That's a total of six teams for a tournament that -- up until 2014 anyway -- was the last early season event that attempted to operate with a 16-team field, while offering each participant the full four games allowed under the exempt tournament rule. Plus, the preseason version of the NIT still gave the invited mid-majors an actual chance to make it to the final stages at Madison Square Garden, a possibility long abandoned by every other event that splits hosting duties between campuses and Thanksgiving vacation destinations. In recent seasons, a pair of then-CAA members took advantage of this opportunity -- VCU in its 2010-11 Final Four season and Drexel three years later.
Despite these perceived advantages, building such an ambitious field is something the NCAA, the owner of both the preseason and postseason versions of the NIT, has struggled with over the past three seasons. Division II invitees -- Alabama-Huntsville in 2012 and Metro State and Stillman in 2013 -- filled what now appear to be the last two 16-team brackets in NIT Season Tip-Off history, and two more DII teams, Franklin Pierce and St. Thomas Aquinas, helped some of 2014's participants receive their full allotment of four games.
The recent explosion of exempt tournaments isn't an easy explanation for why the NIT has been unable to attract 16 Division I participants, as there were more than enough teams abstaining from exempt events over the past three seasons to fill multiple additional ones. Granted, many of these available teams were likely looking at picking up three or four losses with their participation, reducing the allure of signing up.
So, an eight-team NIT Season Tip-Off looks to be the new normal for the event. But there is a way to format such a tournament that keeps its longstanding benefits -- four games, two home games for the host teams, the theoretical chance for the mid-major participants to claim the trophy -- and one new wrinkle introduced last season, the offer of a New York showcase game for all Division I participants (though this won't be at Madison Square Garden in 2015).
This format is a modified Olympic tournament one that would look something like this.
To start, just divide the eight participants into two four-team groups. In this example, the East Group consists of Georgia Tech, Villanova, Akron, and TBA Team 1, while Arkansas, Stanford, Green Bay, and TBA Team 2 comprise the West Group.
The first two games of the pool round-robin would take place on the home courts of the four major conference host schools.
Akron at Georgia Tech
TBA Team 1 at Villanova
TBA Team 1 at Georgia Tech
Akron at Villanova
Green Bay at Arkansas
TBA Team 2 at Stanford
TBA Team 2 at Arkansas
Green Bay at Stanford
The scene for the final game of group play would shift to New York (perhaps Brooklyn instead of Manhattan?) on Thanksgiving Eve. If the host teams hold serve, these contests would turn into two pairs of de facto semifinals.
Georgia Tech vs. Villanova
Akron vs. TBA Team 1
Arkansas vs. Stanford
Green Bay vs. TBA Team 2
After three games, group records would be used to pair teams for their fourth. Thus, the projected 2015 final round, based on this year's records, would look like this:
7th/8th Place: TBA Team 1 vs. TBA Team 2
5th/6th Place: Akron vs. Green Bay
3rd/4th Place: Georgia Tech vs. Stanford
Championship: Arkansas vs. Villanova
Based on how the NCAA/ESPN scheduled the 2014 NIT Season Tip-Off at MSG, here's how the Thanksgiving week schedule could look with such this new format applied in 2015. (HT Matt Sarz Sports for the schedule info)
Wednesday, November 25
East Group, Game 5: Akron vs. TBA Team 1, 12 p.m. (ESPN3)
West Group, Game 5: Green Bay vs. TBA Team 2, approx. 2:30 p.m. (ESPN3)
West Group, Game 6: Arkansas vs. Stanford, 7 p.m. (ESPNU)
East Group, Game 6: Georgia Tech vs. Villanova, approx. 9:30 p.m. (ESPN2)
Thursday, November 26
7th/8th Place: East 4th vs. West 4th, 4 p.m. (ESPNU)
5th/6th Place: East 3rd vs. West 3rd, approx. 6:30 p.m. (ESPNU)
Friday, November 27
3rd/4th Place: East 2nd vs. West 2nd, 4:30 p.m. (ESPNU)
Championship: East 1st vs. West 1st, approx. 7 p.m. (ESPN2)
How about that? An eight-team tournament that sees each team getting four games against Division I opposition -- two at a neutral site -- while preserving the theoretical chance for each team to take home (an ultimately meaningless, but still fun) trophy, and without rematches, thanks to the crossover for the fourth game. Plus, ESPN even gets a couple of extra games to air or stream.
That wasn't that hard to do.
Will the NCAA adopt such a format? Personally, I'd be surprised. But if it wants to continue to distinguish the NIT Season Tip-Off from the rest of a crowded early season tournament scene, thinking outside of the box would certainly help.