The men’s basketball team and their fans are used to basketball in March, but now they find themselves in an unusual spot. For the first time in over a decade they will be a part of the National Invitation Tournament.
As unfamiliar as this all may seem, the Cards are no strangers to the NIT. They’ve been invited 14 times before this year with an overall record of 14-14. Here’s some of the highlights:
THE NIT: ANOTHER BRIEF HISTORY
Founded in 1938, one year before the NCAA tournament, the NIT was initially a six-team field with every game played at Madison Square Garden. The field expanded several times in the following decades, increasing to as many as 40 teams from 2002 to 2006 before reverting to 32 where it remains to this day.
And believe it or not, ages and ages ago the National Invitation Tournament was considered more prestigious than the NCAA Tournament.
The NIT played in New York City. It’s location as both the media and basketball capital of the world made the NIT more famous. Plus, the NCAA tournament only invited one team from each of eight regions, which kept many other deserving teams out of the postseason.
It was actually possible for teams to play in both tournaments, with several teams losing the NIT but winning the NCAA, before a rule change in the early-1950’s said you had to pick one or the other. And the NCAA and NIT champions even played each other for three years during World War II in a Red Cross sponsored charity game.
Some teams declined their NCAA invite to go play in the NIT, usually due to being put into a weird region and being forced to travel across the country for games. That changed in 1971 when the NCAA, long the arbiter of equality, fairness and freedom, made a rule saying that if you were offered a spot in the NCAA tournament you had to accept it, or you were ineligible for any other postseason play.
This rule, coupled with another NCAA decision a few years later to invite more than one team per conference, nudged the NIT into permanent second-place status. As the NCAA made several television deals that gobbled up precious prime time and revenue, the NIT couldn’t compete.
And while the 14 automatic bids in the NCAA tournament can skew the final rankings a bit, one has to think that teams who celebrate a NIT Championships aren’t just announcing to the world that “We’re #69!”
1956: The Best Year
It was the 12th year under head coach Bernard “Peck” Hickman. Peck never had a losing season as the coach of the Cardinals but hadn’t had any postseason success since their National Association of Intercollegiate Basketball Tournament Championship in 1948.
The ’55-’56 Cardinals were led by Charlie Tyra, the father of current interim athletic director Vince Tyra. Tyra the Elder was the team leader in pretty much every statistical category, but he was an absolute monster on the glass. The 38 boards he pulled down against Canisius during the season remains a school record to this day, and he remains the program’s leading rebounder.
Louisville finished the regular season with 23-3 record, earning a first-round bye for the NIT. They won the next three games handily, including a 93-80 drubbing of Davidson in the championship game. Tyra averaged 24 points and 18 rebounds a game through the NIT tournament that year and went on to the first of his two All-American selections. He was the first Cardinal to be an All-American.
Later that year the NCAA would hand down punishments to Louisville. They were put on two years’ probation and banned from the NCAA tournament and any affiliated postseason play due to several recruiting violations. Auburn and Florida were also penalized at the same time. It was the most severe penalties the NCAA had handed out to date.
2006: The Last Year
2006 marked the first time the NIT Tournament was run by the NCAA. The NCAA bought the tournament from the Metropolitan Intercollegiate Basketball Association, which had run the NIT since its founding. This was part of a settlement for an antitrust lawsuit the MIBA had levied against the NCAA, claiming that it was illegal to make teams choose the NCAA if they wanted to play in the NIT and that the NCAA had expanded in order to bankrupt the NIT. The NCAA, bastion of amateurism and integrity, almost certainly would have lost the suit, so they just bought the whole thing.
2006 was over ten years ago, but the 2005-2006 men’s team featured a couple of players who featured heavily in recent team history.
They were led by senior guard Taquan Dean, who averaged 16.7 points and 5.5 rebounds a game. But with him on the roster was redshirt sophomore David Padgett, seeing his first action since transferring from Kansas. Also playing his first games as a Cardinal was freshman guard Andre McGee.
The ’05-’06 team had high hopes. They were coming off a Final Four appearance and were moving from Conference USA to the Big East, full of college basketball powerhouses. They were in for a rude awakening after years of running roughshod over Conference USA.
While they dominated their nonconference schedule besides the usual but still infuriating loss to Kentucky, Louisville struggled when conference time came around. They finished 6-10 in the Big East and lost to Pittsburgh in the first round of the conference tournament. That finish put them on the outside of the bubble looking in, but they were given a one-seed for the NIT tournament, which means they got to play their first three games at home in Freedom Hall.
And they won all those games easily, beating Delaware State, Clemson and Missouri State before traveling to New York for the semifinals to face defending NIT champion South Carolina. Led by senior forward and eventual NIT MVP and first-round draft pick Renaldo Balkman, the Gamecocks shot an insane 60 percent from the field and never really let the Cards within eight points.
South Carolina would go onto to beat Michigan to win back-to-back NIT titles, only the second team ever to do so.
Dean would change his name to Taqwa Pinero in 2016. Both Padgett and McGee would go on to coach under Pitino. You know what happened to both of them.
2016: The ? Year
The 2018 NIT will feature a few experimental rules changes this year including a widened lane, extended three-point line and four ten-minute quarters.
The 2017-18 Cardinals and their fans have been through their share of change this season, from the coaching staff to the record books to the rafters of their home arena. And still more change may lie ahead.
But even though the tournament has changed, Louisville is still balling in March. All that’s left for fans to do is to enjoy a little more hoops and thank the good Lord we weren’t bumped down to the CBI.
Chris Acree joined The Cardinal Connect as a contributing writer in August of 2016.