The NCAA tournament might get more publicity, but this year's NIT matchups have been just as exciting with big upsets and close finishes throughout. The second round now has a chance to continue this thrilling level of play.
Belmont and Louisiana Tech have already punched their tickets to the regional finals, putting themselves one win away from a spot in the semifinals at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
Three more spots in the tournament quarterfinals are on the line Sunday with a few teams that are used to playing on much bigger stages. All of these squads want to end their year on a high note, but they must first get a win in the round of 32 to advance in this difficult tournament.
Here is a look at what to expect over the next two days of action to close the second round of the NIT. You can view all of the action online at Watch ESPN, and you can view the updated bracket at NCAA.com.
|March 23 (Day 3)||Illinois (2) at Clemson (3)||11 a.m.||ESPN||Clemson|
|March 23 (Day 3)||Saint Mary's (4) at Minnesota (1)||3 p.m.||ESPN2||Minnesota|
|March 23 (Day 3)||Southern Miss (3) at Missouri (2)||5 p.m.||ESPNU||Southern Miss|
|March 24 (Day 4)||Georgetown (4) at Florida State (1)||7 p.m.||ESPN||Florida State|
|March 24 (Day 4)||LSU (5) at SMU (1)||9 p.m.||ESPN||SMU|
|March 24 (Day 4)||Arkansas (3) at California (2)||11 p.m.||ESPN2||Arkansas|
Day 3 Preview
Illinois (2) at Clemson (3)
Despite being the No. 2 seed in its region, Illinois will play its second game in a row on the road. Mark Tupper of the Decatur Herald and Review explains that construction has affected the postseason schedule:
This makes a big difference because Clemson was 14-3 at home this season, including a 72-59 victory over Duke earlier in the season.
Besides just the home-court advantage, the Tigers also have one of the more underrated interior players in the country in K.J. McDaniels. The junior averaged 17.4 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game as a true force in the post. Against Georgia State, he exploded for 30 points and 14 rebounds in a win.
Although he does not have great size (6'6", 200 lbs), he does have elite athleticism that makes it difficult for anyone to get easy baskets in the paint.
This will make it difficult for Illinois to score considering the squad's struggles in perimeter shooting this season. The Illini ranked 10th in the Big Ten this year after making just 31.9 percent of shots from behind the arc.
Clemson might not light up the scoreboard, but the Tigers will get enough against an offensively inept opponent in this one.
Prediction: Clemson 57, Illinois 53
Saint Mary's (4) at Minnesota (1)
Minnesota had a few impressive wins this season, but the overall profile was not enough to get into the NCAA tournament. Still, that does not take away from the fact that there is a lot of talent on this roster.
Andre Hollins has been the team's star along with Austin Hollins and Deandre Mathieu. Of course, the Gophers also proved that they can get scoring in new places in the most recent win, as noted by Tyler Mason of Fox Sports North:
Ahanmisi had 50 points all season. He nearly has half of that (21) tonight. #Gophers— Tyler Mason (@FSNtylermason) March 19, 2014
These players create an efficient offense that should be able to win in a slow-paced game against Saint Mary's. The West Coast Conference team has only two players averaging double figures, while the rest of the roster is full of inconsistent role players.
Brad Waldow had a fantastic all-around year, but the forward will need a lot of help from the shooters around him to be successful.
Minnesota has too much athleticism to allow open shots, and the Golden Gophers will earn another low-scoring win.
Prediction: Minnesota 66, Saint Mary's 59
Southern Miss (3) at Missouri (2)
Unlike many teams in the NIT, Missouri knows how to score points. Jabari Brown put up huge numbers this year, while Jordan Clarkson and others provided plenty of secondary scoring every game.
The problem was the poor defense, which gave up open shots all year long. Head coach Frank Haith summed it up quite well during the season after a loss to Alabama, via Adam Stillman of the News Tribune:
We didn’t do a good job defensively. We were really, really poor defensively in that ball game. They had too many open looks. … Our perimeter defense and low-post defense and total defensive effort was not good. We’ve got to get better. … Hopefully we’ll have a better effort on that end of the court (tonight). That was really disappointing how we defended in that ball game. You can’t win on the road especially if you don’t play defense.
This was a common theme throughout the season, and the issue will not change in the postseason.
Southern Miss ended the year with seven wins in the final eight games and has good balance on offense. This will cause the Tigers problems, even at home.
Michael Craig and Neil Watson will try to go out on top with a deep run in the NIT.
Prediction: Southern Miss 74, Missouri 68
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