Let 1985 be remembered as the year mm the National Invitational Tournament went double-NIT. Once college basketball's preeminent postseason competition, the New York City-based NIT has been fading inexorably since the NCAA tournament began taking over center stage in the 1960s. "We can't even call our semifinalists 'the Final Four' anymore," says NIT executive director Peter Carlesimo. "The NCAA owns the rights to the phrase."
Fearing extinction for their postseason tourney, Carlesimo and his committeemen conceived the Big Apple NIT for the preseason. An ambitious two-week, 16-team, four-region event, it concluded Sunday night in Madison Square Garden with first-class basketball—Duke outplayed and outrebounded bigger, slower Kansas 92-86—before a decidedly second-class crowd of 8,598. Such was the story of the tournament.
To bring off the '85 inaugural and fill its field with quality teams—10 were in SI's Top 40—the NIT needed the NCAA's help. Specifically, the NCAA had to let participating teams not count their Big Apple games against the 28-games-per-season limit. Carlesimo flew to Kansas City last summer to sway NCAA executive director Walter Byers. The gist of his pitch: A preseason tourney would be good for college basketball, a flashy preview of things to come. And it could recoup for the NIT some of the prestige it once enjoyed—all without detracting from the NCAA tournament. Byers thought it over and decided not to take a position on the matter.
"That was good!" says Carlesimo. Without any influence from Byers, the NCAA members voted overwhelmingly to accept the Big Apple NIT, which will supplement, not replace—not yet anyway—the March edition.
The NIT's biggest mistake—aside from allowing hometown St. John's to lose to Duke in the semis—was its decision to hold regional games in big off-campus arenas. Doubleheader crowds at Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati averaged 8,568, despite the presence of local draws Louisville, Miami ( Ohio) and Dayton. "They've got to seed some teams and play the games at someone's home court," said Louisville coach Denny Crum. Crum ought to be grateful—the Midwest regional was the Big Apple's most watched. And the most watched player there was Cardinal forward Billy Thompson, who had 40 points and 25 rebounds in Louisville's wins over Miami and Tulsa.
St. John's made its trip from Queens to the semifinals in Manhattan via Hartford, where, before an average of 4,082 fans and 11,010 empty seats, the Redmen beat Navy and West Virginia after the Mountaineers had knocked off 11th-ranked Auburn. St. John's forward Terry Bross and center Marco Baldi played hatchet men, holding Navy's star center, David Robinson, to eight points in the second half after he had picked up 19 in the first. "We put the body on him," said Bross.
In Denver, crowds of around 4,000 turned out to see former NBA Nuggets coach Larry Brown lead Kansas past pesky Pepperdine 67-61 and Washington 69-64. In the Houston Summit, Duke, minus center Jay Bilas, out with tendinitis in his left knee, beat Lamar and then, before a sorry handful of 947 loners who had their pick of 16,016 seats and were privy to the murmurings of bench-warmers, easily rolled over Alabama-Birmingham, 66-54.
The four head coaches who made it to New York spent the holiday weekend with voices raised in thanks—for the freebies, the games that didn't count against their limit yet provided a tune-up for conference play—and incessant praise for the NIT's "great tradition." The players might have joined in the homage act, if only they had been alive when the NIT was in its prime.
The semis suffered none of the regionals' iron-poor attendance, thanks largely to the presence of St. John's. To make himself heard over 14,225 competing vocalists Friday night, Redmen coach Lou Carnesecca—who called the tourney "a good thermometer" of his team—shouted himself hoarse, but St. John's was still nipped by Duke 71-70 on a top-of-the-key jumper by Blue Devil guard Johnny Dawkins with 21 seconds remaining. In defeat, the Redmen assured skeptics, and themselves, that life, even after Chris Mullin, goes on. Of St. John's forward Walter Berry, who had 35 points against the Blue Devils, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said flatly, "He's just a man out there." Berry went for 22 more in the Redmen's 86-79 upset win over Louisville in Sunday night's consolation.
Louisville had lost the other semifinal 83-78 to Kansas, largely because everything All-America guard Milt Wagner touched turned to brick. He hit just two of 15 shots from the field. With the game on the line, Crum stayed with three freshmen—Pervis Ellison, Tony Kimbro and Kenny Payne—explaining, "That's how they're going to learn."