic, pointed out that none of the 68 NCAA Tournament teams declined invitations to focus on the portal, yet seem to be navigating it just fine.

“We all know the portal is going on long before the portal actually opens,” said Crean. “So moving the portal date isn’t really going to fix anything. But I do think the decision to eliminate the automatic qualifiers and make it so much harder for any mid-major or lower-major team to get in, all of this shows that decision backfired.”

It’s worth noting that this change in process, made by the NCAA, comes amid talk of expanding the NCAA Tournament, which has sparked considerable resistance from fans, media and even coaches. There were also reports last fall of a potential 16-team consolation tournament organized by Fox and featuring exclusively power conference programs, notably from leagues where Fox has TV rights (Big Ten, Big 12, Big East). Nothing is finalized on that front, but it’s still a possibility and one that would be a direct competitor to the NIT.

“We’re operating the NIT in a very different competitive marketplace than we were five years ago. We have to be mindful of that,” Gavitt acknowledged. “We have to be flexible and open-minded about how we select, seed and bracket the tournament.”

As far as a course correction, Gavitt told The Athletic it was too early to say definitively whether changes would be coming again for next season, but that “anything is on the table.”


Robbie Avila — AKA Cream Abdul-Jabbar, Indiana State’s cult hero in Rec Specs eyewear — hoisted from the top of the key with a minute left, draining a go-ahead 3-pointer. It secured an NIT quarterfinal victory over Cincinnati, sending the Sycamores to Tuesday’s semifinal in Hinkle, just an 80-minute drive from Terre Haute and host of the NIT championship round for the first time. Indiana State was one of the first four teams left out of the NCAA Tournament, but its 31 wins are the most since Larry Bird led the program to the national title game in 1979.

 

“(Our fans) have showed out all season long. We’re just trying to pay back what they’ve done for us,” Avila said after the quarterfinal win. “Of course being left out of the NCAA Tournament hurt, but it’s more about the love we have for each other.”

Indiana State’s presence is appropriate considering the NIT’s newfound plight. Aside from the fact that, under the old format, the Sycamores would have had an automatic bid as Missouri Valley regular-season champs, more significant for the NIT this year was getting one of those best-of-the-rest teams on board and engaged. Their run to the semis has featured quality matchups and three sold-out home games, while still capturing those mid-major vibes that make college basketball in March so special.

“To me it’s a chance to compete,” Schertz said. “You work all year for these opportunities, to put the jersey on. You’re only guaranteed 30, 31 at most places. The NIT has always been a springboard for a lot of programs. For Indiana State, look at how much we’ve still been in the national limelight a little bit.”

Avila made an in-studio guest appearance on ESPN’s “Pat McAfee Show,” which films in Indianapolis, one day after the Sycamores knocked off SMU in the tournament’s first round. McAfee suggested he would sign all 15 players on Indiana State’s roster to $10,000 NIL deals if the team won the NIT.

“It’s actually been a great opportunity for us,” Schertz continued, “and the added benefit is the shared experience. We love competing together, being around each other. None of us want the season to be over.”

Granted, stacking the NIT bracket with excitable low- and mid-majors is not a viable option for a tournament that needs some level of casual appeal. But the Indiana State factor underscores what Crean and multiple current coaches pointed to as the bigger issue: Teams should want to keep playing.

“The urgent is getting so far out in front of the important,” said Crean. “That makes it easy to lose sight of what is most important, which is to make your players better, giving them every chance to compete.”

Despite this year’s turmoil, the NIT isn’t going anywhere. At least not anytime soon. The tournament is part of the NCAA’s $920 million television contract with ESPN that runs through 2032 and includes the women’s NCAA Tournament as well as the newly formed Women’s Basketball Invitational Tournament (WBIT). A 32-team field, chosen by the WBIT selection committee, is down to Illinois versus Villanova for the championship Wednesday at Hinkle.

The NIT is well into its ninth decade of existence. Even if the NCAA Tournament expands, there will always be enough Division I programs to seed the NIT. But if it’s going to maintain its relevance and lesser-stakes prestige, the NIT needs the best of those left-out power conference teams to want to participate — which might be beyond the event’s influence and control. Men’s college hoops has become a multi-billion-dollar enterprise. To some, the value of playing in the NIT is still part of that wave of change.

“Find me a former player or even professional player who wouldn’t want to go back and play a couple more games in college. There will always be exceptions to every rule, but there are a lot of pluses to playing in the NIT, and the number one plus is that you get to do what you’re supposed to love,” said Crean. “That’s why you play. That’s why you coach. The money is great, the money can be great for the players now, but at the end of the day, when these days are gone, you don’t get them back. And there are very few guarantees that you will get them somewhere else.”

(Top image: Dan Goldfarb / The Athletic; photos: Getty; Jeffrey Vest / Icon Sportswire, Keith Gillett / Icon Sportswire, Chris Gardner, Rich Schultz, Erica Denhoff / Icon Sportswire)



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Golam Muktadir is the chief editor of Surprise Sports and the Proges News. He checks all the sports content and craft it to make it more digesting for the readers.