Does making the NIT lead to the NCAA Tournament in the immediate future? Looking through the history of Mississippi State’s NIT runs, I hope to answer this very question.
A Quick History of the NIT
The NIT or the National Invitational Tournament was founded in 1938 as a 6 team tournament held in Madison Square Garden. Because of the location of New York City, this tournament was regarded as the more prestigious tournament over the NCAA Tournament also in part due to the lack of media covering the sport. One of the major reasons the NIT has declined in prestige over the years is due to the expansion of the NCAA Tournament. When Mississippi State made the NCAA Tournament in 1963, only 25 teams were invited at the time and only 12 teams made the NIT. Today 68 teams make the NCAA Tournament and 32 teams make the NIT which equals to 30% of all D1 Basketball Programs.
The NIT has been using a 32 team field since 1980, except for the years in between 2002-2006 when the NIT used a 40 team field. The NIT was not founded under the control of the NCAA. The NCAA did not take control of the tournament until they purchased it in 2005. This led to the modern selection process of a separate committee, and giving automatic bids to regular season conference champions.
Mississippi State made its debut into the 24 team NIT Tournament in 1979. This was their first postseason appearance since the 1963 NCAA Tournament. First year head coach Jim Hatfield led the Bulldogs to the tournament with a 19-8 record including a 11-7 conference record. Mississippi State hosted Alcorn State for the NIT. This was the first meeting between the schools, and Mississippi State had never faced Alcorn, Jackson State, or Mississippi Valley in Men’s Basketball. Alcorn State was having a historic season of its own. The Braves finished 27-0 in the regular season, and were snubbed from the NCAA Tournament due to their conference not having an automatic bid at the time. The Braves came into a crowd of 9,745 at the Humphrey Coliseum and ended up winning 80-78. Alcorn State would end up losing to eventual NIT Champion Indiana to finish their season 28-1. March 8, 1979 is truly a historic day in Mississippi in more ways than one.
For Mississippi State, this NIT would not lead to anything in the immediate future as they would not reach the postseason again until 1990. But it certainly was an accomplishment for a program that needed something in some of the most dark years of Bulldog Basketball.
Fourth year head coach, Richard Williams, had a losing record each of his first 3 seasons at Mississippi State. 1990 was a breakthrough for Mississippi State. This season featured wins over Kentucky, Ole Miss, Alabama, and 11th ranked LSU. They had a player named Shaquille O’Neal. After finishing 15-13, the Bulldogs were invited to their 2nd postseason tournament in 27 years. The Bulldogs would get to host the Baylor Bears in the first round of the NIT. State would defeat the Bears 84-75 to advance to the second round. Mississippi State would have to travel to New Orleans to face the Privateers. Mississippi State did travel to New Orleans earlier in the season and ended up winning 62-55. But the NIT is different than the regular season. And this time, New Orleans came out on top 65-60. New Orleans would end up losing to eventual NIT Champion Vanderbilt.
This NIT Tournament was building block for Mississippi State. In 1991, they would win the Southeastern Conference Regular Season by sweeping the Shaq led LSU. The Bulldogs would earn their 2nd ever NCAA Tournament Appearance and achieve their first 20 win season since 1963(if you cannot tell, 1963 was a great year for Mississippi State Basketball).
Having not made the postseason since the 1991 NCAA Tournament, Mississippi State came into the 1994 season with the intention of getting back. The highlight of the 1994 season occurred on January 19th, when the Bulldogs handed eventual NCAA Champions, Arkansas, one of their only 3 losses of the season. While the Bulldogs did finish 18-10, it was not enough for the NCAA Tournament. Instead Mississippi State spent its postseason in Manhattan Kansas for the NIT. The Bulldogs would lose to Kansas State 78-67.
But this certainly was not a bad season in the slightest. This season and this NIT appearance was the springboard that pushed Mississippi State to their best two postseason finishes in 1995 an 1996. Mississippi State made it to the Sweet Sixteen in 1995 with a loss to eventual National Champions UCLA. And 1996 would end up being Mississippi State’s Best season in school history. This squad would end up defeating eventual National Champions Kentucky in the SEC Tournament Final, and this team would make their way to the Final Four. Quite an impressive 3 years for Mississippi State which included beating 2 out of the 3 National Champions and having to face all 3.
The Rick Stansbury era at Mississippi State begins. And it was solid first season. The season was highlighted with win over #25 Florida at home. And it featured a 20 win season for the Bulldogs. Mississippi State was invited to their 4th NIT and faced Colorado State on the road in the first round. Mississippi State would end up falling 69-56 to the Rams. The Bulldogs did not end up reaching postseason of any kind in 2000.
2001 was a huge year for the foundation of Mississippi State under Rick Stansbury. The Bulldogs finished 16-12, highlighted with wins over ranked teams like Arizona, Ole Miss, and Alabama. Mississippi State would begin the 2001 NIT with a home game against Southern Mississippi. The Bulldogs would end up winning 75-68 to advance to the second round. There the Bulldogs traveled to Pittsburgh Pennsylvania to face the Pittsburgh Panthers, coached by 2nd year head coach Ben Howland. State would pull out a tough win in Fitzgerald Fieldhouse with the final score being 66-61. Howland’s Pittsburgh squad did have a good season finishing 19-14 with a loss in the Conference Tournament Championship Game. Mississippi State would move on the their first ever quarterfinals with a home game against Tulsa. State would drop a heartbreaker 77-75 and lose to the eventual NIT Champions in Humphrey Coliseum. Tulsa would go on to beat Memphis and Alabama in Madison Square Garden. Had State held on, the fiery Alabama rivalry of the 2000s would certainly have gotten a jumpstart.
