NIT Brazenly Chooses Money Over Fans, Fun, Fairness

We are coming up on the 16th anniversary of the most significant upset in college basketball history.

It's not the biggest upset, nor the most memorable or most storybook, by a longshot. But it did serve as a catalyst for change, a dreadful change that we are still feeling the effects of today — a change that still brings new, bleak waves to the shore.

That upset was Gardner-Webb beating Kentucky at Rupp Arena, 84-68, on November 7th, 2007.

If this upset was just a random early-season non-conference loss, no biggie. But this was a part of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic.

So why is that important? Because it meant that Gardner-Webb, and not Kentucky, would be going to the tournament's semifinals in Madison Square Garden.

And why is that important? Because the tournament organizers really didn't like that. Once the tournament hit NYC, they thought they would be getting blue blood money from a fanbase that stretches from coast to coast. Instead, they got a tiny program with no money, no power, and no meaningful fanbase.

Man, how much more money would the tournament have made if only Kentucky made the semis and not Gardner-Webb? And more importantly, what can they do about it?

Two years later, we had our answer: the campus-site, early-round "tournament" games in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic would be part of the "tournament" in name only. The four bigwigs of the tournament would be guaranteed a spot in the semifinals.

Many, many, many early-season tournaments followed suit. Now the early season tournaments that include neutral site finals and big TV money no longer have a path for David to get there over Goliath. The organizers learned their lesson with Gardner-Webb.

Now, it's a lesson that the NIT is learning, too. No more will they grant automatic bids to all regular-season conference winners who fail to win their conference tournament, as announced last week. Instead, the top two teams (by NET rating) from each of the six high-major conferences that don't qualify for the NCAA tournament will have an automatic bid the the NIT, even if they have a losing record.

Things like Cal State-Bakersfield dream run to the NIT final four are no longer possible.

I am absolutely furious about this. Nobody wants this except the power conferences, who at every turn has reacted at the increasing parity in college basketball in by giving less and less access to the have-nots.

Some are defending the NIT's decision by pointing out that Fox was poised to create a post-season tournament among the conferences they have TV rights to (only) that would therefore pull those teams away from the NIT. The NIT's hand was therefore forced, they say.

I don't buy it. For one, FOX can still do that, can they not? Secondly, FOX is a for-profit entity. The NIT is run by the NCAA, a non-profit. As in, they shouldn't need to put financial concerns over what's best for the student-athlete and the fans. I don't think their budget hinges on a successful NIT. In other words, if FOX baddies are going to poach some of their teams, the NCAA and NIT should fall on their sword on this and concentrate on selecting the next best teams.

Here's what's going to happen now. The NIT will still pick a fair few mid- and low-majors for the NIT, and this year, and people will say, "See? Everyone crapping their pants about this change was overreacting." Then with each passing year, the number of those participating mid- and low- majors will go down, and down, and down, just like we've seen with mid- and low-major at-large bids in the NCAA tournament over the last 20 years.

The NCAA tournament is also not done sticking it to the little guys. They will "expand" under some sort of system that puts in previously-undeserving high-major teams in right at the ground floor, while mid- and low-majors, including conference tournament winners, will have to play multiple rounds of play-in games to get to the same level. You watch.

I've defended the NCAA in the past. I've always hated how knee-jerky everyone's hatred of the NCAA is. But this move is unconscionable. It's been often said there's nothing stopping the elite programs of college sports from breaking away from the NCAA and forming their own super leagues. Naively, I did not imagine the NCAA's reaction to such a scenario would be, "Please, major conferences, don't, we'll do anything you want." Boycott the NIT.

Comments and Conversation

November 3, 2023

Marc James:

As a Kentucky fan, I want to thank you for shedding light on this and opening an old wound I didn’t want to think about!

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