Wichita State took a long time to make its contribution to the Missouri Valley Conference's legacy in the National Invitation Tournament.
That legacy needed a modern update, which is what the Shockers can provide this week in New York.
"Going to New York, in its own way, is huge," MVC commissioner Doug Elgin said. "We have a very proud tradition and long history of success in the NIT. This is pretty sweet."
WSU (27-8) plays Washington State (22-12) in Tuesday night's semifinals at Madison Square Garden. The Shockers are the first MVC team to make the NIT's final four since Bradley won it in 1982, the last of six titles claimed by a current or former Valley member.
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That is a long drought for a tournament that helped the MVC establish itself as a power. In the NIT's early days, the tournament raised the national profile of the conference and schools.
The NIT began in 1938, with Bradley (although not an MVC member) and Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State) in the six-team field. Those schools became regulars in what was then college basketball's main postseason event. Oklahoma A&M played in three of the first seven NITs. Creighton placed third in 1942 and returned as MVC champion in 1943.
In those days, playing in New York and Madison Square Garden meant everything to a school trying to establish a national reputation. The list of NIT MVPs contains some of college's basketball's biggest names of the 1940s and 50s — DePaul's George Mikan, Ed Macauley of Saint Louis and LaSalle's Tom Gola.
"That was the media capital," said Steve Richardson, who wrote a book on the MVC's history for its centennial in 2007. "It was a big, big deal. The NIT was considered, in some circles, bigger than the NCAAs in those days."
Early MVC roots
The NCAA Tournament started in 1939, playing in Evanston, Ill., and Kansas City, Mo., in its early years. It moved to New York in 1943 for several years, and the two tournaments competed.
Saint Louis gave the MVC its first NIT title in 1948. Fans held a parade near Union Station, not far from where the MVC Tournament is now played.
In 1950, City College of New York won both the NIT and NCAA, defeating MVC champion Bradley in both championship games.
Former Bradley player Joe Stowell said the Braves endured a whirlwind of travel to play in both tournaments. They flew in a DC-3, playing pinochle to pass the time, from Peoria, Ill., for the NIT, then went to Kansas City for NCAA wins over Kansas, UCLA and Baylor. Bradley returned to New York to play CCNY, which never left home, for a second time.
"It was a great experience," Stowell said. "When you're on a high like that all the time, you're not thinking about who you're playing. The fact I can remember all these things shows you it was a big deal at the time."
Bradley, which joined the MVC in 1947, became the little Midwestern college that could play on the big stage. It won the NIT in 1957, 1960 and 1964 and finished second in 1959. Thousands of Bradley fans made the trip to New York, and the success helped build a strong following that survives today.
"It was great for the community," Stowell said. "It gives your student body a good feeling. You get that far, you had to have a good year."
In many of those seasons, the Braves finished second in the MVC behind powerhouse Cincinnati teams. The Bearcats won six straight MVC titles from 1958-63 and advanced to the NCAA Final Four in 1959 and 1960 before winning the NCAA title in 1961 and 1962 and finishing second in 1963. Four times, Bradley finished a game behind Cincinnati in the MVC standings. In 1962, they tied for the MVC title and Cincinnati won a playoff to earn an NCAA spot.
The NIT gave the Braves a second chance.
"They might have been the second-best team in the country behind Cincinnati," Richardson said. "It greatly benefited basketball in the Valley in that era and helped Bradley, maybe more than anybody."
NCAA pulls away
Even in those glory years, the NIT's prestige began a slow leak.
A gambling scandal in New York in 1951 scared schools from the big city and damaged the NIT's reputation. The NCAA began to overpower the NIT in 1952 when it expanded to 22 teams.
"The tipping point came around 1960," Penn State professor Murry Nelson, an author of books on basketball history, told The Baltimore Sun in 2005. "Until then, the NIT was a better challenge with a bigger fan base. After that, it didn't have the cachet of its competition."
Bradley and Saint Louis, which finished second in 1961, weren't the only MVC schools that boosted their program with a trip to New York for the NIT.
Shocker coach Ralph Miller raised his program's stature in big-time basketball by finishing second in the MVC in 1954 and earning a trip to New York. It was the school's first trip to a national tournament as an MVC member. The Shockers lost to Bowling Green, which didn't diminish the importance of the trip.
"One thing about Ralph, wherever we went, he was always interested in our education," guard Paul Scheer said in 2003. "We went everywhere. I was a jump shooter, and I told him later that if we hadn't walked around on all that concrete and up the stairs of the U.N. building, I would have had my legs for the game."
That trip started an NIT history both frequent (12 trips) and frustrating (the Shockers lost their first six NIT games and didn't advance past the quarterfinals until this season).
Louisville, before joining the MVC in 1963, made its first big national splash by winning the 1956 NIT — a mere eight seasons after winning an NAIA title.
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WSU used an NIT spot to rebuild its program in recent seasons. A bid in 2003 ended a 13-year postseason drought. The next season, coach Mark Turgeon took his team to play Manhattan College in front of former NIT executive director Jack Powers. That impression paid off in another NIT bid in 2004.
Lobbying for NIT spots was common not too long ago, Elgin said. He would often travel with MVC athletic directors and coaches to New York for that purpose. That changed in 2005, when the NCAA purchased the NIT.
"We've done everything we can to place more teams in the NIT," Elgin said.
In 1974, Maryland turned down a spot in the NIT after losing in the ACC Tournament. The next season, the NCAA allowed conference runner-ups in the field and expanded to 32 teams, a crippling blow to the NIT.
The MVC took a step back nationally for much of the 1970s as schools such as Louisville, Cincinnati and Memphis State departed. The Valley surged in the 1980s, and the NIT reflected its improvement. Tulsa, with coach Nolan Richardson, won the NIT in 1981. Bradley, snubbed by the NCAA Tournament despite winning the MVC, triumphed in New York in 1982.
That was the last MVC team to play in New York in the NIT. Every school except Indiana State played in the NIT since 1982. Four advanced to the quarterfinals, most recently Missouri State in 2006.
It took the Shockers and their wins over Nebraska, Virginia Tech and College of Charleston to return the MVC to Madison Square Garden.