All the hoopla will be lavished this weekend on the Final Four of the NCAA Men's Division 1 Basketball Tournament, which tips-off in Indianapolis and will be on the minds of betting pools and bracket-card holders all across the country. Of course, there is another college basketball tournament that is even older in age and stature than the NCAA, which was once, in fact, the "Big Dance" that the best college teams wished to get invited to and claim its title.
And, best of all, it took place in New York City, and still does, the Mecca of The City Game -- inside the home court shrine of Madison Square Garden. The National Invitation Tournament, the NIT (its final round takes place Thursday night), fell from basketball grace back in the mid-1950s. Today it stands as college basketball's second-tier coronation, the consolation prize for those teams who were "Not Invited [to the] Tournament."
The semifinal between Temple University and the University of Miami on Tuesday did not lack for excitement, although the Garden was far from sold out. The Hurricanes advanced to the final, but only after alternating lead changes and the kind of theatrics that didn't seem that much different from the final four teams that had cast their lot with the NCAA.
Of course, the NIT doesn't offer fans the office-pool social experience and Vegas-like thrill of Bracketology, which consumes the nation during the final month of winter each season and culminates in March Madness. Suddenly colleges are forgiven their academic standing and are instead rewarded with side bets and trash talk about which teams are likely to advance beyond the full-bracket of 64 teams. The Sweet 16 features schools that suit-up players not that much older than 16 -- and some, even though not fully grown, are far more ferocious than sweet. Few are likely to graduate. "Student"-athlete is a stretch, even among those already so tall.
In more recent years, the President of the United States receives a televised opportunity to fill out his own bracket and opine on the politics of the NCAA's invitational rankings. President Obama is a student of the game, and he knows his teams. Even Republicans look forward to hearing him hold court on the logic of why some teams advance and others return to campus to take midterms. Some of his State of the Union addresses received lower ratings than do these homespun hoops fireside chats.
Now that's true madness.
The NIT may have lost much of its mojo years since the day when City College won both the NIT and the NCAA (the only team to have done so during an era when it was possible to compete in both tournaments). Of course, this also coincided with CCNY's point-shaving scandal, which ended an era of New York City college basketball dominance and opened a door for Kentucky, Duke and North Carolina to become the perennial college basketball powerhouses that they are now.
Sitting in Madison Square Garden and watching the NIT Final Four seems serene by comparison to the sheer insanity of the aptly named March Madness. By early April and the arrival of the Final Four of both tournaments, New York assumes its role as a sleepy, pastoral basketball afterthought. But the NIT itself is a blast, and with the college bands playing backup, serves as a paean to the rich history of the round-ball in this borough. The NIT mercifully gives New York basketball fans a respite from the misery that has become the Knicks over this past decade and counting.
As the Hurricanes went on to defeat the Owls, and the partisan crowd of Miami alumni who long since lost their tans left the Garden, there was a common feeling that this very place was the center of the basketball universe. Whatever will be happening this weekend in Indianapolis is just pomp and circumstance, with some fast breaks and monster dunks thrown in for added spectacle and, of course, madness.
How in the world did New York City lose the Big Dance to any other American town -- even in the Hoosier state, which, admittedly, knows something about the City Game, too?
Thursday night's NIT Final should offer more than a mere second-class hoops spectacle. Stanford and Miami -- too colorful and regionally diverse schools, oddly out of the national spotlight and playing in the shadow of the madness elsewhere, will get down to the business of carrying on the tradition of NIT greatness.
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