Up in Ann Arbor last Saturday, Stanford Robinson charged down the lane with the kind of reckless abandon that have caused a lot of Hoosier fans to close their eyes and hope for the best. In this case, the outcome wasn't the worst: Caris LeVert fouled the Tree as he made his layup attempt, sending him to the free throw line. As he lined up his shots, the Michigan crowd erupted into a chant:
"N - I - T! N - I - T! N - I - T!"
Nothing stings worse than the truth, and IU's inability to beat Nebraska in the previous game at Assembly Hall all but assured that they would miss the Big Dance absent them capturing the Big Ten's automatic bid, regardless of what they did that day in Ann Arbor. And when the Hoosiers fell to the Illini in the first round at the Big Ten Tournament, any Selection Sunday drama was officially out of the picture; the Indiana Hoosiers would not be going to the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in Crean's six-year tenure.
Making the tournament isn't really a goal at IU as much as it is an expectation and it's understandable that fans would be miffed when that doesn't happen. The vast majority of fans don't hold Tom Crean's first three seasons against him, making this season the first time Crean's Hoosiers have missed the tournament when they were reasonably expected to make it. The ramifications of such have been noticeable: from the creation of Twitter accounts and blogs begging for Tom Crean to be fired, to certifiably-insane ideas that cannot possibly be true.
So with an NIT invitation all but certain to be extended and the Hoosiers certainly willing to accept it, I decided to take a look at Indiana's history with the National Invitation Tournament and the history of the tournament itself. It's relatively unfamiliar territory for the Hoosiers, as this year would mark only the fifth time in school history that Indiana will play in the tournament that has been around since 1938 and the first time since the 2004 season.
When the Hoosiers have made the NIT, they've reached the final game twice and won it once. They lost their opening round NIT game in Bob Knight's first year and in Mike Davis' fifth. They lost to a Reggie Miller-led UCLA squad in the 1985 Finals and defeated Purdue by ONE WHOLE POINT to win the 1979 NIT. It's commemorated in Assembly Hall (see the photo at the beginning of the article), on the opposite end from the banners that generate most of the fanfare. The NIT Championship shares its banner with IU's two victories in the Pre-Season NIT event, which may give you a glimpse as to how highly regarded that season's result is.
I'm So Ashamed, But Tell Me About This Strange Postseason Destination
In the 1940s, the NIT was actually considered, by and large, to be the more glamorous postseason destination for the nation's top teams and it's victor was considered the better team than the actual national champion. YOU KNOW WHAT ELSE WAS HAPPENING IN THE FORTIES? America was undefeated in wars and enjoying a robust economy. Face it: you can't prove that the rise of the NCAA Tournament didn't indirectly catalyze the Great Recession. I know the NCAA catches a lot of flak that maybe isn't deserved, but my inability to find gainful employment is squarely on their laps.
Teams wanted to play in the NIT because it took place in New York City, which would give them great television exposure and was also close by for the numerous big-time east coast programs, making travel easier. Schools preferred the NIT and the NCAA knew it: scheduling their tournament to take place after the NIT to prevent making teams who were invited to both having to choose because they were afraid what their choice would be. This allowed for some zany things to happen, and the one most likely to crop up at a bar's trivia night is this: in 1950, the City College of New York won both tournaments and, get this, defeated Bradley in both championship games.
(That was followed by a gigantic point shaving scandal that involved several teams in that tournament, including CCNY and the resulting punishment is why this is the first time you've ever heard of their basketball team.)
As the years wore on, the NCAA made multiple efforts to improve their product and siphon away talented teams from the NIT. As the NCAA expanded their field and allowed multiple teams from the same conference into the tournament, along with forcing any team extended an invitation to accept it, the NIT field became less and less compelling. Despite successfully turning the NIT into a second-tier postseason event, the NCAA purchased the rights to the NIT in 2005 to avoid the gigantic antitrust violation with forcing teams to play in the NCAA Tournament.
So, when you think about it, the NIT, now owned by the NCAA, is essentially another NCAA Tournament with less teams. The less spots something has, the more exclusive it is; and the more exclusive something is, the better it is. This is simply math, people; you cannot argue with it.
Also: the Hoosiers absence will allow you to fill out your bracket with an unbiased, reasonable mindset (the same kind of mentality I'm definitely writing this article with) and thus help you win lots of money, assuming you join bracket groups full of fans of teams actually playing in the tournament. On the downside, your NIT bracket will be nearly impossible to fill out without feeling compelled to favor the Hoosiers. On the upside of that downside, you weren't going to fill out an NIT bracket anyway because, at some point, you have to learn to forgive yourself.*
I Have Seen People Saying The NIT Isn't Even A Guarantee, Can I Die Now?
NIT Bracketology is, thankfully (I suppose), not familiar territory for me. But it would seem, to me, that there are two websites that serve in the Joe Lunardi or Jerry Palm role for the NIT. John Templeton over at Big Apple Buckets currently has Indiana as one of his teams that just missed the cut, with a short explanation as to why he excluded them. The Bracket Matrix guys have the Hoosiers hanging on by a thread, playing as a 6-seed and opening up on the road against Wisconsin-Green Bay.
Working against the Hoosiers, along with their horrific RPI and litany of bad losses, is the way automatic bids work for the NIT. If a team wins their regular season title, fails to win their conference tournament and also fails to qualify for the NCAA Tournament, they receive an automatic bid to the NIT. Essentially, this rule guarantees a postseason for low and mid-major teams who won their conference title but failed to capture their automatic bid to the NCAAs. This has been happening at a ridiculous rate this season. Traditionally, according to Templeton, the NIT sees around nine of these auto-bids. When Louisiana Tech was defeated by Tulsa, the Bulldogs became the 12th such team to secure an NIT berth and there are several more tournaments yet to conclude.
That said, and this is mere personal opinion, but I would be shocked to see teams like Indiana State, Richmond, Toledo or Saint Mary's get in over IU. But, again, I'm not privy to the selection process and what matters more to the committee. The Hoosiers have far better wins than those teams combined, but the total amount of losses they have, compared to other teams in the field, may end up costing them.
So ... Wait. If We Miss The NIT, Does That Mean ... ?
COLLEGE BASKETBALL INVITATIONAL FEVER. CATCH IT.
(Common symptoms of CBI Fever include: vomiting, vomiting, a whole lot more vomiting, and dark, dark thoughts.)
There is no guarantee that Indiana would even accept an invite to this tournament, as it could certainly be argued that no postseason is a better alternative than bumbling through the CBI for a couple of weeks. But should the NIT pass on the Hoosiers, the tournament that has been around since 2008 would certainly offer IU a spot. The last you probably heard of this tournament was when you were taunting Purdue fans about going to it last year. I, for one, invested quite a bit of trash talking equity into that last season and now I'm probably going to have to leave the country.
I don't want what I say next to be an endorsement of the CBI or to be taken in any shape or form as excitement to potentially see IU participate in it, BUT: I love the idea of a best of three series to decide the CBI champion. It's a standard single-elimination tournament with 16 teams but the championship is best of three, giving a little NBA flavor to a sport obsessed with single-elimination.
Thankfully, the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament (CIT) is reserved for mid-major and lower schools, meaning we don't have to even worry about that particular eventuality.
My personal opinion is that these guys could use as many games against different competition as possible before spending the summer dribbling basketballs wherever they go, but I know a fair number of fans are just ready to close the book on this season, set it on fire and jettison the remains into the stratosphere.
*Side note: I will legitimately, and gladly, run an NIT Bracket contest if anyone is interested. Hell, I'd do a CIT one if we got enough interest. No, you have a gambling problem.