Game 094: at St. Joseph's 53, Hofstra 44Wednesday, March 16, 2005
Alumni Memorial Fieldhouse - Philadelphia, PA
An invitation to the National Invitation Tournament is like... it's like kissing your sister.
Naw, that's no good. Already been used. How's this: having to play in the NIT is like eating a container of yogurt, only to find that there isn't a pocket of delicious fruit on the bottom... it's worms
Too gross, too Fear Factor
. This is a tough one. Because of its unique place in American sports, it's really hard to describe what being invited to the oldest postseason college basketball tournament is like. An NIT nod is like the final chapter of a book that's too much dénouement and not enough climax, it's like the last hour of Return Of The King
, it's like the Japanese import of your favorite band's album with three mediocre "bonus tracks," the one that set you back $45 on Amazon. It's a small thing that's tacked onto the end of a big thing - it doesn't quite belong, but it's there and nobody's sure exactly why.
In 1938, a group of New York-area sportswriters took it upon themselves to organize and sponsor a national championship of college basketball, entry to be gained by invitation only - it was Temple
who stormed to victory in the first-ever NIT. But the next year, the colleges set up their own tournament, which turned into a colossal financial failure. In penny-pinching 1938, the National Association of Basketball Coaches lost thousands of dollars on the eight-team, three-round tourney, which was eventually won by the "Tall Firs" of Oregon
. They asked the NCAA to take over the financial side of things, and with the organizational wizardry of Kansas'
Phog Allen, did they ever.
The NCAA and NIT coexisted for a while, and some teams even competed in both tournaments. The City College of New York was the first and only team to win the double crown of college basketball, back in 1950. That program would later be rocked by a point-shaving scandal that resulted in the disrepair of the program - because the crimes infected other area schools, the NCAA would place a ban on championships in the NIT's hometown, one that holds to this day.
After declaring cold war on New York City, the NCAA set its beloved tournament in the crosshairs. They began awarding automatic and exclusive berths to its 25 conference champions - once that mission was completed, any remaining splendor fell away from the First Tournament's title for good. The incremental addition of at-large teams in the Seventies and Eighties were more harsh blows, narrowing the potential NIT field even further.
So, as the NIT has lost its relevance and luster, why does it even exist at all anymore? One can't discount the presence of ESPN - they use the Ttournament of Also-rans to fill weekday primetime hours in March with campus-site basketball, while CBS busies itself with installing cameras in arenas and domes around the country. As it did the NIT's humble beginnings in the Thirties, New York-area media is keeping New York's Tournament alive.
But as players, coaches and staff from 65 universities spend the third week in March giving televised press conferences and fending off distant cousins' ticket orders, 40 other seasons continue sadly on. There's a certain nobility to going out in a conference tournament, a finality to it. But profile-challenged conference runner-ups and 20-game winners alike receive their NIT invitations via fax, put on brave faces, and trudge onward towards the semifinals at Madison Square Garden.
And in a little 3,200-seat gym on to of a hill on Philadelphia's City Line, the shiny black flag of the NIT was hoisted, the two large dark diamonds affixed to the court. Up in the corner, an already-fading banner proclaiming "The Perfect Season," a testament to the 2003-04 St. Joseph's
Hawks who stunned the nation and came within one shot of the Final Four, a team that streaked to a 26-0 regular season and featured the national coach and player of the year.
Aside from a single sideshow incident
, the rest of the country has forgotten the Hawks, moved on to sexy new 2005-model Cinderellas like Wisconsin-Milwaukee
and Old Dominion
. But their students and fans certainly haven't deserted their team - as they always do, they packed the Fieldhouse to the rafters, screaming and chanting. They created a hot, humid and hostile environment for their guests, the Pride of Hofstra
. It didn't matter that this was the outer limits of what could be called the "postseason appearance," an NIT opening round game that led to a first round game. It was, simply, another game.
But on the court, the energy level was decidedly lower than it was in the student section. As the teams trudged up and down the floor, trying and failing to make baskets, one thing was clearly evident - nobody was having any fun. When the teams went into the locker room at halftime, they left behind a long series of slow, deliberate possessions and a 20-19 score.
As the out-of-town action was recapped over the loudspeakers, it was clear that there were few smiles elsewhere on the staggered NIT bracket. Boston University
, dropped in the America East semifinals before they could get a third shot at Vermont
, managed just 34 points at Georgetown. Later on that evening, Missouri Valley runners-up Southwest Missouri State
dropped 105 on Rice - Northern Iowa
stole their NCAA bid, but a three-digit result in an NIT game was just so much screaming in a cave.
St. Joe's, a team that had been humbled in the pre-league season before making a run all the way to the Atlantic 10 title game, was too drained to play as angry as the Bears, but too proud to go down like BU. Despite the emotional return of goon victim John Bryant, they could only summon the energy to play the Pride even for 35 minutes, before finally pulling away at the end on threes and fouls. The fans they roared, just as loudly as they did for each of the Hawks' wins in that magical 2003-04 season, just as loudly as they did on Jameer Nelson's Senior Night.
And then the P.A. voice made the cryptic announcement that follows such contests. "The date, time and location of the first round game will be announced later this evening," he boomed. "The NIT thanks you for attending tonight's contest."
Out in the chilly Philadelphia night, there was no happy buzz that usually accompanies a home team win; the cheering had been left inside the Fieldhouse, replaced with confusion.
"I thought that was
the first round," one student asked, to his friends and the universe in equal measure. "I don't get this NIT thing."Photo Gallery