NIT Season Tip-Off
Peter Carlesimo was trying to save a tournament. The final step in his plan turned out to be brilliant: Start another tournament.
The National Invitation Tournament (NIT) was having trouble surviving in the college basketball culture of the 1980's. The NCAA Division I Men's Tournament had become the star of the sports world every March and its shadow was growing yearly.
The NIT had age on its side - it started in 1938, one year before the NCAA. And for a while the NIT had more, then as much prestige as the NCAA. But things changed with the expansion of the NCAA field and the introduction of television into the picture.
The NIT was second, and Peter Carlesimo, the tournament's executive director, wanted to make sure it would always be around, even as No. 2.
In the late 1970's, he got the Metropolitan Intercollegiate Basketball Association - the five-school board that ran the tournament - to move early round games to campus sites, bringing survivors rather than the whole field to New York.
Still, something had to be done to keep the National Invitation Tournament successful in tough economic times.
How about a preseason version of the NIT? A chance to stage some good early season match-ups and get fans interested in college basketball at a time of the year when football, pro and college, were the main interests of the sporting public. Carlesimo had a great idea that had some hurdles to clear.
"Pete broached the idea and along with the committee, it was approved," recalled John W. Kaiser, the longtime athletic director at St. John's who served as president of the MIBA for 15 years, including the time the postseason grew and the preseason was conceived. "What we had to do was bring it before the NCAA convention to get permission from the membership to do it. With a lot of work it was approved and we could go ahead with it."
The Big Apple NIT
The first Preseason NIT, it was known then as the BIG Apple NIT, was going to be played in November 1985. Carlesimo did a pretty nice job of getting schools to participate in his regional concept tournament. Four-team mini-tournaments were played in Hartford, Cincinnati, Houston and Denver. The four winners advanced to Madison Square Garden for the semifinals and championship game.
The survivors to the first semifinals were an impressive group: Duke, St. John's, Louisville and Kansas - three-quarters of the Final Four played four months later when Louisville won a second national championship for Denny Crum and Duke made the first of 10 Final Four appearances for Mike Krzyzewski.
The number of people who saw the teams reach New York wasn't. The regional concept for the early rounds was a bust.
"The first year, the area sites did not go very well. There was sparse attendance," Kaiser said. "After that we changed to the home campus format. It took a couple of years to take, but basically we were able to get very fine teams, so it took off."
Carlesimo was sure the change in the early rounds was going to be difference. When a news conference was held to announce the new format, Carlesimo capped it with a definitive statement in his deep, booming voice.
"We are all certain that the Big Apple NIT is destined to be a college basketball institution," Carlesimo said that day.
He was right. Other preseason tournaments were just getting their legs under them. The Great Alaska Shootout started in 1978. The Maui Invitational didn't hit the national landscape until 1982 when tiny Division II Chaminade University upset No. 1 Virginia and Ralph Sampson.
"Peter Carlesimo will be remembered for shepherding the NIT through a difficult time," said Dave Gavitt, one of college basketball's most influential leaders and the first commissioner of the Big East Conference. "He did some very creative and unique things with the NIT."
The Preseason NIT also kept its promise of having high quality fields. It's been tough to find a year when the participating coaches haven't complained about the level of the competition, the highest compliment a tournament organizer can receive.
The Preseason NIT and the NIT have changed hands this year with the NCAA now in charge. Things shouldn't be too different from the way Peter Carlesimo left them when he retired in 1988. That was the year they named the Preseason NIT championship trophy in his honor.
Three of the early Preseason NITs were among the most important of the twenty played.
The first has to mean a lot to the future of any event and the inaugural Preseason NIT drew headlines right away.
No. 5 Kansas, No. 6 Duke, No. 9 Louisville and No. 18 St. John's made it to the Garden, and Duke won it all with a 92-86 victory over Kansas. When the Final Four was decided at the end of the season, there was suddenly a lot of looking back to Thanksgiving weekend and people started realizing how much of an impact a preseason tournment could have.
"That was a dream final four four for us," Carlesimo said at the time. "That's why people want a tournament like this."
Duke had one of the country's top backcourts in Johnny Dawkins and Tommy Amaker, but the first MVP award went to forward David Henderson, the Blue Devils' sixth man and defensive specialist who started in place of injured center Jay Bilas. Henderson scored a career-high 30 points on 12-for-14 shooting.
Henderson was joined on the all-tournament team by Walter Berry of St. John's, who went on to be selected national player of the year, Pervis Ellision of Louisville, went on to become the first freshman to be selected MVP of the Final Four in 42 years, Dawkins, Ron Kellogg of Kansas and Billy Thompson of Louisville.
Preseason NIT No. 2 big because of the "three."
