As the four teams remaining in the 2013 NCAA tournament descend upon Atlanta for the Final Four, the tournament that used to attract Division I's best and brightest is preparing for its title game.
Thursday night's NIT championship game pits two teams that had massive March dreams, which came crashing down late in the season, against each other. The Iowa Hawkeyes were firmly on the bubble, needing one more win to solidify their resume before losing to Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament—thus ending their Big Dance chances. The Baylor Bears, meanwhile, had a huge win over Kansas on their resume but lost nine of their final 13 games to end the regular season.
Both disappointed with the season's end result, it would have been hard to fault either team from pulling a Kentucky and bowing out with minimal effort. But, alas, the Bears and Hawkeyes took the tournament by storm, making the most of their March opportunity—even if it wasn't the one they truly wanted.
And with just one game separating the two sides from postseason glory, you better believe both sides will give Final Four-level effort on Thursday.
With that in mind, here is a complete breakdown of everything you need to know about the 2013 NIT championship game.
Start Time: Thursday, April 4 at 9 p.m. ET
Live Stream: WatchESPN
Keys to the Championship
Pierre Jackson's Brilliance vs. Iowa's Stalwart Defense
Save all talks of Most Outstanding Player in the NCAA tournament. The best individual performance of college basketball's postseason has been delivered by Baylor guard Pierre Jackson, and it isn't even all that close.
The senior star has put together one of the most memorable runs in NIT history, mixing a mastery of passing and scoring that has been great to behold. Jackson has scored over 20 points and dished more than 10 assists in each of Baylor's last three games, buoying the Bears' run with scintillating action in the open court.
In Baylor's semifinal matchup against BYU, Jackson's relentless attacking of the rim took center stage. He went to the line 10 times, making nine of the attempts, en route to putting up 24 points and 10 assists in the 76-70 victory. This run during the NIT has taken Jackson's season-long stats right to the edge of 20-7 per night, and, despite a disappointing season for the team, his draft stock is back on the rise.
That ascent will face its biggest obstacle on Thursday night. Iowa heads into the NIT championship as the 17th most efficient defense in the nation, giving up an adjusted 89.5 points per 100 possessions. The Hawkeyes have not given up 65 points since a March 2 loss against Indiana, and they have been strong at badgering opposing guards all season long.
Virginia's leading scorer and noted Duke killer Joe Harris scored only 11 points in the Cavaliers' quarterfinal loss, making four of his 11 shots.
It's obvious that Baylor cannot survive a similar performance from Jackson. He's been the Bears' driving offensive force all season long, and his performance level almost always coincides with Baylor's result. If his recent trend of brilliance continues, Baylor likely walks to an NIT crown.
Can Roy Devyn Marble's Late-Season Ascent Continue?
Though much of the attention has been heaped upon Jackson in the buildup for this game, Iowa is not without its own rising star. Roy Devyn Marble is the unquestioned runner-up in the Most Outstanding Player race heading into Thursday night's clash, and he should have an easier time than Jackson of keeping his pace up.
The junior guard-forward, who went through an ugly mid-season swoon that arguably help cost Iowa an NCAA tournament berth, has been nothing short of brilliant in the NIT. He's averaging 24.3 points per game in the tournament's four games and making half of his shots in all but one contest thus far.
Like Jackson, Marble's been able to create free throws with ease. He's attempted at least seven shots at the charity stripe three times in the NIT, with the exception being his 21-point, nine-rebound night against Maryland.
As such, Iowa has been increasingly reliant on Marble for offensive production—even more so than during the regular season. The Hawkeyes have isolated him plenty of times, just hoping to score a basket in desperate times, and Marble's ability to hit open cutters remains underrated.
Baylor heads into Thursday's matchup just the way it began the NIT—as a defensive sieve. The Bears rank 78th nationally in defensive efficiency, a product of their up-tempo style and sometimes ghastly efforts on that end of the floor. They allow three-pointers at a jarring rate, many of which come in transition.
Marble isn't much of a three-point threat—his 33.6 percent rate for the season is the definition of average—but he has knocked down two long-range shots in six of his past seven games. Consistency remains a massive question mark for the youngster, but he won't have nearly the level of difficulty as his top-scoring counterpart on Thursday.
Aaron White or Cory Jefferson: Which Secondary Star Steps Up?
When the focus shifts heavily toward top-flight stars, as it has in this matchup, people tend to forget the secondary players who helped bring teams this far. It's often those same players who hit a key shot down the stretch or even outshine their co-stars with the championship on the line.
There are two of those vital players in Thursday's contest—both with completely different NIT stories.
Sharing a frontcourt with Isaiah Austin, Cory Jefferson had been mostly a forgotten man outside the greater Waco area until the NIT. Austin is considered a possible first-round NBA draft choice, while Jefferson is merely a nice player whose junior season marked an ascent—nothing that worthy of anything other than secondary recognition on a team with two "stars."
That script has flipped this postseason—especially the dynamic between Austin and Jefferson.
Austin has faded down the stretch, putting together meek performances that make him look anything but ready for life as an NBA player. Jefferson, on the other hand, has been brilliant. He's put together three straight 20-plus-point games, making better than 70 percent of his shots in those contests. Working his way inside for easy buckets, Jefferson has been everything the Baylor coaching staff has wanted from Austin this season as an offensive force.
On Iowa's side of things, Aaron White has been far more Austin than Jefferson thus far in the tournament. The Hawkeyes' second-leading scorer has made just one field goal in each of the team's past two contests, totaling 16 points only due to his ability to get to the free-throw line.
Iowa has survived White's wretched play thanks to Marble's brilliance, the team's defensive prowess and a rotating cast of players who have stepped up. But White has the ability to affect games in the ways other players don't, and another failure for him could be a death knell for Iowa's run.
Baylor's defensive struggles could give White the opportunity to have a game on par with his 19-point ascent against Nebraska earlier this season. Having White actually take advantage of his abilities remains a question—and an extremely frustrating one for the Hawkeyes.