NEW YORK—Though the NCAA's postseason consolation tournament began play earlier this week, National Invitational Tournament selection committee chairman C.M. Newton issued a nationwide call for more basketball teams, or even individual players, saying the NIT is still trying to round up enough guys to fill out the 32-team field.
"Whether you are 7 years old or 70, male or female, or just happen to be in the neighborhood, we at the NIT would love for you to play in our tournament," Newton told reporters at a press conference, adding that last-minute entrants would only have to pay half of the NIT's customary $150 entry fee. "The NIT's a really fun, no-pressure tournament. Nobody cares that much, and the skill level isn't that high, so even if you haven't picked up a ball in years you'll fit right in."
"It's laid-back," Newton added. "It's cool, and it's healthy for you. You'll love it. Come on over."
According to Newton, since several teams either rejected the NIT's initial invitation or made an informal commitment to the tournament but never bothered to return follow-up phone calls, there were six empty spots remaining prior to Tuesday night's opening tip-off. That number increased to 10 when Morgan State, UNC-Asheville, Elks Lodge #368 from Mesquite, NV, and the team representing the Squirrel Hill Jewish Community Center in Pittsburgh, PA canceled at the last minute.
"In order to participate in the NIT, all you have to do is show up with five guys, some basketball sneakers, and a good attitude," Newton said. "Or, if you are a single and just want to play some B-ball, don't feel embarrassed. Just show up and we can probably fit you in somewhere."
"I think Ohio State and the 10th Street Y's over-50 league only brought four guys each this year," added Newton, who also wanted potential players to know that they can call their team whatever they want no matter how silly or crazy the name. "Please come out and play."
Newton later stated that because he is having difficulty getting in touch with facility operators at the tournament's various venues, which consists of the Scottsdale YMCA, Ben Franklin Elementary School's cafeteria/gymnasium, and the outdoor courts behind St. Rita's Church, those who ultimately decide to play would be doing tournament organizers a huge favor by bringing their own basketballs.
Reports from last night's first-round contest between Creighton University and the University of Rhode Island indicate that the entire game was played with a volleyball.
According to tournament officials, the desperate call for players is not an uncommon practice for the NIT, which is now in its 50th, 34th, or 22nd year depending on who you talk to. Last year's selection committee was only able to get 25 collegiate teams to participate in the postseason playoff. In 2004, only 10 NCAA teams were willing to play in the consolation tournament, making it possible for "The Montana Bar Bears," a squad consisting of five lawyers from Missoula, MT, to win the entire tournament. The Bar Bears defeated Rutgers University in front of a record NIT crowd of 278 people.
"Anything can happen in the NIT, baby," ESPN college basketball analyst Dick Vitale said. "And this year should be no different. Opponents better watch out for [New York real estate agent] Rick Nelson's super, scintillating, sensational baby hook. And you can't forget [56-year-old] Mort Feldstein's unbelievable presence down low. He's a PTPer, baby."
Vitale later admitted that he could not name one college basketball team participating in this year's NIT.
"Once the field is complete, we are going to play NIT basketball as usual," chief official Art Hyland said. "Half-court games to 11, win by two, loser's outs. And it's important for those new players unfamiliar with NIT rules to remember that if you don't call 'check ball,' the other team can just take it in for an easy lay up."
Hyland said that once teams are eliminated, there would be a hoop open at the other end of the gym so players could to get a "big game of knockout going."
"Looking at the field, I think we have a pretty good chance," said 52-year-old David Holtz, who will play for the Greensboro County Rotary Club. "Sure, the University of Dayton has guys who are younger and faster than us, but they lost to La Salle in February. Christ, I could beat La Salle by myself. The team to watch is definitely the Freemasons from Danville, CT. They have this one guy who is 6-foot-4."
Tournament organizer Christine Fallon said that players thinking about participating in the playoff should be aware that the prize of winning the NIT is the same this year as it was last year, with the championship team receiving $200 in cash and gift certificates good at local merchants.