The NCAA had introduced a major change to college basketball in 1986 with the addition of the 45-second shot clock (it would be changed to 35 seconds for the 1993-94 season).
The 1986-87 season was going to see the addition of the three-point arc, something that had been used on an experimental basis, but was now on every court, 19 feet, 9 inches from the hoop.
UNLV rallied from from a 21-point deficit to beat Western Kentucky, 96-95, in double overtime in the championship game. The Runnin' Rebels made 10-of-27 three-point attempts. The Hilltoppers went 1-for-4.
While fans in the Garden were still buzzing about Freddie Banks and Gerald Paddio hitting the long jumpers worth an extra point, first-year Western Kentucky coach Murray Arnold was leading the nay side of the issue.
"They've made a mockery of the three-point goal," he said after the title game. "I said all along that it was a bad rule and tonight was an example of it. Tonight was an example why the rules committee should come back to their senses and bring back sanity to the game."
When the Final Four was played in New Orleans the next March, UNLV and the "three" were again the topic of conversation. In the national semifinals against Indiana, Banks made ten three's, a Final Four record that still stands. It seemed like every time one of his three's fell, every eye in the SuperDome turned to see the reaction of Hoosiers coach Bobby Knight. How it impressed Knight was visible two nights later when Indiana beat Syracuse, 74-73, in the title game and Steve Alford of the Hoosiers hit seven threes, still tied for the most in a championship game.
How big the Preseason NIT could be in a team's season was illustrated in fifth edition of the tournament.
Kansas was in its second season under coach Roy Williams. The Jayhawks were working through probation his first season and they weren't garnering a whole lot of attention in year two.
Kansas was picked anywhere from fifth to eighth in the preseason Big 8 polls. Nationally, the Jayhawks weren't even among "others receiving votes" in national Top 25 polls.
But Kansas was in the Preseason NIT field, along with No. 1 UNLV, No. 2 LSU and No. 25 St. John's. Following a first-round win over Alabama-Birmingham, those teams were the Jayhawks' victims on the way to the title.
The story has long made the rounds that Williams was playing in a charity golf event in the offseason when he overheard a TV executive talking about the LSU-UNLV matchup as one of the best in recent memories. Williams went back to Lawrence and let them know there was no reason to bother playing the LSU game because everyone knew who the winner would be. A good coach gets better with motivation on hand.
The Jayhawks beat LSU, and star guard Chris Jackson and freshman center Shaquille O'Neal, 89-83. Then top-ranked UNLV went down, 91-77, and finally Kansas beat St. John's on its second homecourt, 66-57.
Kansas went from unranked to No. 4, still the biggest jump in the history of the Associated Press poll. The Jayhawks started a run of NCAA tournament appearances that season that continues today. The Preseason NIT got it all going.
Championship Game Results
- 2006 - Butler 79, Gonzaga 71
- 2005 - Duke 70, Memphis 67
- 2004 - Wake Forest 63, Arizona 60
- 2003 - Georgia Tech 85, Texas Tech 65
- 2002 - North Carolina 74, Stanford 57
- 2001 - Syracuse 74, Wake Forest 67
- 2000 - Duke 63, Temple 60
- 1999 - Arizona 63, Kentucky 51
- 1998 - North Carolina 57, Stanford 49
- 1997 - Kansas 73, Florida State 58
- 1996 - Indiana 85, Duke 69
- 1995 - Arizona 81, Georgetown 71
- 1994 - Ohio 84, New Mexico State 80 (OT)
- 1993 - Kansas 86, Massachusetts 75
- 1992 - Indiana 78, Seton Hall 74
- 1991 - Oklahoma State 78, Georgia Tech 71
- 1990 - Arizona 89, Arkansas 77
- 1989 - Kansas 66, St. John's 57
- 1988 - Syracuse 86, Missouri 84 (OT)
- 1987 - Florida 70, Seton Hall 68
- 1986 - UNLV 96, Western Kentucky 95 (2 OT)
- 1985 - Duke 92, Kansas 86
- Vernon Maxwell, Florida Gators (1987)
- Sherman Douglas, Syracuse Orangemen (1988)
- Chris Mills, Arizona Wildcats (1990)
- Byron Houston, Oklahoma State Cowboys (1991)
- Calbert Cheaney, Indiana Hoosiers (1992)
- Gary Trent, Ohio Bobcats (1994)
- Allen Iverson, Georgetown Hoyas (1995)
- Andrae Patterson, Indiana Hoosiers (1996)
- Paul Pierce, Kansas Jayhawks (1997)
- Gilbert Arenas, Arizona Wildcats (1999)
- Carlos Boozer, Duke Blue Devils (2000)
- Rashad McCants, North Carolina Tar Heels (2002)
- Shelden Williams, Duke Blue Devils (2005)