Tuesday, March 15, 2011

NIT, CBI, CIT: The Other Tournaments

There's been plenty written about this year's expansion of the NCAA tournament to 68 teams from 65. But fans of sports systems and structures are just as excited about the three "other" post-season college basketball tournaments.

The most venerable of these tournaments by far is the NIT, which predates the NCAA, having first been played in 1938. The NIT currently has 32 teams divided into four sections, each with eight teams seeded 1 to 8. Through the first three rounds, the better-seeded team gets the home-court edge, a huge advantage for the top seeds, and a huge disadvantage for seeds 5 to 8, who most likely have to play three road games.
The four sectional winners meet in New York City for a final four.  This format has been in use for four years, and the final four has consisted of six 1 seeds, seven 2 seeds, two 3 seeds and one 4 seed (North Carolina last year). No team seeded 5 or lower has made it to New York.

In this year's first round there are two exceptions to the home site rule. No. 6 Charleston gets to play at home against No. 3 Dayton, because Dayton's home court is in use for NCAA games.  And No 1 Boston College is traveling to No. 8 McNeese State for mysterious reasons, possibly because Boston College thinks it can't make any money on the game.

The CBI is in its fourth year. Sixteen teams are paired in games at home sites. The matchups for the second round are also predetermined, although which teams get to play at home won't be decided until the first round is over. The four second round winners will then be paired for semifinals, still at home sites. The CBI is the only tournament in college basketball that isn't decided by a single game: the final is a best of 3 series, alternating between home courts.

The CIT, in its third year, is played with 24 teams entirely on home courts. One difference from the CBI is that no matchups are determined until a round is over. There's no way to have a CIT pool, since you're never sure who's playing who in the next round. After the first round, 8 of the 12 winners meet in the second round, while four others get assigned second-round byes.
In no other tournament is the seeding committee more powerful. It determines not just who a team faces each round and whether it plays each game home or away, but also whether it must play four games or five to win the title. A home team wins about 62 percent of its games against an equal opponent, and the chance of winning four straight home games, the ideal scenario in the CIT, is about 15%. The chance of winning five straight road games, the toughest scenario, is less than 1%! So a team given the easiest paths by the committee is 15 times more likely to win the tournament than an equal team given the hardest path. 

These tournaments don't decide a national title, and don't attract a lot of interest from casual fans. But they give players and fans of second-tier teams a chance at some glory, and most of them seem excited about it.

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