Why The NIT Season Tip-Off Has A New Look

When the 30th edition of NIT Season Tip-Off opens on Nov. 17 it will look completely different.

The tournament will open with just one game, as Division II Franklin Pierce travels to Carnesecca Arena to face off against St. John’s. The event is also no longer bracketed. Instead there will be six games at Madison Square Garden on the ESPN family of networks with all eight Division I teams getting at least one game in New York City.

There will be just 16 games in the tournament, the fewest since 2005, which was the first tournament run by the NCAA after the group purchased it for $40.5 million in August of that year. This season’s version will have two Division II teams in the field for the second straight season, however this year those two teams will play four road games against four of the event’s Division I participants.

Arizona won last season’s NIT Season Tip-Off, which may become the last 16-team bracketed November event. (photo courtesy: AP/Jason DeCrow)

Last season may have been the last 16-team bracketed preseason NIT event, and NCAA vice president of men’s basketball championships Dan Gavitt said that this year’s changes were three years in the making, as the organizers have encountered new obstacles in sustaining a 16-team event.

“We came to the realization, over the course of last spring, that getting to a 16-team field in the tradition of the event is going to be hard, if not impossible to accomplish,” Gavitt said. “Once we made that decision we had to change the format of it, honestly we were just trying to find a format that would largely take care of all the committed teams’ needs for an event.”

“Given the circumstances, trying to figure out a format with eight teams versus a 16 and still work closely with our partners at Madison Square Garden and ESPN, we think we came up with the best possible outcome.”

The NIT Season Tip-Off was the last remaining bracketed event containing more than eight teams. The 2006 event saw a relatively unknown Butler win the event, nabbing victories over Notre Dame, Indiana, Tennessee, and Gonzaga in the finals. That season would be the first of five straight NCAA tournament appearances for the Bulldogs. However, since then there has been a surge in multi-team events (or MTEs), thanks to a change in NCAA Bylaw that began prior to that season. The rule change stated teams could participate in a tournament in every season, instead of two events in every four, but they also loosened the restrictions on event certification.

“There are so many more multi-team events now, than there were just a few years ago, so the competition to get teams at every level is that much more challenging,” Gavitt said. “I just think it makes for a very competitive and difficult marketplace to run an event and yet the events are a huge part of college basketball.”

ESPN Events run five multi-team events, which include the Charleston Classic, Puerto Rico Tip-Off as well as the Wooden Legacy among others. Each has an eight-team field. The 2K Sports Classic, run by the Gazelle Group, was the only 16-team tournament format similar to the NIT Season Tip-Off. Two years after Gardner-Webb made it to Madison Square Garden from a regional site in Kentucky, the event changed their format to guarantee four major-conference teams trips to a championship round.

While neutral-site tournaments have expanded over the last few seasons, so have multi-team events at campus sites. BD Global, LLC will be running three events – the Hoosier Showcase, the Roundball Showcase, and the Cawood Ledford Classic that are held exclusively on campus sites.

This season’s NIT Season Tip-Off had hoped to continue as a bracketed event, including creating a pod at St. John’s that would have included Stony Brook, St. Joseph’s and LIU Brooklyn, but those plans went awry when the field could not reach 16 teams. Gavitt admitted that they had exhausted all Division I options by the end of August and began looking for Division II schools to help fill the void.

That’s why Franklin Pierce head coach David Chadbourne received an email from Northeast 10 commissioner Julie Ruppert addressed to all of the conference’s coaches in August asking if they had any interest in playing in the NIT Season Tip-Off. Even though Chadbourne’s schedule was already set, he answered with interest and was quickly put in touch with Will Hopkins at the NCAA. A few weeks later, and after adjusting games in Franklin Pierce’s schedule to fit the dates, the Ravens were part of the event.

“I didn’t really know that at the time, but I still couldn’t pass on it,” Chadbourne joked on finding out he would be playing three games in three days to start the season. Franklin Pierce begins its season with two games against LIU Post and New York Tech at LIU Post, followed by their NIT game at St. John’s.

The Ravens head coach said he will likely talk to Metro State head coach Derrick Clark, whose team beat Fairleigh Dickinson, Elon and Canisius in last season’s event. Entering the tournament didn’t hurt or help the school financially, instead Chadbourne said his incentive to sign up for the event was the memories it would provide his players.

“This isn’t just about the moment, it’s about for them to have this memory, this experience forever,” Chadbourne said.

Most of the other head coaches were signed up for the event had seen the ink dry on their participation contracts a long time ago. In fact, most of them forgot how when they signed up.

St. Joseph’s head coach Phil Martelli is concerned that the NIT Season Tip-Off may lose some of its prestige. (photo courtesy: Tug Haines, City of Basketball Love)

St. Joseph’s head coach Phil Martelli said his school signed up for the event three to five years ago. Georgia head coach Mark Fox said, “It’s so far back I can’t remember,” recalling that it was at least two to three years ago. Stony Brook head coach Steve Pikiell said it was one of the only times he’s signed up for an event at least two years out. LIU Brooklyn head coach Jack Perri, who was an assistant when the contract was signed, said he joked with his previous boss, now Duquesne head coach Jim Ferry, about signing up the Blackbirds.

For Stony Brook and Western Kentucky, the scheduling issues for the preseason NIT will also make an impact next season. As part of the event, the NIT organizers presented the two schools with a home-and-home series, resulting in the Hilltoppers’ trip to Stony Brook Arena two days before Thanksgiving.

“We got an opportunity to get a home game which we’ve struggled to get,” Pikiell said about the Seawolves’ decision to take the agreement. Stony Brook has four home non-conference games this season outside of the NIT Tip-Off. “I’m sure Western Kentucky had to agree to it and we had to agree to the return, but it was the NIT organizing all of it.”

