Did Bill Russell cripple the NIT?


The fact that the NIT was bypassed by the most dominant player up to that time on the most dominant team up to that time may have had long-term consequences. (Photo by the incomparable Rich Clarkson, of course.)

People who talk about the history of college basketball like to say that the NIT used to be just as prestigious as the NCAA tournament, if not more so.

I know this is the case, because I recently said it in an unpremeditated fashion myself. A couple weeks ago I was interviewing a college basketball VIP, and I somewhat airily blurted out that Seton Hall winning the NIT in 1953 was noteworthy because, you know, the annual get-together in Madison Square Garden used to be a really big deal.

Then I started wondering. My knowledge of the NIT in the early 1950s is admittedly limited. Is the sound bite we all like to use really accurate?

It turns out the conventional wisdom is indeed correct. This time.


SRS is the “simple rating system” logged for almost every Division I team since 1950 at sports-reference.com. (Almost every team. If you have an SRS for Arizona in 1950, UConn in 1951, or Seattle in 1952, I’m all ears.)

In effect, SRS is a schedule-adjusted measure of a team’s whole-season scoring margin. It’s no KenPom, of course, but, when working with games from 70 years ago, we’ll take what we can get. Anyway, the correlation coefficient between Ken’s AdjEM and straight SRS from 2015 to 2019 (1,757 D-I teams) was 0.99.

The bygone teams charted above represent the NIT and NCAA final fours over a period of 25 years. Naturally, tournaments can’t be held responsible for their own brackets getting busted in any given year (the locus classicus here is the 1954 NCAA tournament), but a quarter-century represents a pretty healthy volume of smoothing for these particular numbers.

Why not just compare the entire fields of both tournaments? As it happens the NCAA unwittingly skewed its own numbers once it began transitioning to conference-based automatic bids in the 1950s.

Auto-bids are the selection equivalent of blank checks, and a healthy number of statistically weak teams went dancing in the NCAA tournament as a result. (The auto-bid recipients from the Southwest Conference of the late ’60s and early ’70s, for example, were not keeping John Wooden up at night.) Conversely, the NIT could, of course, pick and choose as it filled its markedly smaller bracket.

As seen in our handy chart, the NIT really was statistically mighty once upon a time. In fact, you don’t even need a schmancy post-hoc stat to sing the praises of the Garden’s annual event. After all, one rule of historiography is to listen to the contemporaneous voices. In this case, that means pollsters.

The 1952 NIT field included no fewer than nine top-20 teams — not bad for a bracket with just 12 entrants. Granted, in 1952 teams were still occasionally playing in both the NIT and the NCAA tournament. Nevertheless, you can make a case that La Salle faced a tougher path in winning the 1952 NIT than the Explorers did when they captured the 1954 NCAA title.

Then Bill Russell happened. His San Francisco teams posted a 57-1 record in 1954-55 and 1955-56. In the mid-1950s it wouldn’t have been at all outlandish for a Jesuit school on the West Coast to have said yes to the NIT. Indeed, that’s precisely what the Dons did, as an independent, in Pete Newell’s last season at the helm in 1950. But by 1955 USF was in its third season as a member of the California Basketball Association, and Phil Woolpert took his team to the NCAA tournament.

Starting with the 1955 tournaments, the NIT’s semifinalists never again came within shouting distance of the NCAA’s in terms of statistical heft. Russell didn’t lock in that divergence, of course, but he was certainly a harbinger. Indeed, by 1960, when the NCAA put possibly its strongest Final Four yet on the floor, it was clear beyond all doubt that the organization in Kansas City had at last attained its long cherished vision. Its tournament was now recognized as crowning the true and solitary national champion.