It's time to move the party to Madison Square Garden.
While the NIT certainly isn't the destination of choice for college basketball players or programs when the season starts, getting a chance to play in one of the most historic venues in the country is a pretty good reward for any athlete.
For both Minnesota and Florida State, who came into the NIT as No. 1 seeds, both programs held home court to get through to New York. Both were spurned by the NCAA tournament committee after good seasons but have made the most of their opportunities to play each other for a chance to reach the final.
As for the bracket that both teams survived, chair of the NIT selection committee Carroll Williams spoke about how difficult the decision was to narrow down the field, per NCAA.com:
This may have been the most challenging selection process we’ve had since I joined this committee in 2006. In addition to the 13 institutions which automatically qualified for the NIT and the 19 that we selected with the at-large spots available, there were many others that were worthy of strong consideration into our field.
We are excited about the field we have and are looking forward to an outstanding tournament beginning Tuesday.
After both plowed their way through a strong field, they will each have a chance to battle it out for a spot in the finals of the postseason tournament.
Before the game officially tips off, here's a breakdown of the two teams and a prediction for the crucial NIT matchup.
When: April 1, 9 p.m. ET
Where: Madison Square Garden, New York
Live Stream: Watch ESPN
Analyzing the NIT Semifinals Matchup
While the NIT typically matches up teams from different conferences that haven't met prior to the postseason tournament, Minnesota and Florida State squared off earlier in the season.
During the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, the Gophers traveled to Tallahassee to take on the Seminoles in what would end up being a 10-point victory for Minnesota by a final of 71-61. During that game, the Gophers' leading scorer Andre Hollins tallied a total of 21 points to earn the victory.
While Andre Hollins was named an honorable mention in the Big Ten Conference, teammate Austin Hollins has been the story as of late for the Gophers. The senior guard has scored in the double digits in his last two games and registered a career-high 32 against Southern Miss to reach the semifinals.
Austin Hollins also contributed 16 points against the Seminoles in their previous matchup, as the Hollins tandem were the two leading scorers for the Gophers. First-year coach Richard Pitino spoke about the senior guard's contributions late in the season, per the Minnesota basketball Twitter account:
"He does a lot of things beside shooting the basketball that really helps this team. He's a great leader." Pitino, on Austin Hollins.— Minnesota Basketball (@GopherBBall) March 26, 2014
Pitino, the 31-year-old son of Rick Pitino, has given the entire Minnesota program a facelift. In just his first season with the team, Pitino has already eclipsed Tubby Smith's record in the conference over the last two seasons with eight wins in the Big Ten.
Leading up to the quarterfinals matchup with Southern Miss, Pitino listed out several reasons why his players should still be inspired to play hard in the NIT, per Marcus R. Fuller of the Pioneer Press:
Here they are:
1) You’re a competitor.
2) You appreciate this opportunity and want to take advantage of it.
3) You don’t want to send your seniors out with a loss.
4) You want to get to New York and play in Madison Square Garden.
5) Get your coach back to his roots in New York (father was born there).
6) Do you love the game or not?
As for No. 4 and 5, Pitino also addressed that following the win over Southern Miss, via Fuller:
On the Seminoles side of the ball, the play of Aaron Thomas has been sensational as of late. The sophomore has been absolutely electric during the NIT tournament.
Tim Linafelt of Osceola shared Thomas' scoring stats over the last three games and the previous 13 to close out the regular season:
Aaron Thomas has his third straight 20-point game, 16th straight double-digit scoring game since scoring two points at Duke.— Tim Linafelt (@Osceola_Tim) March 27, 2014
Despite being a guard, Thomas also contributed nine rebounds for the Noles during the quarterfinals matchup with Louisiana Tech.
Which team will win and make the NIT final?
While Thomas has been an offensive spark plug for FSU over the course of the tournament, senior Okaro White has been dominant down low. The 6'9" forward has scored an average of 17.5 points over his last four games and has five blocks through three games in the NIT thus far.
The big man has also been steady from outside the arc, going 5-of-5 from three-point range during the tournament. As if those numbers weren't ridiculous enough, his shooting percentage in the second round and quarterfinals combined is .647 on 11-of-17 from the floor.
Though Thomas has taken most of the spotlight over the last few games thanks to his great play, Linafelt points out that the win secured a great ending for White and other seniors in Tallahassee:
The win also ensures that Okaro White, Ian Miller and Robert Gilchrist will leave their last game at the Civic Center as winners.— Tim Linafelt (@Osceola_Tim) March 27, 2014
As for the storybook ending those seniors were hoping for, it could be over early in Madison Square Garden. Going up against a Gophers team that has certified firepower in the Hollins tandem that hasn't slowed down in the NIT, the Noles will once again fall to Minnesota to end their season.
But with Thomas rising as a star in the backcourt for the Noles, next season could be a special one for FSU after coming so close in the NIT.
Prediction: Minnesota 68, Florida State 64
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