NIT 2012: Stanford Cardinal Sure to Head Home with Tourney Title

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NIT 2012: Stanford Cardinal Sure to Head Home with Tourney Title
Jason Szenes/Getty Images

When third-seeded Stanford takes on sixth-seeded Minnesota Thursday at Madison Square Garden, the Cardinal will use its many advantages to claim victory and take the NIT championship back to Palo Alto, California.

Not that this will be an easy victory, far from it.

The Golden Gophers will put up a fight, with forward Rodney Williams and guards Andre and Austin Hollins set to lead the way, as well as Julian Welch there to continue his team-leading assists effort.

While forward Trevor Mbakwe technically leads the team with 14 points and nine rebounds per game, an untimely senior season knee injury led to a premature benching. Mbakwe has been granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, though this news has no bearing on the 2012 NIT, so the Golden Gophers will still be without their standout senior.

Meanwhile, Stanford will turn to guard Chasson Randle, a team leader at 13.8 points per game and Josh Owens, who averages 5.7 rebounds per game, with a 15-point, 12-board performance vs. Massachusetts in the NIT semifinal.

Backup Aaron Bright rounds out the Cardinal's leader board with 3.6 assists per contest. 

Talk about a statistical deadlock, this is how Minnesota and Stanford match up: 

  Minnesota Stanford Advantage
Points per Game 68 72 Stanford
Assists per Game 15 13 Minnesota
Rebounds per Game 35 37 Stanford
Field Goal Pct 46.5 44.4 Minnesota
3-pt FG Pct 35.8 37.8 Stanford
Turnovers per Game 14 14 Tie
Steals per Game 7 7 Tie
Blocks per Game 5 3 Minnesota

Jason Szenes/Getty Images

Though it is important to keep in mind that Mbakwe's contributions are factored into Minnesota's seasonal total, he only played seven non-conference games for the Gophers (his last on Nov. 27), which means coach Tubby Smith has had more than enough time to formulate a backup plan and put together a team that can contend.

Minnesota's presence in the NIT title game is certainly a testament to that fact.

Nonetheless, these teams match up quite well together—Minnesota runs the gamut from 6'0" to 6'11" while Stanford's Bright is the smallest player on both squads at 5'11" and backup freshman center Stefan Nastic maxes Stanford at 6'11".

What Stanford may not have in size, however, they make up for it in speed, agility and overall play.

For an example of an NCAA Tournament team that plays Stanford-brand basketball against bigger teams, take Rick Pitino's Louisville Cardinals ("Cardinals," "Cardinal"—the coincidence is uncanny).

When Louisville took on a larger Michigan State team in their West Region contest, the Cardinals easily read the Spartans' prevent defense—there was no way Louisville was going to get into the paint.

So, they put up a three. And another. Pretty soon, Louisville had built a significant lead based on their perimeter shooting. When Michigan State switched up their defense to guard the arc, the Cardinals responded by scoring inside.

Going back to ACTs, LSATs and all other standardized tests, the "NCAA Tournament is to Louisville Cardinals as NIT Tournament is to ______" would be completed with "Stanford Cardinal."

Stanford knows it will contend: Randle is a 46 percent shooter during this NIT with 14 points per game. As for the three-ball, Stanford shot 57.1 percent against the Nevada Wolf Pack during their NIT quarterfinal game—this team has the ability to turn it on.

Stanford is a five-point favorite with Las Vegas sportsbooks, while OddsShark has the Cardinal winning 75-70.

You can catch the game Thursday at 7:00 p.m. ET on ESPN2 or online at ESPN3.com.

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