This 2001 NIT Appearance ended up leading to 4 straight NCAA Tournaments for Rick Stansbury between 2002-2005. State would win the conference tournament and the SEC regular season during this span. While the Bulldogs would not advance past the 2nd round during this span, State was certainly not losing to nobodies with losses to Butler, Texas, Xavier, and Duke. The NCAA Tournament is a tough one to win and anything can happen. It was just unfortunate for State that especially in 2004, that they were not able to get a better draw.
The Bulldogs missed out on the postseason in 2006. But made up for it in 2007. This would end up being the best NIT Run the Bulldogs have made to date. Leading up to the NIT, the Bulldogs had defeated Kentucky in the SEC Tournament to reach the semifinals. They did end up losing to #1 Florida in Humphrey Coliseum 67-64. But following the game, Joakim Noah, a star for the Florida Gators, called Humphrey Coliseum the toughest place to play in the SEC. State would get the oppurtunity to showcase the hostile enviornment in their 2007 NIT Run starting with Mississippi Valley State. Mississippi State won a particulary forgettable game 82-63. State would then host Bradley in the secon round, only to find themselves winning 101-72. Mississippi State would once again have a chance at Madison Square Garden with a win at the Humphrey Coliseum against Florida State. The Seminoles were a solid program and had knocked off eventual National Champions FLorida earlier in the season. But FSU would soon learn what Noah meant about Humphrey Coliseum as they would lose 86-62. This secured Mississippi State’s first ever appearance in the NIT Final Four. Mississippi State faced West Virginia. The two 1 seeds played a game down to the wire in the Garden. But unfourtanetly for MSU, West Virginia hit a game winning 3 pointer for them to win 63-62. West Virginia would defeat Clemson in the finals to win the NIT.
As heartbreaking as the ending was, this NIT Berth led to two straight NCAA Tournaments for Mississippi State. Mississippi State would once again win the SEC Tournament in 2009, and this would also be the last time to date that we would see Mississippi State in the NCAA Tournament. One other thing to note is that Mississippi State was the only SEC West team to win the SEC Tournament while divisions were in place.
This NIT appearance was not a building block for future seasons, but simply an appearance for Mississippi State when they got robbed out of being selected for the NCAA Tournament. I will not go into detail the two OT losses to Kentucky. But I will say that if games were officiated correctly, Mississippi State would be your 2010 SEC Tournament Champions. But anyways, one final note I will make about the regular season is that Mississippi State did play UCLA in the West Coast and defeated the Bruins 72-54. And UCLA was led by Ben Howland in his 7th season. In the NIT, State was seeded as a 1 seed once again. They defeated Jackson State in the first round 81-76 and advanced to the second round for a monster match up. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill came to the Humphrey Coliseum to play Mississippi State in Men’s Basketball. In front of 9,471 fans the Roy Williams led squad was in a dogfight with the Bulldogs. North Carolina laid the last punches and pulled out the nail biter 76-74. North Carolina would end up losing in the NIT Finals to Dayton. As I said before, this did not lead to a NCAA Tournament. This was the last year of Jarvis Varnado, and 2011 would be more of a transition year for the infamous 2012 season.
Oh boy, where to even begin. Certainly you could argue the decline of Mississippi State occurred before this season, but this season led to a complete dumpster fire that Ben Howland is cleaning up to this day. Mississippi State did very well in the nonconference. They won the 2k sports classic in Madison Square Garden with wins over ranked Texas A&M and Arizona. They did drop a 2 point game to #6 Baylor in the American Airlines Center in Dallas, but it was a game decided in the final minute. State started out conference play reasonable going 6-3. But following a 70-60 home victory over Ole Miss, the decline occurred. State dropped back to back OT game to Georgia and LSU. This led to a 6 game losing streak including a dagger home loss to #1 Kentucky. State did rebound to their credit by winning 2 in a row over South Carolina and Arkansas. But then they inextricably drop a SEC Tournament game to Mark Fox. And it wasn’t even close. State lost 71-61 and the calls for Stansbury’s firing only grew louder as the Bulldogs missed the NCAA Tournament after being ranked as high as #15 in the season. Mississippi State would then host UMass in front of an announced crowd of 2,507. But I doubt there was even 1,000 fans in the Humphrey Coliseum that day. State loses in double overtime to UMass, and the Rick Stansbury era comes to a close. It really is sad that such a great era for Mississippi State came to such a brutal close like this.
Today is the first day of postseason basketball since this 2012 NIT. This was 6 years ago. Man time flies. And it really is exciting to see Mississippi State head in the right direction. When you look at 1990, 1994, 2001, or 2007, there is a lot there that should make you think the NCAA Tournament is in the near future. And maybe even a SEC Title of some sort. I really do not think 2010 and 2012 are good seasons to evaluate if whether or not the NIT leads to the NCAA Tournament. As far as 1979 goes, I was not born then so I do not know the cirumstances going around that team. Really 1999 is the one outlier here. But keep in mind that was part of the building process for Stansbury. Stansbury made the NIT in his 3rd season like Howland has done this season. And really that should give you a good idea of what can happen at Mississippi State. History seems to backup State making the NCAA Tournament in 2019. And I agree with the history. But I am also looking forward to this tournament. I think State can make a run and win this thing. At the end of the day, it is just great to be excited about the Men’s Basketball team once again after 6 long years.