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March ‘Madness’

As the NCAA’s annual hoop frenzy enters its Sweet Sixteen round of play this weekend, many fans’ brackets have already been busted, while fans of the remaining teams in the field are giddy with excitement over what could be.

Oh yes, March Madness, a term first coined by Henry Porter, an Illinois high school official, in 1939 to describe the excitement of the Illinois State High School Basketball tournament, really didn’t grab the attention of the country until used by announcer Brent Musburger airing NCAA games in 1982. Musburger claims he got the term from car dealership commercials he saw while broadcasting Illinois High School games.

Whatever its origin, the term fits. Occurring on the calendar’s third month, inflicting on its masses extremely foolish, irrational, or reckless behavior, it appears to have no antidote but runs its course in a few short weeks.

A year before Porter first penned the phrase, a glimpse of what was to come was born with the playing of the first National Invitational Tournament (NIT) in New York City in 1938. The NCAA’s first national tournament was introduced in 1939, but it was the NIT that was viewed as the nation’s most prestigious college tournament for several decades.

The relationship between the two tournaments, never one of harmony, came to a head in 1970. Marquette coach Al McGuire, whose team was ranked 8th in the AP poll, spurned an NCAA at-large invitation because the Warriors were going to be placed in the NCAA Midwest Regional in Fort Worth instead of closer to home in the Mideast Regional in Dayton. Instead, he accepted an NIT bid and won the tournament.

This led the NCAA to decree in 1971 that any school to which it offered a bid must accept it or be prohibited from participating in postseason competition, thus reducing the pool of teams that could accept an NIT invitation.

As anticipated, the NCAA’s action damaged the NIT’s relevance, creating a stigma in the minds of many fans. Because the NIT was reduced to inviting teams that failed to make the NCAA tournament, it was often scorned with such labels as the “Not Invited Tournament” or “Nobody’s Interested Tournament.” For the NIT, that three-word phrase became more damaging than four-letter words tossed its way.

That action eventually led to an NIT antitrust lawsuit, alleging that compelling teams to accept invitations to the NCAA tournament even if they preferred to play in the NIT was an illegal use of the NCAA’s powers. Additionally, the lawsuit argued that the NCAA’s tournament expansion to 65 teams was designed specifically to bankrupt the NIT. 

Faced with the very real possibility of being found in violation of federal antitrust law for the third time in its history, the NCAA chose to settle the lawsuit paying $56.5-million and purchasing 10-year rights to the NIT. But, in the minds of fans, the postseason NIT continues to be viewed as a ‘consolation’ tournament.

When the NCAA revealed its 2024 tournament field on March 17, the stigma attached to the NIT reached epidemic proportions. Despite the usual complaining by teams not invited to ‘the big dance,’ some passed-over teams decided to ‘take their ball and go home’ rather than extend their seasons by competing for an NIT title. Those snubbed teams included Pitt, Indiana, St. John’s, Syracuse, Ole Miss, Memphis, and Oklahoma.

Feeling sorry for themselves, sentiments were issued, and as Oklahoma coach Porter Moser stated, “this decision, although difficult, was made with the well-being of our student athletes as the top priority.”

Whatever the reasons for teams deciding not to play, it is another example of the sport itself not being enough reason to play, an idea that sadly exists, ignoring the potential benefits of a tournament that doesn’t crown a national champion.

Although their feelings may have been hurt, college basketball players go to school to play basketball. It is a bit interesting to hear that not playing additional basketball games is “with the well-being of our student-athletes.” Penn State headman Mike Rhoades expressed interest in taking his Nittany Lions to the NIT, but the team did not receive an NIT invitation.

The changing face of college basketball is also putting the squeeze on opportunities for smaller colleges and universities to experience national tournament play. Up until this season, regular-season conference champions not selected for the NCAA tournament received automatic bids to the NIT. That no longer exists as the NCAA has changed the rules to extend NIT bids to the top two teams in each of the six major conferences that weren’t selected to the field of 68. 

That ruling hurts the low and mid-major programs that won their conference’s regular season title but failed to win their conference tournament. Toledo had a great season and won their league outright. Same can be said for High Point, Eastern Kentucky, Little Rock, and Eastern Washington, all number one seeds that didn’t make it to selection Sunday.

However the NIT may be viewed, opinions differ. Some took to social media, calling it a horrible tournament and a race to the bottom.

However, former college coach and current ESPN analyst Tom Crean gave an impassioned plea when he learned that teams were turning down an NIT invitation.

“Give your players and coaches a chance to keep coaching and playing, and don’t shortchange. If a guy doesn’t want to play, go sit down. If a coach doesn’t want to coach, go recruit. But there’s gotta be enough people to put five, six, seven people on the floor and go play. Makes absolutely zero sense to me.” 

“Give your players and coaches a chance to keep coaching and playing.”

That’s a powerful line because there will come a time when those players and coaches won’t be able to play and coach again, and all they’ll have is the memories of when they could. That’s especially the case for seniors who went into Selection Sunday hoping for one last game.