C.M. Newton played for Adolph Rupp at the University of Kentucky, coached for over three decades and has been an influential basketball administrator ever since. When he was chair of the NCAA Rules Committee, college hoops instituted a shot clock and a three-point line. During his time as President of USA Basketball, the decision was made to allow pro hoopsters to represent the United States in the Olympics, giving rise to the first 'Dream Team.' Now Newton works with the Preseason NIT Selection Committee; with that tournament about to hit MSG, we caught up to talk life, hoops and the selection process for one of the most compelling preseason tourneys around.
ESPN The Magazine: How long have you been with the NIT committee?
Newton: Since its inception. I had chaired the NCAA's men's basketball committee until I retired. When the NCAA took over the NIT, they asked me to chair it and put together a group for selection. We've got a good, strong committee of retired coaches.
Is there a selection template?
Oh yeah. (Committee Member) Jack Powers does most of the legwork in terms of putting the field together. We talk a lot to the conferences, and they recommend teams from their membership that might want to play in the event. We try to get certain leagues or really strong teams to come in. It's an intricate process, especially with the numbers of other preseason tournaments that are going on since the deregulation. It's made it more interesting.
Does that competition for teams make it harder?
Yeah. A lot of teams want to play at home, and a lot of them have travel and financial considerations. We run a true basketball tournament—it doesn't favor anybody. Ideally, we'd like to go to all neutral sites, but we tried that one year and it didn't work so well. We went back to seeding the 16 teams and having the top four seeds host geographical regions for the first two rounds. Boston College is hosting the East, Arizona is hosting the West, Oklahoma gets the South, and Purdue hosts the North bracket. Aside from that, we get the four best teams to New York however it plays out. We don't guarantee a host school will get to play on.
How do you seed a pre-season tourney with no current win/loss records?
We try to do as much research as we can about the teams—what they did last season, who they have returning, and who is coming into the program. For example, if a team like Purdue graduated all of their starters, even if they had a good year previously, that would effect their seeding. In this year's field, (sixth seeded) Georgia is an example. They ended up coming along very strong and winning the SEC tournament, but we had to look at who they lost and who they recruited. It can't really be a science, but it's the best judgment that we can make based on those factors.
Davidson is a five-seed and just missed the cutoff for being a host. Does the small size of their arena factor into that?
No. We've gotten away from arena size as a factor. That's just the way it came out when we ranked the sixteen teams.
That sets up an interesting potential second-round matchup if Oklahoma meets Davidson.
Oh, yeah! And look at the possibility of Georgia vs. Purdue in the East. You've got the potential of Arizona and UAB out west. UAB's going to be much stronger this year, I think. St. John's is up there with BC, and they're both improved. It's going to be an interesting tournament.
Given your previous relationships with Rick Pitino and Tubby Smith, did you try to get them into the field?
I talked with both Rick and Tubby about playing in the preseason. We'll get 'em at some point when it makes sense for their schedule. We do depend somewhat on those relationships, because we want quality teams and good games. But Jack works very much through conference commissioners.
Do you find it difficult to draw fans to MSG right after Thanksgiving?
There are always fans who are going to come to Madison Square Garden to see their teams play, or just to see good college basketball. It's difficult at that time of year to draw a lot of campus support to travel. Students are on vacation and home for the holidays and all that, but that's not a major concern. We'd love to have a full house in the Garden, but the full experience is what we're looking for.
Does the same committee put together the post-season NIT field as well?
Yes. The way we're structured, I'm the chair and I also represent the South region. I pay particular attention to certain conferences in my area. Other members of the committee have their own regions to look after. We make recommendations about the overall conduct of the tournament—how it's seeded, how the fields are selected, and the bracketing.
We've seen a new post-season tournament crop up in the CBI. Does that impact what the post-season committee does?
Not really. Frankly, it doesn't have the history or tradition that the NIT has. We've tried to return the NIT to being a true basketball championship. There is an element of fairness now that maybe wasn't there before, in the seeding and bracketing. Early rounds used to go to the largest venue so you could make money. We love to make money, but that's not the main purpose of our tournament. If a seeded team has a smaller gym, we don't worry about that. We just go play.We've done a couple of great things for the postseason tournament. We've cut it to 32 teams, which gives you true brackets. The other thing is we've given automatic qualifiers to regular season champions that lose in their conference tournaments and aren't selected as an at-large in the NCAA tournament. We think that's fair. We think teams ought to be rewarded for great seasons.That and just the fact that we've made it a true basketball tournament and not a made-for-TV reality show has been good.
There's a lot more interest in mid-major teams now. It's great that some of those good teams get to play on in the post season.
Oh yeah. I remember one year Butler had a very good year and got upset in their conference tournament. They were a very dominant team in their league, and for whatever reason another at-large team was selected for the NCAAs. Back then even the NIT didn't select them, so they went nowhere. And I just thought that wasn't fair. A tournament like ours should reward those teams, and we had six or seven of those automatic qualifiers last year.
Any favorite memories from recent tournaments?
Oh, yeah. Seeing the basketball community return this tournament to some of the status that it once held. I was a student-athlete at Kentucky in the late 40's and early 50's, and at that particular time, the NIT was more prestigious than the NCAA in the minds of many. We're not the NCAA championship, and we understand that, but we've really returned this to being a more prestigious championship.