Cal men’s basketball’s NIT quest to become Nation’s 69th-best team

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Michael Wan/File

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No, it ain’t quite March Madness. A year after going 23-11 and earning a No. 4 seed in the 2016 NCAA Tournament, Cal men’s basketball failed to earn another bid for the Big Dance this year, finishing 21-12. Instead, they’ll play in the National Invitation Tournament, which is bad for some reasons, good for some others and at the end of the day, kind of fitting.

The Bears became an intercollegiate team in 1907, having up and downs over the decades but remaining pretty mediocre on the whole until 1954, when Pete Newell took over as head coach. A hugely influential figure in basketball history, Newell won four conference titles in five years and compiled an astounding .730 winning percentage in Berkeley (119-44) before being inducted into both the Basketball Hall of Fame and the College Basketball Hall of Fame. His 1959 team won the only NCAA Tournament in Cal basketball history, beating West Virginia by 1 point in the final (the Mountaineers’ star was a skinny kid by the name of Jerry West).

As for the NIT, it didn’t always have the life of the little brother. The tournament was founded in 1938, a year before the NCAA Tournament, and for a little while it was the premier event. Played in Madison Square Garden in the heart of New York City, the “Mecca” of both basketball and journalism at the time, there was simply more opportunity for the NIT to shine. But the power balance soon came into question when it came to who the “real” national champion was: Was it the victor of the NCAA or the NIT? The NCAA Tournament expanded its field of teams to 48 in 1980, and it slowly began to gain more popularity. The NIT eventually couldn’t afford to play all of its games at MSG, so it moved earlier games to host schools, where they’re played today. This further lessened the shine of the tournament, and by the mid-1980s, the NIT had fully become the “Not Important Tournament” that it is today (more funny nicknames to come).

Cal would make memorable runs in March Madness with Jason Kidd on roster in the early ‘90s, but the Bears haven’t made it back to the Sweet Sixteen since 1997. Since then, they have, however, won the NIT Tournament, with a “thrilling” 61-60 victory over Clemson in the title game in 1999.

We now arrive at present day, where Cal is coming off an embarrassing upset by Hawaii in the first round of March Madness last year (Jaylen Brown, No. 3 overall pick in that year’s NBA Draft, scored 4 points. Four!) and an embarrassing nonbid to this year’s tournament. The team is left to play a cupcake row of CSU Bakersfield (who they get to play at home! Hey, that’s something) before potentially squaring off against Colorado State or the College of Charleston in the second round — and if it wins three more, it’ll be crowned the 69th best team in the country, after all 68 in March Madness. No wonder they call it the “Nobody’s Interested Tournament.”

Bonus nicknames to sound funny at the watch party that no one will be hosting: “Nationally Insignificant Tournament,” “No Important Teams” or my personal favorite, “Nope! It’s terrible!”

Austin Isaacsohn covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @AustinIsaacsohn.

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  • elrod

    Win the NIT is better than losing a 1st round NCAA game.

    • Bob Bell

      Win(ning) the NCAA is better than losing a 1st round NIT game.