When March Was at its Maddest

College football has been long derided for having a strange way of determining a national champion and pleases almost no one. The NCAA Tournament in college basketball is hailed as one of the organization’s greatest achievements. While filling out a March Madness bracket has become an annual joy of spring for hoops junkies, college basketball wasn’t too far off from having a confusing postseason of its own.

There were few pollsters who were selecting national champions before 1937. The National Invitational Tournament, better known as the NIT, was organized by New York sportswriter in 1938. In 1939, the NCAA Tournament came along. With the dueling tournaments, it was long argued the NIT was the superior tournament before the NCAA finally wrestled all control away by the 1970s. Now, the NCAA owns the NIT. However, the prestige – and money – that flowed from playing in Madison Square Garden kept the NIT’s reputation afloat for a long time.

The Red Cross tries to settle it

During World War II, the Red Cross organized an unofficial championship game known as the Red Cross War Benefit games between the winners of the NCAA and NIT Tournaments. However, a further look at the results muddies the waters for the legitimacy of these games. In 1943, NCAA winner Wyoming beat NIT champion St. John’s 52-47 in overtime.

In 1944, Utah beat St. John’s 43-36, while in 1945 Oklahoma A&M beat DePaul 52-44. Interestingly, the Utes, who won the mythical national title, lost in the first round of the NIT Tournament before going on to win the NCAA championship. Several players on the losing sides on the NIT squad said they looked at the game as a charity event and not a legitimate championship game.

Whatever the feelings of the losing side were, the NCAA did score three straight victories. The game was discontinued after the war ended. No major effort was ever made again to organize another championship game between the two tournament winners.

Undisputed Champions

City College of New York was a basketball powerhouse that was ultimately destroyed by a points shaving scandal. However, the 1949-50 Beavers’ team will forever have a spot in history as the undisputed kings of college basketball. CCNY won the NIT and NCAA Tournaments. Interestingly, the Beavers beat Bradley in the finals of both championships.

However, the win resulted in sweeping changes from the NCAA. After the year, the NCAA amended its rule so no team could compete in both competition. This prevented a repeat champion. Within 10 years, CCNY was booted out of major college basketball following the gambling scandal and would never return to the Division I level.

Gambling crushed the NIT

In addition to the CCNY scandal, Kentucky got caught up with gamblers in New York. The Wildcats were accused of throwing their first-round game in the 1949 NIT, falling to Loyola Chicago in the quarterfinals 67-54. Kentucky, which won the NCAA title that season, had breezed to a 32-2 season and won the SEC with a perfect 13-0 mark in conference play.

In the 1949 NCAA Tournament, Kentucky won all three of its games by double figures. Tripping up Villanova by 13, Illinois by 29 and Oklahoma A&M by 10 on the way to the title. Much like CCNY, the Wildcats would get hard by gambling sanctions, but eventually rebuilt itself back into a powerhouse program.

Thanks, but no thanks

By the early 1970s, the NCAA had won the war between the tournaments for which tournament had the final prestige level. But at that point, teams could still choose which event they would rather compete in. Marquette Hall of Fame coach Al McGuire gave the NIT one of its final shining moments.

The Warriors’ coach wasn’t happy with being placed in the Midwest instead of the Mideast Regional. Marquette, which was ranked eighth nationally, decided to go and play in the NIT instead. The Warriors bludgeoned Utah by 20, LSU by 22 and St. John’s by 12 to win their first NIT crown.

While Marquette proved its point, the NCAA would legislate this from happening again. The NCAA barred teams from competing in another postseason tournament if they were offered a NCAA Tournament bid.