The National Invitational Tournament may not matter too much in the grand scheme of things, but if you're a fan of basketball, you should be a fan of the NIT—especially once the tourney dwindles down to four teams.
There is nothing better than watching college athletes battle to keep their seasons (and sometimes careers) alive at the Mecca of Basketball, and that's exactly what the Final Four of the NIT provides each season.
Special things always tend to happen at Madison Square Garden, as certain players typically raise their game to a new level on the brightest stage of them all.
With half of the NIT Final Four set, lets take a look at some early underrated players to watch out for in the Garden.
Landry Nnoko, Clemson
K.J. McDaniels is still probably underrated, considering his ability to change the game on both ends of the court. But he did win ACC Defensive Player of the Year and was named to the conference's first team, so it felt a little cheap putting him here.
Instead, we'll go with sophomore Landry Nnoko, who is quickly turning into an elite rim protector.
Now, the sophomore has been a solid shot-blocker all season. The long, rangy, athletic center averages 1.9 blocks per contest and is 86th in the country in block percentage, per kenpom.com (subscription required). But in Clemson's last six, the Cameroon native is averaging 3.4 swats per contest—nearly double his season average.
How far will Clemson go?
The most impressive part? He's staying out of foul trouble while doing it.
Through the first 27 games of the season, Nnoko fouled out four times and averaged 2.93 fouls per game. But in this most recent stretch, he hasn't fouled out and is averaging just 1.86 fouls in a whopping 34.1 minutes per game.
In an overtime win against Georgia Tech in the ACC tournament, Nnoko played 43 minutes, blocked six shots and committed zero fouls in what might have been the most underrated stat line of the season.
Oh, and after missing a late free throw in Clemson's quarterfinal win over Belmont, he didn't back down to another certain shot-blocker on Twitter, so there's that:
@jojo_embiid made it a 2 possession game I think that's enough— Landry Nnoko (@landry_nnoko) March 26, 2014
Clemson has one of the most efficient defenses in the country, and when Nnoko protects the rim like he has over the past month, the Tigers become even more dangerous on that end.
Maurice Walker, Minnesota
After missing the first six games of the season, Maurice Walker played just 12.3 minutes per contest over his next 12. He surpassed 20 minutes just once during that span and had nearly fallen out of the rotation as Big 10 play began, logging less than 10 minutes in four of the first five conference games.
But the 6'10", 250-pound junior has made immense strides as the season has worn on, and in the 17 games that have followed, he has averaged 21.6 minutes per game.
In the Golden Gophers' biggest wins, he always tends to come up big.
He tallied 18 and nine in a January win against Wisconsin. He had 14 and eight in a victory over Indiana. He contributed eight points, six rebounds, a block and a steal in a thrilling win over Iowa. In the NIT quarterfinal victory against Southern Miss, he filled up the box score with 12 points, nine rebounds, four assists, three steals and three blocks.
"It's important to stay consistent in practice," he told reporters after the win over Southern Miss, via GopherSports.com. "I try to bring it every day in practice. Practice transfers over to the game, and if you work hard in both, the results will come."
Walker has improved on both ends of the floor.
Offensively, the big man is a capable scorer with his back to basket—he has a jump hook but also possesses impressive footwork and agility for a player his size to get to the hoop. According to kenpom.com (subscription required), he leads the team in both true-shooting percentage (60.7) and effective field-goal percentage (57.8)
He also averages nearly a steal and a block in just 17.8 minutes per contest, and 247Sports' Dan Owen noted his improvement on that end:
I'm glad they just highlighted Maurice Walker's defense there. He's really developed in that area over the course of the season. #Gophers— Dan Owen (@DanOwen247) March 23, 2014
Walker may not play 30 minutes per game, but his progression and ability to produce on both sides of the ball have vastly improved Richard Pitino's depth on the bench, while helping take the pressure off Elliott Eliason.