Head Coach Larry Brown
April 3, 2014
NEW YORK (SMU) - In 1938, the minimum wage law was instituted in the United States, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was in his fifth year in the Oval Office and America was in the midst of the Great Depression. Meanwhile on the Hilltop, SMU finished its men's basketball campaign with an overall record of 9-6 and had an 8-4 mark in conference after winning the Southwestern Conference's regular season championship the year before.
That was also the year when the National Invitation Tournament was created. The NIT, which sought to celebrate college basketball nationwide by bringing a sampling of nationally accomplished teams to the famous Madison Square Garden in New York is the nation's oldest collegiate basketball postseason tournament as it pre-dates the NCAA Tournament by one year.
Now the 2013-14 SMU Mustangs are looking for their first postseason championship in program history on Thursday. The Mustangs meet the Big Ten's University of Minnesota at 6 p.m. CT. The game will be broadcast on ESPN.
SMU is led by seniors Nick Russell, Shawn Williams and Head Coach Larry Brown, who is returning to his New York City home for the event. Brown has taken the Mustangs from a 15-17 record a season ago to a 27-win season in 2013-14, following Tuesday night's 65-59 win over Clemson in the NIT Semifinals. This year's Mustangs are one win shy of the school-record set in 1987-88 season (28-7).
"For me, for our kids to have an opportunity to keep playing is great," Brown said about the opportunity to play in the Final Four of the NIT. "You've got the NCAA Final Four playing for a National Championship, and the NIT, which is like a National Championship, especially when I was growing up. I'm happy for our team and I'm thrilled for our program."
The NIT was created by the Metropolitan Basketball Writers Association but the administration of the tournament changed two years later to the Metropolitan Intercollegiate Basketball Association (MIBA). That group was comprised of five New York City colleges and universities, a list that included Fordham, Manhattan, New York University, St. John's and Wagner.
In the first year of the event in 1938, the 6-team field included Long Island and NYU, paying respects to the growing popularity of basketball in New York. MIBA operated the NIT until 2005 when the NCAA purchased the rights of the tournament for 10 years.
While the NIT originally consisted of just six teams, it eventually expanded over the years, reaching a 32-team field in 1980. The tournament boasted 40 competitors from 2002-06 but then reverted back to 32 in 2007.
The tournament's reputation built a following nationwide and there were years when teams were just as happy to play in the NIT instead of the NCAA Tournament, as Coach Brown remembers.
"I grew up realizing how great the NIT was," Brown said. "Fran Fraschilla (former coach and current ESPN broadcaster) explained it to our kids and Bobby Knight (former Army, Indiana and Texas Tech coach and current ESPN broadcaster) talked about it as well. It's a phenomenal opportunity for our program and for our kids to play in this environment."
Knight and Fraschilla were among the announcers for the Tuesday night's semifinal broadcast and will be on the call for Thursday's title game as well.
Compared to the NIT, which picked its field and made sure a New York presence was included in the early years, the NCAA Tournament started with one team chosen from each of eight regions across the country. The growth of basketball nationwide would allow many highly regarded teams available to play in the NIT. Because the tournament was based in New York, strong media coverage was guaranteed and that allowed the event to build a reputation that appealed to fans and could give colleges a way to try for an edge in recruiting.
Through the years, the NIT and NCAA Tournament were not played simultaneously, so it was not uncommon for a team to compete in both tournaments. In fact, during World War II (1943-1945) the winners of each tournament played each other in a charity game sponsored by the American Red Cross to raise funds for the war effort.
The NIT came into the spotlight in a novel way in the 1969-70 postseason when Marquette University of Milwaukee, Wis., decided to accept the NIT's bid rather than the NCAA's.
The NCAA Tournament committee had decided that Marquette would start the postseason in the Midwest Regional in Fort Worth, Texas. Turning down the NCAA, Marquette won the NIT that year and finished the season ranked eighth in the final Associated Press college basketball poll. Marquette supporters claimed their team had won a national title and a debate was sparked throughout the country long before the days of ESPN and websites with analysts following and ranking dozens of winning teams. That controversy caused the NCAA to mandate that any team selected to participate in the NCAA Tournament must accept its bid or be prohibited from postseason play.
And the rest is history.
SMU's 2014 run of victories has built a new basketball history on the Hilltop. Playing in the NIT this season marked the Mustangs' third bid.
"It doesn't get any better than this," senior guard Nick Russell said about heading to New York. "Coming to SMU, I didn't know that I would have Coach Brown as my coach, and I didn't expect SMU to blossom as much as it has. It has been a blessing in disguise."
Senior Shawn Williams, sophomores Markus Kennedy and Nic Moore and freshman Sterling Brown all echoed Russell's comments, saying that playing in New York was going to be "fun", "exciting" and "great."
Coach Brown and his team left Dallas for New York with only one goal, as Kennedy alluded to arriving in the city known as the Big Apple. "We're going to try to come back and hang a banner," Kennedy said with a smile.
So the stage is set in an arena known for its storied history dating to a time when basketball players were known as "cagers" because of fencing put up around the court.
And SMU, led by a coach who knows the tradition of Madison Square Garden better than almost anyone, will compete to be the 2014 NIT Champion, win the school's first national tournament, and try to tie the school record for single season wins. Most importantly, SMU will look to finish its season the right way.