From the First NIT to the NCAA Final Four
This section provides a brief summary of the seasons from 1938 to 1994, complete NIT and NCAA tournament results, major conference champions, Player and Coach of the Year winners, and the consensus All-America teams. From 1938-48, the head coaches, regular season records and final records of the tournament teams are given. Starting in 1949, the first year of the AP basketball poll, coaches and records are given for the teams listed on the final regular season Top 20.
James Naismith, a 30-year-old Canadian physical education instructor attending the YMCA training school in Springfield, Mass., invented basketball in December, 1891. But it was Ned Irish, a 29-year-old sportswriter-turned-promoter who invented big time college basketball when he staged the sport's first intersectional doubleheader at Madison Square Garden in New York on Dec. 19, 1934.
An overflow crowd of 16,188 attended that first Garden twin bill as NYU beat Notre Dame, 25-18, and Westminster College of Pennsylvania beat St. John's, 37-33. In the midst of the Great Depression college basketball had arrived.
Two years later, it was ready for its first Game of the Century. On Dec.30, 1936 at the Garden (where else, by now every kid who could dribble a ball was dreaming of playing there) Long Island University, winners of 43 straight, played Stanford, the Pacific Coast Conference champion. Eastern establishment vs. Western mavericks. Legendary coach—Clair Bee of LIU— vs. the game's first superstar—Hank Luisetti of Stanford.
Stanford won the game, 43–31, but the next day it wasn't the upset fans were talking about—it was the revolutionary way in which the Indians had gone about mopping the Garden floor with the mighty Blackbirds. Until that game, the slow, deliberate, style of play practiced by LIU and other Eastern powers was the accepted and successful way to go. Two-hand set shots on offense and man-to-man on defense.
But Stanford didn't play Eastern style. The Indians ran with the ball, switched on defense and most remarkable of all, this guy Luisetti shot one-handed and on the move. To Eastern coaches the one-hander was blasphemy, a low percentage shot that smacked of showing off. But Luisetti was averaging 20 points a game. Besided, crowds loved him and Stanford was winning.
“No doubt about it,” said Howie Dallmar, the former Stanford All-America and coach. “Hank simply revolutionized basketball. He was at least 20 years ahead of his time.”
In Luisetti's wake, basketball became much more than just a game that was played between the football and baseball seasons. It developed a national following and with it the need for a tournament to decide a national champion. Promoter Irish and the New York sportswriters stepped into the void in 1938 with the National Invitation Tournament at the Garden. A year later, the National Association of Basketball Coaches organized a tournament of their own and held it at Northwestern. The NABC asked the NCAA to take over running the tournament in 1940.
For three years during World War II (1943–45), the NIT and NCAA champions met in an unofficial national championship game in New York for the benefit of the Red Cross. The NCAA champs won all three games, including a 1945 showdown between big men Bob Kurland of Oklahoma A&M and George Mikan of DePaul.
While the NIT conducted its entire tournament at Madison Square Garden, only the two regional champions made it to the NCAA championship site, which, from 1943–48, was also the Garden. The Final Two changed somewhat in 1946 when both regional runners-up were invited to the championship site, but they could only play for third place. The Final Four was really born in 1952 when the NCAAs expanded to four regional sites and the four winners advanced to Seattle to play for the title.
By the time San Francisco, with Bill Russell and K.C. Jones, was putting together back-to-back national titles in 1955–56, the NCAA tournament had overtaken the NIT as the true playoff for the national championship. By then, the NCAAs had automatic berths for all major conference champions and had expanded from eight to 25 teams while the NIT was still inviting only 12.
A third postseason playoff—the Collegiate Commissioners' Assn. Tournament—sprang up in 1974 and further diluted the NIT field by inviting all eight major conference runner-ups. In 1975, the NCAAs expanded to 32 teams and allowed conference runner-ups to accept at-large bids. That spelled the end of the CCA and it discontinued play after only two years.
As the NCAA tournament became more popular, it kept expanding—to 40 teams in 1979, 48 in 1980, 52 in 1983 and finally, the present 64–team field in 1985. Network television became a major player in 1969 when NBC Sports paid over $500,000 to broadcast the championship game between UCLA and Purdue. Ten years later, Michigan State and Indiana State played for the title and that meeting between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird set a ratings record that still stands.
Ten years after that, CBS agreed to pay the NCAA $1 billion over seven years for exclusive rights to the entire tournament. That exclusivity meant the end of cable network ESPN's 10–year run of early round coverage, which did much to popularize the tournament.