What is the NIT? Explaining the bracket, history of NCAA's oldest postseason tournament

What is the NIT? Explaining the bracket, history of NCAA's oldest postseason tournament

It might not have quite the grandeur of the NCAA Tournament, but the NIT in 2021 represents an opportunity for a select few teams to play in the postseason — college basketball teams’ first such opportunity in two years.

March Madness may be the pinnacle of the sport, but it wasn’t always that way. At one point, the NIT (National Invitational Tournament) was considered the premier postseason tournament, even if it wasn’t considered the official national champion-producing competition. Indeed, winning the NIT for many years was considered on par with — or better than — winning the NCAA Tournament.

Times have changed, but that won’t affect the history of the NIT, nor its place in the game of college basketball. Even if modern teams would prefer to play in its postseason counterpart.

Here’s everything you need to know about the NIT: what teams are invited, tournament format, history and changes in 2021:

What is the NIT?

The NIT in its current form is a postseason tournament consisting of teams that failed to make the NCAA Tournament yet still had good-enough seasons to warrant invitations to participate in the postseason. The NCAA took over its operation in 2005 from the Metropolitan Intercollegiate Basketball Association (MIBA), the tournament’s original founders and operators.

At one point, however, the NIT was considered the preeminent postseason basketball competition. The MIBA founded it in 1938, one year before the NCAA Tournament. It was generally considered the better of the two tournaments, for two reasons:

  • The tournament took place entirely in New York’s Madison Square Garden, a more inviting media hub the NCAA Tournament lacked.
  • The NCAA selection committee originally invited only one team from eight national regions, leaving the NIT with a more varied and occasionally stronger group of teams.

The location and competition resulted in many considering the NIT the preferable postseason tournament. That reputation held at least through the mid-1950s. From Bill Bradley’s book, “A Sense of Where You Are: Bill Bradley at Princeton”:

“In the 1940s, when the NCAA Tournament was less than 10 years old, the National Invitation Tournament, a saturnalia held in New York at Madison Square Garden by the Metropolitan Intercollegiate Basketball Association, was the most glamorous of the postseason tournaments and generally had the better teams. The winner of the National Invitation Tournament was regarded as more of a national champion than the actual, titular, national champion, or winner of the NCAA Tournament.”

Additionally, teams could accept bids to both the NIT and NCAA Tournament. The City College of New York, for example, won both in 1950; Utah in 1944 lost its first NIT game but went on to win the NCAA Tournament. The champions of both tournaments played each other during World War II from 1943-45 in what was considered a charity game (the NCAA champion won each time).

The NIT began to decline in the 1970s — partly because TV networks began providing better primetime access to the NCAA Tournament, and also because the NCAA in 1975 removed its rule allowing only one team per conference to participate in the tournament. That forced the NIT to relinquish its hold on strong teams.

A significant factor in the 1975 rule change was the 1973-74 Maryland basketball team. The Terrapins, who finished the team ranked No. 4 nationally, were kept from the NCAA Tournament after losing the ACC Tournament final against N.C. State. That prompted the NCAA to expand its postseason tournament to 32 teams, allowing more than one bid per conference.

That same Maryland team became the first ever to decline a bid to the National Invitational Tournament.

NIT bracket format

The NIT bracket typically includes 32 teams and five rounds. The first two rounds as well as the quarterfinals are hosted on the campus of the higher-seeded team; the semifinals and championship game are held at Madison Square Garden in New York.

Round Location
Rounds 1-2, quarterfinals Campus games
Semifinals, championship Madison Square Garden (New York)

The NCAA on March 1 announced the NIT in 2021 would be reduced from its usual field of 32 teams to just 16 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, the NIT won’t feature campus games or its traditional finish in Madison Square Garden; the entirety of this year’s tournament will take place in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. The Comerica Center (Frisco, Texas) and UNT Coliseum (Denton, Texas) will host games, though specific venues for each round are being finalized.

Another potential change is the NIT’s selection process. The NCAA on Feb. 26 released protocols to replace NCAA Tournament teams that can’t play because of issues with the coronavirus. The scenario would only occur after the initial 68-team has been set, but before the start of play: If a team is unable to play, the NCAA would select the first four teams out — ranked first through fourth — and invite them to participate in March Madness as an at-large. Otherwise, they will be a 1-seed in the NIT.

Finally, the 2021 NIT Tournament will feature a third-place game, to be played the same day as the championship. It is the first time the NIT has held a third-place game since 2003.

NIT selection process

The NIT doesn’t have a selection process per se, though it does offer automatic bids to any team that wins its conference’s regular-season title but fails to make the NCAA Tournament (a rule change implemented in 2017). Every other team is selected as an at-large bid. All selections are made after the NCAA Tournament Selection Show.

NIT winners

Fifty-three teams have won the NIT, with St. John’s leading all with five titles, not including the Redstorm’s vacated 2003 championship. Bradley has the second-most titles in NIT history, with four. Dayton and Stanford have three titles apiece, followed by 13 teams that have two titles (among that group are Michigan and Minnesota, which would have had three titles if not for vacated championships). Thirty-six teams have won the NIT once.

Texas in 2019 was the last team to win the NIT; there was no tournament in 2020 after it was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

School Champions Most recent Runner-up finishes
St. John’s 6* 1989 3
Bradley 4 1982 2
Dayton 3 2010 5
Michigan 3** 2004 1
Minnesota 3*** 2014 2
Stanford 3 2015 0
BYU 2 1966 0
Kentucky 2 1976 1
Long Island 2 1941 0
Ohio State 2 2008 1
Penn State 2 2018 1
Providence 2 1963 2
South Carolina 2 2006 1
Temple 2 1969 0
Texas 2 2019 0
Tulsa 2 2001 0
Virginia 2 1992 0
Virginia Tech 2 1995 0
West Virginia 2 2007 0
Baylor 1 2013 1
Cal 1 1999 0
CCNY 1 1950 0
Colorado 1 1940 1
UConn 1 1988 0
DePaul 1 1945 2
Duquesne 1 1955 2
Fresno State 1 1983 0
George Washington 1 2016 0
Holy Cross 1 1954 0
Indiana 1 1979 1
La Salle 1 1952 1
Louisville 1 1956 0
Marquette 1 1970 2
Maryland 1 1972 0
Memphis 1 2002 1
Nebraska 1 1996 0
North Carolina 1 1971 1
Princeton 1 1975 0
Purdue 1 1974 2
Saint Louis 1 1948 3
San Francisco 1 1949 0
Seton Hall 1 1953 0
Southern Illinois 1 1967 0
Southern Miss 1 1987 0
St. Bonaventure 1 1977 0
TCU 1 2017 0
UCLA 1 1985 0
Utah 1 2018 2
Vanderbilt 1 1990 1
Villanova 1 1994 1
Wake Forest 1 2000 0
Wichita State 1 2011 0
Xavier 1 1958 0

*Includes St. John’s 2003 vacated title
**Includes Michigan’s 1997 vacated title
***Includes Minnesota’s 1998 vacated title