Gavitt said that Stony Brook’s return game to Western Kentucky next season was “not especially a condition” of joining the event and that the two schools agreed to return the game next season. So far, it is the only game that will be returned next season out of this season’s event.

For Martelli, the Hawks’ schedule in the month of November was dramatically altered by the tournament. They will host Drexel on Nov. 17, but after that will have to travel for an 11 p.m. tip at Gonzaga two days later.

“They worked as hard as they could work to make the best of a bad situation, so we tried to be as cooperative as possible,” Martelli said. “We have a tough spot, we play Drexel on a Monday night in Philadelphia and we play at Gonzaga on a Wednesday night all the way on the other side of the country, then we come back and play on a Saturday night at home.”

Perri admitted that a contract for another non-conference game broke down while he waited for the NIT Season Tip-Off dates and games to be organized. The event calls for teams to block certain dates out of their schedule, which only added to the difficulty of filling the Blackbirds’ non-conference slate.

“By the time I ended up getting the schedule, it was too late to get games that I thought were good for us,” Perri said. “That’s frustrating when we could have 30 games this year, but now we have 29.”

LIU Brooklyn turned down a fourth game presented by the NCAA, which would’ve been against a Division II opponent. LIU’s only other game in November is a trip to Temple on the final day of the month. Georgia head coach Mark Fox was put in a similar bind, turning down a Division II game offered by the NCAA, but the Bulldogs were able to add a home game against Troy late in the process.

“I think that what we planned on changed and so we made the most of it,” Fox said of the changes to the NIT format. “We had budgeted for an extra game that we hadn’t scheduled yet, so for us to use that slot when the NIT only provided one home game for us, to be able to still get the second Division I home game on our own was important to us.”

Gonzaga, Minnesota, St. John’s and Stony Brook accepted a home game against a Division II opponent. The Seawolves will host St. Thomas Aquinas in the final game of the NIT Season Tip-Off on Nov. 29, the day after the championship game at Madison Square Garden.

Georgia head coach Mark Fox would like to use the NIT Season Tip-Off to build his school's tournament resume. (photo courtesy: University of Georgia Athletics)
Georgia head coach Mark Fox would like to use the NIT Season Tip-Off to build his school’s tournament resume. (photo courtesy: University of Georgia Athletics)

Of the teams in the field, only Gonzaga and St. Joseph’s played in the NCAA tournament last season. Even though Georgia will only play three games in the event, Fox knows the importance of getting a marquee win in the first two months of the season.

“I think last year, we were not very good in November, we were really good in January and February, but I think that the non-league schedule sometimes in the committees’ eyes, almost becomes more important than your league schedule,” Fox said. “So to play good teams is important. I think we’re trying to use this as a way to prepare for league play and certainly as a chance to boost your strength of schedule numbers.”

The future of the NIT Season Tip-Off will likely reflect the present predicament and will likely contain fewer than 16 teams, but the NCAA is committed to maintaining the event’s legacy with its championship in the heart of New York City.

“We feel pretty confident that we’re going to be able to keep this event going, keep the tradition alive, with just a different format,” Gavitt said.

Gavitt said that the format of the event may change again after this year’s NIT Season Tip-Off, adding that they might switch it up after testing this format this year. He said that the NCAA has teams committed for the 2015 event, but the field has not been filled yet.

“The goal is to have the field be complete of Division I teams, but if necessary to complete the field, to keep the event vibrant, we had to weigh a Division II then that’s always a possibility,” Gavitt said. “I think what we’ve found, over the last three years including this year, is that by and large teams that commit to the event want to play all Division I opponents, so that will be the goal.”

For Martelli, this will be his third appearance as the Hawks head coach in the Tip-Off event. He said the analogy of signing up for the event was “like buying a Coca Cola,” you knew what you were getting, but he hopes that the brand is not hurt by what transpired.

“This was as good as you could do in college basketball, and because of a lot of powers, that’s not the way it is and that’s sad,” Martelli said. “It should sadden everybody that cares about college basketball.”

Georgia head coach Mark Fox, whose team participated in the postseason NIT last season, said that with the explosion in multi-team events, ones such as the NIT Season Tip-Off will have to adapt to maintain their relevance.

“I think the world’s changed and I think that tournaments and their formats have to change with it,” Fox said. “The amount of money that some of these teams are requesting to participate in the tournament has gotten a little bit out of balance with what makes sense. For them to go to a smaller field and a different format, it makes sense. It’s the right adaptation to make things work within today’s world of college basketball.”

Since the NIT Season Tip-Off has existed, the nature of scheduling has changed. Power conference teams schedule fewer road games, and the market for mid-major and small schools for guarantee games is competitive against the tournament setting, where most won’t make any profit.

“The guarantee teams are paying a lot more money than the tournament and I think everyone would have told you that too and that may be part of it,” Pikiell said, whose team will play games at Cincinnati, at Providence, and at Washington in the month of December. “Now teams offer some really hefty guarantees and that changed, prior probably back when the Preseason NIT started there weren’t those kind of considerations. No one was paying those kind of guarantees.”

While Gavitt would not say how many teams are signed up for next season, he said that the NCAA will keep the NIT Season Tip-Off alive in albeit a new form.

“There’s so much tradition and history of great players, coaches and teams in the event in New York,” Gavitt said mentioning the NCAA tournament success of last year’s Tip-Off finalists Duke and Arizona. “It’s just continuing to be a great event and we’re going to work hard to make sure it stays that way.”

Ryan Restivo wrote the America East conference preview for the 2014-15 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. He covers the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, the America East conference and more for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanarestivo or contact Ryan at rrestivo[at]nycbuckets.com.

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