Is N.I.T. Momentum Real?

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Source: Frank Franklin II/AP

by Eli Boettger – October 16, 2017

Way back when, the National Invitation Tournament (N.I.T. or NIT for short) was the crown jewel of the college basketball season.

Into the middle of the 1950’s or so, the NIT was known as the top showcase for college hoops postseason play. Over time, though, the NIT has lost its glimmer. It’s now more of a de-facto consolation postseason tournament than a star-studded event.

Even so, the NIT is an opportunity for middling power conference teams or up-and-coming mid/low-majors to show their worth in a single-game elimination tournament. The games can sometimes represent a glimpse of a program’s future, or the merciful end to once-promising seasons.

Since 2007, 34.1% of teams that played in the NIT reached the NCAA Tournament the following season. The likelihood of punching a tournament bid after an NIT trip, based on NIT games won, is in the table below. The data is from the last ten college basketball seasons.

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The data indicates that, on average, the further that a team advances in the NIT, the more likely that it will reach the NCAA Tournament the following season. Teams that are bounced in the first round of the NIT have made the next season’s NCAA Tournament just 46 out of 160 tries (28.8%). Of the 40 NIT semifinalists from the past ten years, 18 of them landed in the next season’s NCAA Tournament, a 16.2% increase in likelihood. The numbers could be potentially influenced by the fact that, up until the semifinals, games are played on school campuses, not at neutral sites.

NIT champions have had moderate success the past decade, with four of ten champs punching an NCAA Tournament ticket the following season. Jamie Dixon and the TCU Horned Frogs captured this year’s NIT title, and many prognosticators are anticipating Dixon’s team to be a top three team in the Big XII this season. TCU returns over three-quarters of the minutes from last year’s team, which is the second-highest total of the past ten NIT champs. The highest-total was the 2014-15 Minnesota Golden Gophers, which retained 79.4% of its team minutes, but they failed to punch a tournament bid the next season. Recruiting data is courtesy of 24/7 Sports.

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Returning minutes and incoming recruiting class don’t necessarily predict future tournament success. Stanford retained 68.2% of its playing time and welcomed the 34th ranked recruiting class for 2012-13, but the Cardinal, like Minnesota, also finished with an NIT invite. Strangely enough, teams that have lost the NIT championship game have had better success, with eight of 10 runner-ups making the NCAA Tournament the next season.

Separation between power conference teams (ACC, Big Ten, Big East, Big XII, Pac-12 and SEC) and mid- and low-major teams is also apparent. Power conference teams have accounted for 37.8% of NIT bids the past ten years, but 50.5% of NIT teams that reached the following year’s NCAA Tournament have been power conference teams.

In all, success in the NIT neither fully confirms or denies potential team success the following season. Ultimately, coaching and roster dynamics between returnees, transfers, and incoming recruiting classes appear to be the best indication of NIT encores. We’ll see if TCU is capable of making the leap over the next few months.

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